Lessons from Japan: Diversify energy options

The nuclear mess in Japan has raised many questions. There were glaring technological errors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. A section of US nuclear experts believe it is time to think about diverse sources of energy before a fatal nuclear catastrophe hits. Michael Murray, an expert on dirty bombs and nuclear physics, talks to Alok Gupta about the change needed in policy, technology, research and compensation to countries like India and China.

By Alok Gupta
Published: Thursday 05 May 2011

Q. Is it time to stop building nuclear power plants and shift to thermal or other forms of energy?

Let’s be realistic. The world has limited sources from which electricity can be generated. Japan's fault was that it stored spent fuel. Electricity produced from thermal, natural gas and oil has its own cost. Coal is too polluting, natural gas contributes to global warming and fossil fuel is limited. Doing away with nuclear energy is not possible. We need to generate electricity from diverse sources but policy and technology needs to be upgraded.

Q. If diverse energy sources are a solution, then why is green energy ignored and nuclear power preferred across the globe?

We tend to look for easy solutions. There is a voltage fluctuation problem with solar and wind energy. Nuclear energy alone cannot be the solution. The main concern should not be to just meet the power demand but to take into account environmental safety as well.

Q. What is wrong with the policy?

Every source of mass power generation produces radiation, carbon dioxide and carbon. There should be a policy of tax on carbon dioxide emission. Carbon credit is second-rate policy. It’s time for the US, Brazil, India, China and European Union to sit together and prepare a taxation system on carbon dioxide emissions. Countries on the equator are sucking carbon dioxide and their capability is dangerously going down due to depleting forest cover. These countries should be the beneficiaries of carbon dioxide emission tax. Tropical countries would keep chopping down the trees if they are not paid for their services. It’s simple economics. At the same time technology needs a major revamp.

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Q. There are many technological breakthroughs in energy generation. Why are you sceptical about it?

It’s true there have been breakthroughs but the problem lies in its implementation and daring to leave traditional practices. Japan is a classical example of non-implementation of new technology. Its nuclear power plant was 40 years old and it ignored the new practices of spent fuel storage. Spent fuel is stored underground at a conducive geographic location. After tsunami they were dealing with two problems one was cooling down the reactors and second was controlling the spent fuel. It’s surprising why they were not following the practice of underground storage of spent fuel. They could have minimised damage to a large extent. Japan disaster is just a case among many technological issues.

Q. What are other technological challenges?

Major ones are traditional grid system and a better burning mechanism for coal. We need a grid system that can take in electricity from diverse sources like solar, thermal, nuclear, wind and gas. We can have mega power plants in deserts where human population is negligible. We can use solar and wind of the deserts. At the same time technology for generating power in urban parts, using solar and wind energy, can be enhanced. Our urban grid system around the world, be it New York or San Fransisco, is traditional. A grid is near the city and a power plant 100km away from grid. That’s how it has been for decades. We still do not have an oven that can completely burn the coal in thermal power stations. These are research areas that need to be upgraded and it needs good investment.

Q Your ideas need a much larger cooperation among rich and poor nation. Is it feasible?

Ideally there should be continental cooperation for producing energy. But we do not live in an ideal world that is why a justified policy is needed. Rich countries must pay poor countries. There needs to be a technological cooperation between developed and developing nations. This is why I stress on tax on carbon dioxide emission.

Q What are the other corrections and improvement that needs to be made after Japan nuclear disaster?

First, engineers need to develop a natural engineering mechanism to ensure reactors automatically shut down at the time of disaster or any such unprecedented event. It’s a simple engineering process that can be implemented. Second, immediately change the mindset of exploiting single source of energy to meet power demand. If this is not happening then we should be ready to embrace death. In that case how does it matter whether we die of radiation, carbon dust or pollution.

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