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Wednesday / March 29.

The Nuclear Conundrum

By Razi Iqbal

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

The 2011 tsunami caused massive destruction to human life and property in Japan. The tsunami also caused the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant resulting in a meltdown of three of the plants’ six nuclear reactors. Along with the obvious regard to disaster management and restoration work, there was growing concern both in Japan and around the world about the cascading effect of the nuclear leak. People living near the nuclear plant were evacuated to far off places in order to avoid the deadly effects of radiation.Six months hence, the World Health Organisation indicated that evacuees were exposed so little that radiation induced health impacts were likely to be below detectable levels and any additional cancer risk from radiation was extremely small, that too strictly limited to those living near the plant [1][2]. Still, public apprehension regarding the use of nuclear energy continued to grow not only in Japan but in many other countries.

In 2011, nuclear energy was the source of 10% of world’s electricity. In the aftermath of the disaster and growing outrage of the public, Japanese government decided to shut down 54 nuclear reactors in the country. Many other countries followed, mainly due to public outcry and non acceptance of nuclear power as a source of energy. Global nuclear energy output fell by 4.3%, with Germany closing down most of its reactors [3],Italy aiming to close down all reactors by 2022 [4] and the US closing down four of its major reactors.Ireland, Poland, Sweden and Austria have no nuclear programs [5]. Construction of new reactors also declined with many countries not going ahead with their earlier plans to invest in nuclear energy.

India has a similar story to tell.In October 2010, India drew up a plan to reach nuclear capacity of 63000 MW by the year 2032 but after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, populations around proposed nuclear energy sites launched large scale protest regarding the viability of such projects. There have been mass protests against the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra and Kundankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil nadu. The state government of West Bengal has also refused permission to a proposed 6000 MW facility near the town of Haripur [6].

In my view, the public discourse regarding the use of nuclear energy is hugely overplayed. I agree that the result of a nuclear disaster can be calamitous as seen during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 but since then massive developments have taken place in the field of nuclear energy, making it comparatively safer than it was 28 years back. Disregarding the huge benefits nuclear energy has got to offer, many countries have taken the defensive route on the back of a disaster in which there have been no deaths till date caused by radiation.Governments have also feared the public perception and reviewed their nuclear policies, which until March 2011 were looking to invest heavily in this energy field (an obvious case of vote bank politics).One exception is China, which still has 28 nuclear reactors under construction because there, the government does not necessarily depict the public perception(a result of lack of democracy and no voting rights); instead, it hopes to reap the benefits nuclear energy has got to offer, especially in the wake of growing demand for energy in its economy.

Speaking of advantages,the use of nuclear energy results in no carbon emissions unlike fossil fuels and in today’s crisis regarding global warming, nuclear energy gets a big head-start. Nuclear energy is more sustainable than fossil fuels as well. Fossil fuels like coal and oil are expected to be exhausted by the end of 2065 and nuclear energy seems a viable option with regard to its massive energy generating capacity. Though there is no doubt that wind and solar energy are the best substitutes to fossil fuels (taking into account their sustainability and no pollution),their viability regarding large scale production is always doubtful. Environmentalist in US often say that if solar energy was to be used to provide energy to California, the entire Californian state will have to be covered by solar panels! There is no doubt that with the extinction of fossil fuels, nuclear energy will have a big part to play in providing electricity to the world. The capital cost of constructing a nuclear reactor is also the same as covering a huge area of land with wind turbines or solar panels, with minimal fuel and running costs(the most commonly used fuel for nuclear reactors is uranium which is found in abundance in the earth’s crust).

The focus should be on making nuclear plants more secure rather than give up the system as a whole just for the fear of a disaster which may or may not happen. With technology being an ever growing field, disasters like the one in 1986 might well be a thing of the past. The fact that nuclear plants can produce such large amounts of energy should not be ignored specially by a developing economy like India. If not now, nuclear energy is something the world of 2065 won’t be able to live without. Reservations regarding its use should be tackled by positive awareness. Consider this fact- In terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated,nuclear energy has caused fewer accidental deaths than all other sources of energy generation. Energy produced by coal, petroleum,natural gas and hydropower has caused more deaths per unit of energy generated,from air pollution and energy accidents [7]. I rest my case.

1)     2013 WHO health risk assessment report from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami- http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/78218/1/9789241505130_eng.pdf

2)     Meltdown: Despite the Fear, the Health Risks from the Fukushima Accident Are Minimal Time   magazine article- http://science.time.com/2013/03/01/meltdown-despite-the-fear-the-health-risks-from-the-fukushima-accident-are-minimal/#ixzz2MnbjhPmv

3)     Merkel says goodbye to the nuclear and announces a revolution in renewable, article in German magazine “lavanguardia”- http://www.lavanguardia.com/medio-ambiente/20110531/54162870889/merkel-se-despide-de-lo-nuclear-y-anuncia-una-revolucion-en-renovables.html

4)     “Italy nuclear: Berlusconi accepts referendum blow”.BBC News- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13741105

5)     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_phase-ou

6)     Siddharth Srivastava  “India’s Rising Nuclear Safety Concerns”. Asia centinel- http://www.asiasentinel.com/blog/indias-rising-nuclear-safety-concerns/

7)     Brendan Nicholson (2006-06-05). “Nuclear power ‘cheaper, safer’ than coal and gas”. Melbourne: The Agehttp://www.theage.com.au/news/national/nuclear-power-cheaper-safer-than-coal-and-gas/2006/06/04/1149359609052.html

“A Comparative Analysis of Accident Risks in Fossil, Hydro, and Nuclear Energy Chains”-an article in the international journal “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment”- http://gabe.web.psi.ch/pdfs/_2012_LEA_Audit/TA01.pdf pg 962-965

Razi is a first year economics student at Shri Ram college of commerce, Delhi university. A cricket fanatic and an avid reader, Razi believes that ‘the big bang theory’ and his passion for biking provide him the necessary fuel in his life. His interests in economics lie in psychology based subjects like game theory and behavioral economics. His focus in life right now is on the subject ‘how to best enjoy college life’.