Bush fires spread very fast

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 15 August 2005

It is the turn of the Indian energy establishment to be engulfed in the fire lit by President George Bush on nuclear energy. Bush says it is the safest, cleanest, cheapest option. So prime minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to Washington comes away with a nuclear deal

George Bush, it is said, is sold on nuclear as the big answer for the future. He says that a new generation of nuclear technology should be shared with developing countries, in the interests of all. We have to remember here that this same president has maintained -- against global opinion -- that global warming is not a reality. This same president and country has reneged on the multilateral Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change, saying that it is meaningless. We can all go to hell, but the us way of life cannot be compromised.

But now that there is an opportunity to hardsell an extremely expensive toy to this developing nation, suddenly global warming becomes a reality. Nuclear is a "cool" energy source. Unlike coal- and oil-based energy generation it does not lead to global warming. So the proponents of nuclear energy -- in particular its industry -- sell it as the alternative.

At the g-8 Gleneagles Summit held earlier this month, the big news (overshadowed of course by the tragic and senseless bombing in London) was that Britain had persuaded George Bush that climate change was "real". The Gleneagles Communique says that "climate change is serious. We know that increased need and use of energy from fossil fuels and other human activities contribute in large part to increases in greenhouse gases associated with the warming of the Earth's surface". In other words, climate-sceptic Bush, who has signed on this joint communiqu, has endorsed the importance of this issue.

What we need to understand better is the reasons for this supposed change. Has wisdom finally dawned? Or is this a convenient switch to make money out of the climate change tragedy? For the past some years, the us has clearly said it will do nothing on climate change because big polluters like India and China are left out of the Kyoto Protocol. It is now equally convenient that India needs to be sold nuclear energy so that the us can save the world.

We must understand the us president's nuclear fixation. It was in 2001 that his government released the national energy policy, which gave a go-ahead for nuclear reactor construction -- after 25 years of abstinence. At that time it was widely reported how the powerful energy industry had 'cashed' in to the millions it had reportedly paid for the election campaign. It was also the time when the us nuclear industry was completing mergers and acquisitions, ahead of the potential the policy report would create. General Electric (ge) was the only us -owned reactor manufacturer then, but as the Washington based Nuclear Institute Research Centre has analysed, the industry was buzzing with excitement.

The problem was that after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, people turned away from this deadly energy source. Investment dried up. By 2010, 70 per cent of the world's 442 nuclear reactors would be ready for decommissioning. In fact, the sector was only alive because most countries were extending the life of older nuclear plants. By 2002, all reactors with a combined capacity of 360 gigawatt-electric provided just 16 per cent of the world's energy -- a share which had not grown since 1987 and was not expected to grow.

Rebirth then was not possible. Now that the dream is resuscitated the industry needs new markets, which Bush is eagerly opening up. The problem is that nuclear energy has still got problems. It is still potentially unsafe; it costs a lot of money; and there is the horrible problem of waste, which nobody knows how to get rid off. Most importantly, there is the danger of nuclear proliferation. After all, George Bush would not like nuclear to fall into evil hands and is determined to stop the civilian plant in Iran, which can also be used to make weapons.

So, there is research in a new generation of terrorist-proof nuclear plants - generation iv plants. Huge money is being invested. Nobody knows how 'safe' these new technologies will be, but then who cares, when the world's most powerful man is their best salesman.

But what should really worry us is why we continue to be used in this way. It is clear that energy security is vital in our growth. We need to find options for the future, particularly as the price of oil will continue to spiral. But what would be the best energy-mix for a country, which remains unconnected to the grid in large parts? This is a country where delivery services are weak, energy cannot be supplied to all, or the cost recovered from all. Let us be clear. The biggest hurdle facing energy supply today is that utilities just don't know how to bill farmers living in villages across the country, with differential abilities to pay. There is no investment in infrastructure because the cost cannot be recovered. Then there is the growing understanding that even if the cost of generation is lower on a large scale, the costs of distribution and the losses in transmission make the business unprofitable.

It is in this situation that we need to plan for our energy security. We have the opportunity to invest in a paradigm of energy futures based on local systems, combined with much higher efficiency on coal and gas technologies and of course by ensuring that every appliance we use will be much more energy-efficient than even what is used in the us . We could, for instance, simply emulate the example of our neighbour China, which has mandated fuel efficiency standards for private vehicles, to save on costs.

But this will not get us brownie points with the world's most powerful man.

-- Sunita Narain

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