Monday, March 28, 2011

Bring on the obituaries for nuclear energy

The tragedy of the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami in Japan has given all the so-called experts and environmentalists to pressurise governments around the world to give up power generation using nuclear energy. And they have forced many editorials, which are virtually writing obituaries for nuclear energy.

Thanks to the 24 hour breaking and sensationalising news channels, those opposing the Jaitapur nuclear power project have got a new lease of life. They have been claiming that the earthquake has shown how dangerous nuclear energy is and are asking the government to think of other sources to generate electricity. What other sources? None have a clear answer about it. Many of them say that renewable sources of energy should be used. The proposed Jaitapur project would generate around 10,000 MW of electricity, once fully operational. Do the opponents have an idea, how much land would be required to generate the same amount of power using wind energy? A rule of thumb indicates that roughly 60 acres/MW are required if wind farms are built on land. This means, roughly 6,00,000 acres of land will be required to build a Jaitapur equivalent of wind farm. Do we have that much land to spare, even when farming is possible alongside a wind turbine?

If catastrophic disasters were to shape events in history, we perhaps would never be driving cars or flying in aeroplanes.The debris of Air France flight 447 hasn't yet been recovered. The crash caused a loss of 228 lives. Over the decades, commercial aircraft have crashed for various reasons and we have lost precious lives in these unfortunate incidents. This hasn't prevented the civil aviation sector from expanding like never before, nor has it stymied the development of new, better, larger and faster aeroplanes. So, why does nuclear energy invoke such fear?

Why isn't similar (or greater) contempt reserved for coal-fired power plants? Though they do not pose a threat of radiation contamination, but contamination of the environment due to fly ash and smoke has had an adverse effect on the people residing near such power plants for over generations. And when people talk of problems in disposing nuclear waste, they conveniently forget the havoc caused by fly-ash waste, which is gathering in landfills. In India, less than 50% of fly ash is recycled. Isn't it a problem? We do not have technology to safely dispose fly-ash, yet do not oppose coal-fired power plants.

The point I want to make here, is that we cannot wait beyond a certain limit to get started with enjoying the benefits of technology. We have to use and develop it side-by-side. Anticipate problems, solve them early and if mishaps or disasters occur, we should learn from them and improve designs and procedures accordingly. Writing such premature obituaries is not going to help in any manner. Nuclear power is currently cheapest among the clean methods to generate electricity and if India desires to achieve all-round development, it will have to make use of this source at some point of time. And the earlier it does, the better it would be.

I would like to end with an interesting quote, I heard the other day. "The earthquake and tsunami have resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 persons in Japan. But the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plants hasn't yet cause a single death."
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  1. NIce thoughts with good facts Vinay.. I totally second you .. but at the same time the news of the "100,000" times radiation level being higher is very disturbing. dont u think it will have a long term impact

  2. @Sushmita,
    radiation concentration going past 100,000 times the permissible safe limits is definitely disturbing. But, so are exhausts from vehicles, which contribute to global warming. But we haven't stopped using them.

    Even the effects of fly-ash from coal-fired power plants are disturbing. But, we continue to derive most of our energy from coal.

    The point I'm trying to make here is that every technology has its benefits and dangers. Do we keep brooding over its dangers and hence not use it at all. Especially, when statistics indicate that the effects of dangers are far too small. Someone being affected by nuclear radiation makes news. But thousands being affected due to fly ash isn't worth news or concern? Aren't we applying double standards here?