Current stress on nuclear energy rests on myth

By J Rama Rao
Published: Thursday 15 February 2007

Current stress on nuclear energy rests on myth

-- AT a meeting at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project site in Tamil Nadu, President A P J Abdul Kalam held up nuclear energy as a key agency for achieving energy security. According to The Hindu of September 23, 2006, the president set a target of 50,000 mw nuclear power by 2030, by which time the country's power generating capacity should increase to 4 lakh mw from the existing 1.3 lakh mw. For the president, these targets are essential to achieve "energy independence".

Many other national leaders and policy-makers also believe that nuclear energy holds the key to India's energy security. For example, Anil Kakodkar, the chairperson of India's Atomic Energy Commission, recently noted that "an increase in the share of nuclear energy in the country's energy mix, beyond what is possible based on the domestic programme, is desirable to minimise stress on global fuel resources".Speaking at the third International Seminar and Exhibition on Exploration Geophysics at Hyderabad on November 8, 2006, Kakodkar is reported to have said that there is a strong correlation between per capita gdp and per capita electricity consumption. He emphasised that for robust economic growth, the country requires a ten-fold growth in electricity generation capacity over the next 50 years. Nuclear power fits this bill.

Our educationists seem to have taken a cue from the policy-makers. Consider what Foundation Science, Physics, a textbook for standard 10, authored by H C Verma and published by Bharathi Bhavan, notes. "Unlike fuels like coal, nuclear fuels such as uranium and thorium are required in very small quantities to generate electricity in power plants. The reserves of nuclear fuels, although limited, will last for long, long time. They are therefore also classified as renewable sources of energy," page 142 of the book says.

And what about the risks associated with nuclear energy. The "Integrated Energy Policy Report" submitted in August 2006 by the Expert Committee of the Planning Commission, does note that nuclear energy is risky. But it then hastens to add, "Despite these risks, global data suggests that of all the conventional options, nuclear energy has posed the least risks in terms of mortality per billion mw hours of generation."
What about efficiency? Down to Earth The emphasis on nuclear energy is suicidal. Nuclear energy--contrary to what the school textbook says--is not a renewable resource. If the current level of nuclear energy production is maintained, it is estimated that all accessible uranium would be dug up in next 50 years. Pray how then can nuclear energy provide us energy security?

The current emphasis on energy-driven economic development also pays short shrift to energy efficiency. The proponents of this view often contend that per capita energy consumption in India, is just 3.5 per cent of per capita energy consumption of the us, 6.8 per cent of Japan, 37 per cent of Asia, and 18.7 per cent of the world average. There's no faulting these figures. But the votaries of increasing energy use conveniently forget that the country's energy intensity--energy consumption per unit of gdp-- exceeds that of Japan, the us, and Asia by 3.7, 1.55 and 1.47 times respectively. This indicates inefficient energy use.

An umpteen number of studies have shown that nuclear energy is a very energy-intensive way of producing electricity. The complex cycle of nuclear energy production (uranium ore mining, transportation, processing, enrichment, production, reprocessing and decommissioning, waste storage) requires a lot of energy.Studies have shown that each dollar invested in using energy more efficiently by the consumers reduces nearly six times more co2, than a dollar invested in nuclear power.

Fiscal prudence
Nuclear energy does not stand a chance in a market economy without state subsidies. It is a high-risk technology in terms of safety and also with respect to financial investments.

Matters in India get compounded because the quality of uranium found here is low. Hardly a tonne of useable uranium can be obtained from 3,000 tonnes of ore processed every day. It's well-known that these processes leave an enormous amount of radioactive wastes. Who is accountable for safeguarding them for hundreds of thousands of years?

We can save about a quarter of the energy we use through energy efficiency measures and technologies. These in combination of renewable sources of energy are much cheaper and definitely much safer than building new nuclear power plants.

J Rama Rao works on creating awareness for sustainable development

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