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Time to rethink nuclear energy?

The crisis in four nuclear power plants in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami is cause to rethink India’s strategy of boosting nuclear energy capacity and setting up the world’s largest nuclear power plant at Jaitapur, says Ranjan K Panda

On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in the history of Japan brought the country to its knees. Measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, the quake that ravaged Japan’s northeastern shores is said to be the strongest ever recorded in the country; scientists say it is the fifth largest earthquake in the world since 1900. Eight thousand times stronger than the one that devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last month. On March 13, the Japanese Meteorological Agency upgraded the quake’s magnitude to 9.

Minutes later, the earthquake unleashed a tsunami with waves seven metres high sweeping inland over fields and towns. At least 1,000 people are feared dead and thousands injured. A frightening Friday that people in Japan will find hard to forget. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called it “the worst crisis in the 65 years since the War”.

Planners in India must view this disaster as a lesson to assess the way we are growing. 

The most important lesson is about the safety of nuclear power plants in times of disaster. Japan declared a state of emergency for five nuclear reactors at two power plants after they lost their cooling ability in the aftermath of the earthquake. As reports came in, the Japanese prime minister ordered the evacuation of thousands of people living within six miles of the plants owing to the release of radioactive steam. Pressure levels inside the plants are reported to be building up and people are bracing for a second explosion. Late on March 13, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Japan had added a third nuclear plant to the list of those in danger as radiation had been detected outside the plant which is around 60 miles from Sendai, a city of 1 million people. Soon after that, Kyodo news reported that a plant about 75 miles north of Tokyo was experiencing cooling problems. These latest developments have forced the evacuation of over 200,000 people.

India, which is gearing up for rapid economic growth, has been trying out a combination of all possible energy sources. The country’s current installed capacity of power generation is 150,000 MW -- the fifth highest in the world. But, maintaining the 8-9% growth rate that the Indian government envisages requires capacity to grow to at least 400,000 MW by 2020, and 950,000 MW by 2030. At present, agriculture still plays a dominant role with most Indians living in villages and consuming much less energy than their urban counterparts. And yet we are struggling to manage our energy needs -- supply is around 12% less than demand; distribution losses range between 35-45%; and only around 45% of the rural population receive power supply.

Thermal power is presently the dominant power supply sector in India (75%), followed by hydropower at 21%. Nuclear energy accounts for only around 3.5%. However, in our efforts to sustain growth and with very little emphasis on green energy sources, nuclear power is set to gain importance. By giving environmental clearance to the Jaitapur nuclear power plant -- the world’s largest -- the government has already signalled this.

Nuclear power accounts for almost one-third of Japan’s total power production today. The reactor shut-down post-tsunami, has cut total production by 18%. India would do well to take note.

According to International Atomic Energy Agency estimates, around 20% of nuclear reactors around the world operate in areas of significant seismic activity. The Jaitapur plant is in a seismically active zone too. Japan and other advanced countries are equipped with superior early warning and coping mechanisms. Not so India. The Latur quake, in 1993, that had a magnitude of 6.3, killed over 8,000 people.

Going by the trend of unsustainable urbanisation that has become a characteristic not only of India but of almost every country in the world, the future appears dark. This growing urbanisation will be fuelled by further migration induced by climate change and factors arising out of the resource-exploitative and polluting development process. In an interview with a magazine in 2008, Home Minister P Chidambaram said: “My vision of a poverty-free India is an India where a vast majority, something like 85%, will eventually live in cities.” That sounds like a recipe for disaster. 

Just praying for the victims of the earthquake in Japan is not going to help. Learning lessons from it and rethinking our development strategy will be a more fitting tribute to the people.

(Ranjan K Panda is a writer, researcher and environmentalist. He is a recipient of the NDTV Green Hero award)

Infochange News & Features, March 2011