THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
By MV Kamath
Following Japan’s decision not to have any more nuclear plants – Tokyo, however, is now having second thoughts over the matter – after what happened at the Fukushima plant on March 11, 2011, there has been panic in some countries over the real worth of using nuclear energy. Germany is one of the first countries to have given up on nuclear plants, but without making a song and dance about it. Globally, according to reports, there have been at least 99 (civil and military) recorded nuclear power plant accidents from 1952 to 2009, but really speaking they were minor accidents, even though people, when they want to damn nuclear energy, talk about the 1979. Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in the United States and the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, the latter the only incident that has been rated as a Level 7 Event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
At least 57 accidents have occurred in the United States alone, but they involved no fatalities. The damage was only to property. But the media has played up the fears of people in India and that has been showing at the Kudankulam nuclear plant under construction in Tamil Nadu, around 650 kms away from Chennai. The two 1,000 MW nuclear power reactors being set up with Russian technology and equipment at a cost of Rs 13,160 crore have been under siege for weeks now and in September 22, the Tamil Nadu government even passed a resolution urging Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and the Central Government to halt work on the project till the peoples’ fears are allayed.
Experts like Dr APJ Kalam have guaranteed full security at Kudankulam, but Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has been playing politics, saying that her government is concerned and “will certainly act respecting the local peoples’ sentiments” though the Central Government in reply to her letter has averred that it “attaches the highest importance to ensuring that the use of nuclear in the country meets the highest safety standards” and will take “all steps to allay the fears” of helpless villagers living close to Kudankulam”. Even among intellectuals and scientists there is a sharp division of opinion. According to MV Ramanna and Suvrat Raju, members of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, “when nuclear vendors who oppose the new liability law are unwilling to stake their financial health on the claims to ‘100 per cent reactor safety’, why should the local residents of Kudankulam be asked to risk their lives?” Their point is that “residents have a right to be worried” and “nuclear accidents have very destructive public health consequences”. They have, besides, made the point that thanks to the Chernobyl disaster, globally there have been an excess of 9,000 deaths due to cancer, as a result of the exposure to the nuclear plant’s explosion.
Further their argument goes, the American Cancer Institute has found that children who were exposed to Iodine-131 from Chernobyl are continuing to develop thyroid cancer. Contrast this with an opinion expressed by the well known political commentator S. Gurumurthy who has quoted “experts” as saying that a “1,000 MW coal power plant causes annually 400 deaths by air pollution and climate change and air accidents kill some 1,000 persons in the world annually.” The point is made whether, in consequence, we have to stop flying and discontinue coal-dependent power plants.
Then we have the views of Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. According to him “the activities of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, formed after Chernobyl, the nuclear industry has learnt its lesson and taken nuclear energy to a much higher safety level”. And, if we are to believe KS Parthasarathy, Raja Ramanna Fellow of the Department of Atomic Energy, Kudankulam reactors “are more modern and safe” and “exercising due diligence” the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has issued clearance to them at various stages. To which Parthsarathy adds: “Public may rest assured that Indian scientists and engineers will operate the reactors safely”.
What is important to remember in the context of the current controversy is that we have to depend on imports of coal to a very large extent to keep our energy going. We import both coal and gas. Our energy imports are of the order of $ 100 billion a year of which coal imports alone cost $ five billion. This figure, it is claimed, may rise to $ 45 billion by 2020 and $ 250 billion by 2050. If today we produce 1,50,000 MW of electricity, by 2030, it is feared, we may have to produce six times that figure or roughly 9,50,000 MW to keep our growing economy going. And fancy what damage to the environment the coal-burning kilns can do to the country! Should India, under the circumstances, let itself be frightened by professional opponents to nuclear energy when the arguments they produce hardly have any legs to stand on? Besides, India requires nuclear power plants to help create nuclear bombs. As of now, the number of nuclear bombs available among the leading powers exceed a frightening 22,000. China reportedly has 240 bombs mostly targeted at India. Even Pakistan has in excess of 80 bombs with India accounting for less than hundred. Besides out of 22 of our nuclear power plants, 14 are subject to global inspection. Shouldn’t we build our own nuclear reactors that are not accountable to global inspection?
India is perfecting the technology to use thorium for creating nuclear energy and may come to a point when we do not need uranium and become musters of our own needs. It is not that India wants to compete with its neighbours in producing nuclear weapons, but do we have any alternative? All these aspects of nuclear energy creation need to be taken into account. It is very smart on the part of Jayalalithaa to play politics but there are more things even in politics than the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister can dream of. We are living in a world full of conflict not of our making; we are indeed victims of situations not of our creation which imposes even more responsibilities on us. Should we set them aside out of fear or from pressure from irresponsible sources? Let the public be the judge.