To Get The Question Right

The movement against nuclear power needs to be placed within the broader issue of energy, writes Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

The article is published in The Telegraph, Tuesday , September 6 , 2011

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, while speaking at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta on August 21, 2011, described nuclear energy as an important factor in the economic growth of India. He encouraged nuclear physicists to work on this subject and also enhance the safety of this technology. The issues involved, however, are not so simple when a broader assessment of the present global push towards nuclear power is made. This push, described as the renaissance of nuclear technology, needs to be seen in the historical-political context.

Scientific enquiry and technological innovations have been driven by the survival instinct, which led to the development of weapons for killing competing communities. World War I stands out as a watershed in the evolution of science and technology for developing weapons for the destruction of living beings. These activities grew very rapidly in the post-World War I period, when the scale of governmental and corporate investment in research and development of weapons of mass destruction became astoundingly large. The race for making the first atomic bomb was won by the United States of America when the Manhattan Project established destructive technological supremacy by causing the deaths of many innocent human beings in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and later in Nagasaki. It was probably the largest field testing of the atomic weapon.

While investments in military research have mounted after that, the modification of products of military research has opened up the civilian market for them. Thus, scientific knowledge associated with the production of atomic weapons was put to use in the commercial generation of nuclear energy. This has been the growth path of modern technologies, whether it is solid-state electronics or jet-propulsion applications.

In India, in spite of the debates on the nuclear policy, information about nuclear research and development remains largely classified because of its strategic significance. Such confidentiality about nuclear power starts from mining nuclear fuels, processing ores, extracting nuclear materials, generating nuclear power, all the way to the storage and safe disposal of nuclear wastes.

Thirty-one countries now have functioning nuclear power plants. In India, rapid expansion of nuclear power generation capacities is on the official card. Anti-nuclear positions are taken by Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, and so on. Following the disaster in March 2011 at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan, a new wave of debate has emerged all over the world on the desirability or otherwise of nuclear power, though it has been prescribed as a “clean” source of energy by the prime minister for unhindered economic growth.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, common people all over the world demonstrated against the expansion of nuclear power generation. China, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Thailand, and so on have started seriously rethinking their nuclear plans. In Italy, a national referendum went against nuclear power. In India, though there has been no declaration of rethinking at the national governmental level, the West Bengal government took a stand against it.

As India starts an ambitious expansion of civil nuclear power generation, the question whether we have undergone an open options assessment for energy technologies is being raised. Growing incidences of nuclear disaster have further focused public opinion on the issue of liability and desirability of such an energy path. Protests that started against nuclear weapons and later expanded to nuclear power constitute the ‘anti- nuclear movement’. In July, 1977 in Bilbao, Spain, 200,000 people demonstrated against nuclear power. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, New York witnessed an anti-nuclear protest by about a quarter of a million people. To protest against the Brokdorf Nuclear Power Plant west of Hamburg, some 100,000 people confronted 10,000 police officers in 1981. A million marched against nuclear weapons in New York on June 12, 1982. In May 1986, following the Chernobyl disaster and as a protest against the Italian nuclear programme, about 200,000 people marched in Rome. In a recent report on the real economics of this energy path, entitled Nuclear Power Subsidies: the Gift that Keeps on Taking, the US’s Union of Concerned Scientists has exposed the growing dependence of the nuclear power sector on subsidies. So the energy expert, Arjun Makhijani, has charted a carbon-free and non-nuclear energy road map for the US that needs the attention of policymakers even in India.

The anti-nuclear movement has three main platforms. The first is the risk to living beings, both from the plants and the wastes. The wastes include isotopes with half-lives of several thousands of years, during which time they need safe storage. The second is the real economics of nuclear power, the actual cost of its generation and whether it is as “clean” a technology as described by its promoters. The third is the lack of transparency and the destructive power associated with it.

However, anti-nuclear movements in India and probably in many other countries have not connected their protests with the broader issue of available energy options. The efficient use of energy resources at all levels has become urgent. But in India, the rich and the middle class have shown scant interest in energy efficiency or technological choices as long as energy supplies to the homes and the factories are smooth. The richer consumers have become comfortable with subsidized non-renewable energy sources, pampered by politicians supporting subsidy on non-renewables. If sustainable and efficient use of energy had been a serious priority, solar-based technologies would have found far greater popular use. Unconcerned dependence on non-renewable energy sources and the assumption that energy supplies to maintain the growing standards of living in India should be made available ad infinitum by the government, without options assessment, provides the backdrop for the nuclear energy discourse in India.

Driven by the Copenhagen Accord, some steps to promote energy efficiency are being taken in recent months, but a lot of indigenous research and development should have already been done, considering the level of our problems. An example is the lack of widespread use of rooftop passive solar cells, especially in the west of the country, which has 250 or more sunny days. In the case of active solar cells, research towards greater efficiency of conversion in photovoltaic-cells is a very important priority. In the industrialized world, large, futuristic investments are being made on research towards this objective. India, with its competence in solid-state and surface physics, can become a front-runner in this race. The impact of the development of high temperature superconductors will be similar. In these challenges, frontiers of modern physics and energy technology merge. The advances made in non-conventional energy development in China have not woken us up either. In addition, the question of distributive equity has always raised important questions about technological choices.

Whether it is the governmental policy in favour of nuclear power or the popular movements against it, positions need to be taken with a more comprehensive perspective. The movement against nuclear power needs to be connected with the broader perspective on energy, beyond the narrow ideas of risks associated with this technology, however real they may be. If the risks of living with nuclear wastes are to be avoided, the starting point for the people will be to embrace organic wastes as sources of energy. If social movements do not address this challenge, the government would continue with the arguments of developmental needs and of having “no alternative” to the expansion of the nuclear power sector.

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay  is Professor and Head, Centre for Development and Environment Policy, Public Policy and Management, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta