Let's not chase the atom

Nuclear power is expensive and unsafe, nuclear weapons are barbarous. We don't need them

By M V Ramana
Published: Friday 31 March 2006

Let's not chase the atom

-- The Indo- us nuclear deal raises two critical questions. Do we need a large-scale expansion of nuclear power? Do we need to expand our arsenal of weapons of mass destruction? The answer to both is no.

Any evaluation of the potential role of nuclear power should begin with the history of failure of the department of atomic energy (dae). It had predicted that by 2000 there would be 43,500 megawatts (mw) of nuclear power. Instead, we have just 3,310 mw today less than 3 per cent of total electricity generation. Nuclear power is unlikely to become significant anytime soon.

The limited nuclear capacity has been expensive. By their very nature, nuclear reactors cost a lot to build and operate. The dae has compounded this by time and cost overruns. Even if one were to assume the dae's optimistic projections for future reactors, nuclear electricity will be more expensive than comparable base load coal plants; nuclear reactors in operation fare even worse. Moreover, these comparisons don't include the hard-to-quantify economic costs of dealing with wastes, nuclear reactors produce; these stay radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Leaving behind such a horrific legacy is unethical: future generations will face the consequences while we use the electricity. Already, the nuclear fuel cycle has wrought extensive health and environmental damage, especially on the marginalised. Nuclear reactor accidents -- which can't be ruled out -- can cause even more damage.

Breeder reactors The fast breeder programme that features prominently in the recent debate is worse on historical, safety and eco-nomic yardsticks. Despite decades of effort, the dae has only managed to build a pilot scale breeder reactor, the Fast Breeder Test Reactor, which has been plagued with problems and accidents for much of its operating life. dae's first industrial scale fast breeder reactor (fbr) is not expected till 2010, if all goes as planned.

fbrs are fueled by plutonium or uranium-233 (derived from thorium), extracted by chemically treating highly radioactive spent fuel at reprocessing plants. Reprocessing is expensive, prone to accidents, and produces large amounts of radioactive wastes. Breeder reactors are likely to be more expensive than the reactors so far built by the dae due to greater safety requirements both at the reactor and at associated fuel fabrication plants (because plutonium and uranium-233 are much more radioactive than uranium-235). So, they will be capital-intensive, be fuelled at greater expense and have higher maintenance costs, making electricity from these reactors very costly.

Country after country has abandoned the construction, and in most cases, even research on breeder reactors. Their concerns -- cost and safety -- are just as applicable to India, perhaps even more so. The real choice therefore is not whether or not to put this programme under safeguards but whether to continue with it at all.

Many have argued that it was this poor performance by the dae that led it to designing, manufacturing and testing nuclear weapons. Once the dae realised the political power this endeavour brought, not to mention large budget increases, it has sought to maintain and increase that capacity. One important reason for the dae to avoid opening the "civilian" breeder programme to outsiders is that breeders are efficient producers of weapons useable plutonium.

As with most nuclear matters, there is enormous secrecy about how much plutonium the dae has already produced. Most estimates suggest that there is enough to make 60-100 nuclear weapons. Each of these can kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Should we really increase the capacity to commit such mass murder?

Even without being used in this manner, nuclear weapons have taken a toll on our security, economy, environment, public and occupational health, and more broadly on the nature of science, technology, politics and culture. (See the essays in Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream, Orient Longman 2003)). Rather than scaling down or eliminating these gruesome weapons, the Indo- us deal will increase the capacity to make more of these.

The false promises of security from nuclear weapons and cheap power from nuclear reactors should be soundly rejected. Only then, can we even try to build a peaceful and environmentally sustainable future.

M V Ramana is with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore and co-editor, Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Orient Longman, 2003)

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