Manmohan Singh's nuclear shame

On the 13th of January, 2014, our current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for one of India’s largest nuclear power plants in Haryana amidst protests from various groups. Had logic and public opinion been something that our Prime Minister or his government respected, then AAP perhaps would not have been there in the first place. But these have not been his forte; as is well known, he neither uses his mouth (the absolute lack of communication from him), nor his ears (the disregard for public opinion). Or perhaps he has sold his soul so massively to Western interests that his skin has become far too thick for anything to affect him, including the imminent end of his official tenure.

I have been a diehard anti-nuclear energy man from day one, and wouldn’t spend too many words delving into the scary possibilities of a Japan-like natural disaster and its possible effects. But the fact is, nuclear plants can be most fragile and such incidents can have disastrous consequences. Any case of a nuclear meltdown would cause leakage of radiation, which not only can lead to an unimaginably high death toll and permanent physical and mental disorders, but in the long run can also make the vicinity uninhabitable for tens of decades. And India, which is blindly following a dream of going the nuclear way, is largely ignoring the threats that these reactors bring with themselves! I might also remind the readers that it is not that this is something new for India – in August 2010, the Journal of Contemporary Asia reported that between 1993 and 1995, more than 120 hazardous nuclear accidents took place in India. It is amazing how our shameless government seems to have forgotten the biggest disaster of all times in Indian history – the Bhopal gas tragedy! And mind you, there was nothing nuclear in that disaster! Forget everything else, if nuclear leakages can happen in developed nations like Japan, which have a focus on zero defects, then given India’s level of work ethics in general – with short cuts, corruption, fraudulent practices being more of a rule than exception – take it as good an assurance from me that in India, a nuclear disaster will happen for certain. Globally, post the Japanese disaster, Germany has suspended contracts and agreements that would have otherwise ensured an extension of their nuclear facilities, while Switzerland has, for the time being, kept aside all files meant for approval of nuclear plants.

In India, it all started with the signing of the 1-2-3 deal with the US in 2008. This deal opened up a $250 billion nuclear reactor market for India; and today we find various companies (mostly American and European) waiting to sign their contracts with India. The biggest contract that we have signed in this area is with Areva for a 9,000-MW plant at Jaitapur in the Konkan region in Maharashtra. As it is said that the devil is in the details, interestingly the Konkan coast is located in the seismic belt of the nation and is categorised as a high damage risk zone. For the record, in the last two decades, this zone has experienced a whopping number of 92 earthquakes, of which three were major, with the highest being measured at 6.3 on the Richter scale in 1993. And on top of this, we are using a very controversial and unapproved nuclear reactor for this plant. As of now, we have more than 20 nuclear reactors dotted along the coastal areas of the nation, and these may be either exposed to quakes or tsunamis.

However, the biggest argument against nuclear power is not the fear of accidents alone. It is basic economics. There is absolutely no economic logic that can support the argument that nuclear energy is needed in India, a nation where the sunlight we receive is far more than sufficient to take care of all our energy requirements, and that too most importantly at one fourth of the cost of nuclear energy. While a unit of power from nuclear plants will cost the nation somewhere between 18 to 20 rupees, solar energy is already down to 4.5 rupees per unit and decreasing by the day, with solar panels becoming cheaper and more efficient. This Haryana plant, for example, is being made on a gargantuan 1400 acres, while for solar energy, we would never require such huge chunks of land; and even if we were to use that large an area, solar panels can be easily and ergonomically fitted to allow multiple use of the land – in one example, solar panels have been tactically placed over canals while activities like fishing have continued unhindered below the solar panels. But that’s just one example; modern day buildings too are now seeing fashionably designed solar panels being aesthetically placed on the exterior walls of these buildings, thus leaving the terraces of these buildings free, which earlier would have been occupied by the said solar panels. India is blessed with ample sunlight round the year. And solar energy would not be just economical, safe and green but would also reduce chances of any future, irreversible damage if any disaster becomes an unfortunate reality! Studies show that the average daily solar energy incident over our country is around 7 kWh/m2 (equivalent to 2000 solar hours per year) – any day more than the current total energy consumption of the entire nation. And yet, solar energy makes up less than one per cent of the total energy produced in India – while this figure is 35 per cent on an average in developed nations.

There is, therefore, a huge question why the government is hell-bent on opting for nuclear energy when it very well knows that solar energy is now more cost-effective as well as safer. Alternatively, of course, there is another thing we can do – and why we are keeping quiet about it is beyond my understanding. We can opt for thorium-based plants, owing to the fact that thorium is found in abundance in our country; we have 25 per cent of the world’s thorium reserves. However, not a single media entity writes about it properly and the common man has no clue about it... The fact is that thorium produces hundred times the power of uranium and leaves essentially no waste. And as per research, if thorium acquires scale in mining, it would cost lesser than uranium! Given such potential power generation resources, it is foolish to suffer from a nuclear complex! Yes, the Indian government has on and off claimed that they are developing their research competence on thorium (the Kakrapar atomic reactor near Surat apparently being thorium based), but the evident obsession with commissioning non-thorium based nuclear plants belies such claims.

But then, all in all, there is not a single reason as to why India should take part in this rat race to become a nuclear-powered nation. Instead, we should learn from Japan and switch to much safer and cleaner energy sources like solar, hydro and thorium. Needless to say, a single nuclear reactor is equal to hundred atomic bombs, and in a country like India, with high population density, a single explosion would lead to hundred Hiroshimas! I hope this huge, deliberate and shameful obsession with nuclear energy is reversed and the new government that will come soon, openly declares that India does not need nuclear energy.

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