The Japan nuclear mess is still fresh in memory and the time has come when India rethinks its nuclear energy policy and reassesses the future construction of nuclear power plants. I am no nuclear expert but one doesn’t need intricate knowledge to acknowledge one undeniable fact - a crack in the nuclear reactors is nothing short of fatal. What happened recently in Japan, and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the past, does it merit further explanation on the havoc nuclear energy plays if leaked inadvertently. But all we see are vociferous debates the world over - countless in number and rather hopeless in outcome.
For those largely unaware of the Chernobyl reactor damage, as many as 5 lakh workers had to be deputed to control the damage and were affected by radiation. The 30 km zone is still deserted - not a trace of humanity even after 25 long years. Even the capital city of Ukraine, 100 km away from the site, had 2 million affected people. A recent magazine article reported that in financial terms, the tragedy cost 2.5%of the Soviet GDP and many attribute Chernobyl as the prime reason for the erstwhile USSR's downfall.
The Japan tragedy is no less scary going by the way the leakage was revealed at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors post the earthquake. Not by measuring the radioactivity inside, but through the radiation burns on the feet of hapless site workers. So finding out the leaking radioactive water is just like sending some poor soul to stick his toe in the water to see if it’s hot. Can anything be more horrendous than that? And if the nuclear reactor sits on the ocean, as it does in Japan,imagine a contaminated water supply spelling doom.
There’s a joke that’s doing the rounds these days - a joke that’s a harsh reality for the ill-fated people struck by the tragedies - That nuclear reactors are perfectly safe… so long as nothing goes wrong. And in our modern times,there’s a hell lot going wrong with rampant climatic changes, earthquakes, tsunamis and what not. Nuclear reactors ideally should be far away from cities, the sea and earthquake prone zones – Are they awayfrom cities? In current times, who can tell which is an earthquake free zone?
And for all its alleged benefits over other energy sources, what has nuclear energy spelt for us? A cause for concern on all fronts considering the cost we pay to create it (huge burden on subsidies), the colossal waste it generates (throughout the fuel cycle), the security threats it poses (imagine a terrorist attack), safety issues (through accidents, thefts and mismanagement). Even in the US, many reactors are suffering from operational delays. If India faces a similar delay,the actual benefits are unlikely to materialise even in 2020.
Steven Cohen, director at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute puts it succinctly:
“Despite the promises of a previous generation, nuclear power never became "too cheap to meter." Rather, it became a discredited, mid-20th century mistake. Raising this issue is a distraction from the real work we need to undertake”
Public interest groups havetime and again pointed out the several dangers lurking in nuclear power in the form of proliferation, waste, and safety problems. As it is, nuclear power is slow, expensive, and rigid. In US, nuclear plants are not being built since the Three Mile Island disaster in1979. Many countries have suspended their projects following the tragedy in Japan. It’s high time, we follow tighter safety protocols.
Experts worldwide have always been recommending a diverse mix of existing renewable technologies to meet energy needs... clean, safe and renewable energy sources like wind, solar,advanced hydroelectric and certain types of biomass and geothermal energy. How (not whether) they can reliably generate as much energy as conventional fuels without emissions, destructive mining or waste should be the focal point of discussion and research worldwide. Sure, other forms of energy also create waste, but isn’t that better than passing on radioactive waste to our future generations. Unless our resolve is positive and focused on the alternatives, nuclear energy will continue to haunt us as a nightmare in the guise of a dream.
We owe it to ourselves and the generations to follow.