Connected events and difficult future

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

nuclearTwo major events happening at two ends of the world—Japan’s natural disaster and nuclear fallout and unrest in Libya and other countries of the region—have one thing in common. Energy. The fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, hit by earthquake and then the tsunami, has not yet been contained. As I write this, news is breaking about possible contamination of the seawater surrounding the damaged installation. Fears are it could lead to groundwater contamination and radioactive toxins in the food and fish. Last week there was a scare when Tokyo’s water was reported to have iodine 131 in excess of safe limits. Nobody really knows how badly the core of the reactor is damaged. Nobody’s clear how Fukushima’s problems will be buried.

However, this nuclear accident has stopped—even if temporarily—the resurgence of the nuclear industry. Italy had only recently restarted its nuclear programme after a post-Chernobyl referendum had ordered a shut down of its working plants. It has now called for a one-year moratorium on the four proposed nuclear reactors. The US and China, both remain wedded to nuclear energy, but have slowed down developments and suspended future expansions. Europe has called for a safety review of its 143 plants. In all this it is clear the world will rethink its projects, tighten safety procedures and requirements, which in turn will add to cost. The nuclear industry’s renaissance may not be stillborn but is certainly delayed. Clearly, this will put pressure on global energy supplies.

At the same time, the unfolding violent conflict in West Asia and North Africa has led to oil prices peaking to over US $105—up some 24 per cent from February 15. Again, there is a huge uncertainty about where this conflict could lead to. Already “coalition” governments are bombing Libya in the hope of stopping Colonel Qaddafi, but there is no real plan about where this will end. Yemen is falling apart, and even though it is a small oil producer, it is located strategically at the Gulf of Aden. Bahrain, a major oil producer, is edging towards collapse. The zone of unrest is growing. The world is too scared to exhale.

The question is what this will do to the already precarious energy situation in the world. The recent recovery of the world economy has driven up demand at a time when oil production is stretched and even perturbation can spike its price. In the coming months, Japan will fuel this demand further as 30 per cent of its electricity needs came from its 54 nuclear reactors. Now many are closed and in the coming months, the post-earthquake recovery will need more energy. It will be in the market for importing more natural gas. This will put a strain on the European oil and gas markets, which have common buyers. Already gas futures in Europe have risen. All this will, of course, mean more revenue and global influence for oil and gas exporters like Russia.

This comes at a time when new oil fields have been difficult to find. The new oil that does exist is found in ecologically fragile areas and in areas where man is finding it difficult to go, like deep sea where BP met with its accident. This is not to say the oil-addicted world is not trying.

There is a mad rush for the Arctic now. Ironically, because of climate change, caused by the use of fossil fuels, the Arctic melting has opened the region for more oil exploration. Countries are vying to get into the Arctic quickly to begin drilling, whatever the environmental consequences. This week, in high drama, a Stockholm court blocked a controversial deal between BP and Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft to explore the Arctic. Norway, another country with territorial claims, has been reluctant to open the region to drilling but may soon find itself in the race to this last frontier.

The other big find is the shale gas in the US. Oil companies are using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, at high pressure to unlock gas trapped in shale rock formations deep underground. Now other parts of the world are busy looking for shale in their territory. How much of this is available and at what cost is still hard to say.

But the bottomline is that energy constraints on the world’s emerging economies will grow. We know that the price of energy determines the price of growth.

India will need to work out its own energy options. There is no doubt that we need more energy—large parts of the country remain deprived of this basic need which is unacceptable. It is also clear that our options are limited. We already import huge amounts of oil and gas and will need more in the future, particularly because we seem to be unclear about how much gas reserves we have. We also don’t really have a plan on how we should use energy more efficiently and wisely. We only want to dig deep into forested regions for cheap coal.

But this is the real tough question for the future. Energy is clearly the world’s Achilles’ heel. But we will get nowhere if we keep harping on the old answers. We clearly need to secure energy sources, but equally we need to find new ways of doing much more with much less. It is time we learnt this lesson. Fast.

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  • Yes there is a need of

    Yes there is a need of energy, but how much we really need is not answered by anybody ! Unless we (as India) use energy efficiently and wisely we can not survive. All urban area should have enrgy in controlled form. Let us have enrgy with its real cost and not the subsidised cost.
    Thanks to Stockholm Court, who suspended the Arctic envassion by oil majors.
    All those who understand the Energy crises should start advocating about the real price of Energy to all.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Answer is obvious - we have

    Answer is obvious - we have to harness Solar & wind power. Anything else - oil, shale gas, nuclear all have limitations and we are also going against nature - with disastrous consequences. Renewable energy sources coupled with judicious use of energy is the only way out.Educating Public about wastage is another great challange. Added to it is the freebies given by various political parties wich leads to further misuse & wastage.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The question is really tough.

    The question is really tough. But cannot be left unanswered for long. No third alternative exists. Either reduce the consumption or find alternative sources of energy. To me humanity has to try both. Reduction in consumption is possible through (a) use more public transport (b)tax heavily the symbol of stupidity (courtesy SN),the individual transport, ban foolish sport of formula type (c) create global atmosphere (through the UN), may be having only one defense command with limited use of heavy weapons. If cross boarder aggression is stopped defense consumption of energy can be easily cut, only police forces will be needed to check the unsocial elements.(d) many more such methods can be traced to cut consumption. The major one can be going for Gandhian way of self contentment using only the limited minimal energy for living
    Second, the nature has not yet stopped its bounty of safe resources, we have to find out by using our human, financial, technical resources. For example, wind, solar, ocean, sub surface earth, hydrological sources etc. have not yet been used to potential.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Eye Opener

    Eye Opener

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • We have exhausted huge amount

    We have exhausted huge amount of energy on the discussion of the creation and crisis of energy. Energy has become empowerment- social-economic and of various other kinds. So nobody wants to remain disempowered, come what may. Personally I very strongly hold that the greed for energy has become tantamount to the ever-rising greed for irrational consumption and unsustainable consumerism. If we keep precipitating the insatiable longing for unsustainable consumption, as global citizens we need not shed crocodile tears for energy crisis, global warming and the ensuing catastrophes. The mad race for GDP has a direct link with the consumption of energy and global warming. Somebody asked a mountaineer who climbed a high peak that why did he do it and his answer was ÔÇÿbecause that (peak) is thereÔÇÖ. In the same manner, if we ask the consumerist society today why it needs so much of energy, the answer would be because thatÔÇÖs there. We need to address the fundamental problem which lies with the artificially created greed for unsustainable consumption. Energy crisis is a mere symptom, not an ailment.

    Mihir Bholey
    NID, Ahmedabad

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • clean water and energy seem

    clean water and energy seem to be the sagging pillars of the world we live in...and to my mind, the part answer to avoiding civil strife the world over is to conserve water and energy alike because neither of them will be enough in the years ahead. I agree nuclear energy production is fraught with its own dangers but i am surprised as to why the world is not looking at harnessing the sun's energy or wind energy. I believe it is currently expensive but I am sure with more R&D, the cost can be lowered....or is it that the lobby for these forms of energy are weak or are they being overpowered in teh corridors of power by the oil and gas lobby? As a layman, i do not know the answer but perhaps you can throw some light on the matter.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • catch 22 situation. We India

    catch 22 situation. We India need more energy. We do not have much oil or gas. We are not a sober or disciplined country like Japan. In the crisis no shop was looted in Japan. Imagine such a situation in India. It will be chaos. So I would go to extreme step nuclear energy is not for such a country like India. Even though we make extreme cautionary steps there is nothing like zero danger. Scientists should make urgent efforts on alternate energy, particularly solar energy, which is abundant in this country.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • This is a really

    This is a really disconcerting but important matter. I am not sure how India will find a balance between its energy needs and environmental concerns!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • A very thought-provoking and

    A very thought-provoking and concise analysis, but leaves out one very important point: we have already passed peak oil production, world govts know this and are frantically searching for other sources of oil and gas. But as has already been pointed out, the only remaining alternative supplies - leaving aside those in the Middle East, control of which may start a third world war, and which themselves are dwindling anyway! - are locked-up in areas which are either extremely environmentally sensitive, or require more input of energy to extract than the net gain. Clearly an untenable solution.
    The only possible answers, as again has been pointed out by many posters, is a multi-faceted strategy. Firstly, and above all (and possibly the most difficult) is for all of us to vastly reduce our consumption. It is abundantly clear that we are all addicted to our energy-gobbling toys, and that there is huge wastage of energy from other factors.
    Secondly, I agree that we must push forward, with all haste, in developing solar and wind technology. These should be pursued on a local, small-scale production basis, rather than trying to create huge networks of production and distribution of electricity, which themselves require great expenditure of energy and resources to create and maintain.
    This current energy crisis may prove to be the one element which has the potential to propel our species into a glorious future - or be our final shibboleth.
    Time alone will tell, and that is also running out.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Who on this earth can ensure

    Who on this earth can ensure that nuclear energy is the answer? If Manmohan Singh thinks so, he is, as ever been, misdirected. Nuclear energy in India is just like an automatic razor in the hands of a monkey. We cannot handle any disaster of any scale. And disasters are certain to happen. Any nuclear disaster shall or may affect millions of people for hundreds of years. Whose liability will it be? Can Manmohan ensure safety? No, he cannot because he himself does not know ABC of nuclear options for energy. Jaitapur people MUST BE SUPPORTED in their endeavour to keep at bay the people who have NO concern for environment. Nuclear energy is not the answer to energy needs, see the outcome of Narmada dams which have not proved even 10% of what was promised. Why we see towards what is already existing in the world? Why cannot we devise ways to tap solar energy? Research in this field is certainly far more reasonable than directionless space and moon missions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • A lot of our answers lie in

    A lot of our answers lie in how we still understand Education and the objectives it is supposed to address. Do we still teach our children to want MORE , snatch More and learn only to earn MORE AND Waste More? A crisis can be handled with proper planning, responsibility and above all Sensitivity. Its about making Choices. Designing Realistic and pragmatic Means to alter unrealistic and chaotic ends. Its about Willingness to be Truly Responsible right till the End. It will take some Generations to truly realize the true , powerful potential of Education. Till then, what can I say just sit there and point fingers at others..or maybe just change one thing at a time - change that wasteful habit, switch off that light, turn off that tap.. Stay fit to survive when that last oil in the rig has run out..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I seldom comment, but i did

    I seldom comment, but i did some searching and wound up here Reply to comment | Down To
    Earth. And I actually do have a couple of questions for
    you if you do not mind. Is it just me or does it look like some of these remarks come across as if they are written by
    brain dead folks? :-P And, if you are writing on additional online sites,
    I'd like to keep up with anything fresh you have to post. Would you list of the complete urls of all your community sites like your Facebook page, twitter feed,
    or linkedin profile?

    my weblog; book

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply