Balancing benefits with detriments
The Supreme Court’s signal to go ahead with the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu brings to an end a contentious dispute over the use of nuclear power in India. There has been a large amount of concern, and protests, over safety issues with reference to this plant. Matters have not been helped by the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan that took place in March 2011, which has deepened the apprehensions in the public mind about the safety of nuclear power as have the earlier accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Fears have been expressed that given the larger population in India, the effects of a nuclear accident would be far more substantial and more difficult to contain than elsewhere. However, the Supreme Court has been concerned with balancing the ‘economic and scientific benefits’ with the ‘minor radiological detriments’. In other words, it has felt that the benefits from this nuclear power plant far outweigh risks and the potential for trouble. It has taken into consideration the aspect that nuclear energy can become an important element in India’s energy mix, capable of replacing a significant part fossil fuels like coal gas and oil, with nuclear power cheaper in the long run than the other forms of energy. It has noted that India, with it mammoth population, needs to rapidly increase its supply of energy in order to sustain economic growth, which nuclear power enables it to. In opining thus, the Supreme Court has brought relief to the government which has invested hundreds of crores of rupees, and its order will, no doubt, facilitate the development of Tamil Nadu, starved of power.
The Supreme Court has, however, not neglected the safety aspects, making it plain that the plant should not be made operational unless it receives the final clearances with reference to the safety of its systems, insisting that its safety features should be subject to regular reviews. The future of nuclear energy in India may well depend on how well those who regulate and manage such plant conduct and comply with these safety audits. The public is far more aware now than ever of the hazards of nuclear energy and must be satisfied. There are several areas of concern, such as the long-term disposal of radioactive wastes and the effects of routine radioactive and thermal emissions besides the probability of large-scale accidents. These have to be taken care of at the highest levels of safety to assuage public concern and to make nuclear energy viable.