India’s Nuclear Conundrum

Japan’s nuclear disaster has fueled fear and uncertainty among all of the world’s producers of nuclear power. For India, an energy-starved country, much is at stake.

NEW DELHI – Japan’s nuclear disaster has fueled fear and uncertainty among all of the world’s producers of nuclear power. For India, an energy-starved country, much is at stake.

That fear factor has two main causes. Although nuclear power ranks as a “clean” source of energy, it is accompanied by the terrible shadow of nuclear war, which emerged from Japan’s last reckoning with nuclear catastrophe, 65 years ago at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which lends it an automatic association with mass destruction and death. Moreover, the secrecy that attends all things “nuclear” has left people not knowing enough to feel confident.

The fear inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster will be reflected in soaring costs for nuclear power worldwide, largely owing to demands for improved safety and the need to pay more to insure the potential risks. Indeed, nuclear plants are prone to a form of “panic transference.” Should a reactor of one design go wrong, all reactors of that type will be shut down instantly around the world.

India’s dilemma is this: it has 20 nuclear plants in operation, with an additional 23 on order. With the country desperately short of power, and requiring energy to grow, concerned citizens are asking if nuclear is still the answer for India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has cautiously announced that a “special safety review” of all plants will be undertaken. “Not enough,” say roughly 50 eminent Indians, who at the end of March demanded a “radical review” of the country’s entire nuclear-power policy for “appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance.” The group also called for an “independent, transparent safety audit” of all nuclear facilities, to be undertaken with the “involvement of civil-society organizations and experts outside the Department of Atomic Energy.” Until then, there should be “a moratorium on all…nuclear activity” and “revocation of recent clearances.” This is as explicit as opposition can get.

How have other countries reacted? France, which is around 80% dependent on nuclear energy, and is a big exporter of nuclear-plant technology, initially avoided most of the global anti-nuclear concerns. But now it, too, is promising to draw the necessary lessons from the Japanese experience and upgrade its safety procedures, including a reassessment of the potential effects of natural disasters on nuclear-plant operations, conceding that the occurrence of more than one natural disaster simultaneously had not been considered previously.

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China, which has 77 nuclear reactors at various stages of construction, planning, and discussion, has said that it will “review its program.” Though Russia has formally announced that it will go ahead with its program, former President Mikhail Gorbachev – on whose watch the Chernobyl meltdown occurred 25 years ago – is not so sanguine.

While the US is the principal exporter of reactors, it currently has just two under construction on its own territory. Denmark, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are strongly anti-nuclear, and Switzerland has stopped all nuclear-power projects. 

All of this will lead to cost evaluation and escalation. According to a study conducted by the former Indian government minister Arun Shourie, the price of uranium could rise to $140 per pound, close to its record high.

A change of much greater consequence concerns the price of reactors. Pre-Fukushima, a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “The Future of Nuclear Power, 2003,” as well as a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, established that nuclear energy was 50-100% more expensive than energy from coal or gas. The report of the Working Group on Power of the Planning Commission of India puts the cost of energy from the country’s coal-based plants at about one-third lower than nuclear power, with gas 50% cheaper.

Energy security and public safety should be of equal importance in determining future policy on nuclear power. Indeed, experts like C. M. A. Nayar have said that the Fukushima accident “could have happened even if there was no tsunami.” Nayar suggests that it has long been known that the reactor’s design contained basic flaws, though only the Japanese authorities can verify this.

So, what is to be done? Clean energy at a time of global warming is obviously necessary.  But so is the safety and security of humans, animals, and plants. India has set itself on a path of virtually doubling its nuclear-power output. This is deeply troubling, for India’s supply of nuclear fuel, technology, and reactors is almost entirely dependent on imports from manufacturers who refuse liability for any malfunction.

There is, of course, no single correct response that would simultaneously and uniformly deal with resource scarcity, fossil-fuel depletion, climate change, and the risks of nuclear power. A choice will ultimately need to be made about how to meet India’s energy demands.

At a minimum, a thorough reexamination and full public debate must precede the construction of any new nuclear plant. But the current emphasis on nuclear power must be objectively reassessed, and dependence on it thereafter reduced. With nuclear safety suddenly becoming a global imperative, the costs are simply too high to do otherwise.