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Millennium Post

No more Fukushima and Chernobyls!

The disconnect between the reality of nuclear power and the Indian establishment’s perception of it is complete. Nuclear power has been in worldwide decline for more than a decade. The number of operating reactors peaked in 2002 at 444, and has fallen to under 380. Their electricity output peaked globally in 2004, and has since decreased annually by two per cent or more.

Nuclear energy’s contribution to global electrical generation has declined from a 16 per cent peak to barely 11 per cent. Its share in the world’s primary energy supply has fallen to a marginal four per cent, and of final energy consumption to a minuscule two per cent. By contrast, renewable sources account for 16 per cent of global primary energy supply. Their share is steadily growing.

Nuclear power technology is 60 years old and exhausted. It has seen no major, as distinct from marginal, improvement for decades. That’s partly because it has been in severe retreat for a quarter-century in its heartland – Western Europe, North America and Japan, which are home to two-thirds of the world’s nuclear fleet. Thus, the United States – which has the largest number of nuclear reactors (104) – has not installed a single new reactor since 1973, six years before Three Mile Island. In Western Europe, no reactor has been commissioned since Chernobyl (1986). And Japan now runs only two of the 54 reactors it operated before the Fukushima disaster.

Not only has nuclear power, with its exorbitant costs, failed the market test. It has globally lost over one trillion dollars in subsidies, abandoned projects, cash losses, damages, etc. No bank will finance nuclear projects, and no insurance company will cover them.

Nuclear power evokes fear and loathing everywhere because of its grave hazards to the public, including exposure to cancer-causing radiation, potential for catastrophic accidents, and the problem of storing highly radioactive wastes for thousands of years, to which science has found no solution.

These hazards are magnified everywhere by secrecy, overcentralisation and technocratic domination. Collusion between nuclear plant operators, regulatory agencies and governments ensures that the hazards turn into grave accidents which affect lakhs of people over pronged periods of time. That’s exactly what happened in Fukushima.    

Fukushima is likely to prove the last chapter in the global nuclear power story. It’s a safe bet that most of the 160-odd reactors which are 30 or 40 years old won’t be replaced with new ones when they are retired, and that the world’s nuclear fleet will shrink, if not soon become extinct.

Indian policymakers are totally blind to this. Driven by epochal irrationality, the domestic nuclear lobby, and relentless pressure from foreign reactor manufacturers and governments, they are pursuing their fantasy of a 12-fold expansion in India’s nuclear power capacity by 2032. They are oblivious of the Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) appalling record. The DAE, argues physicist-analyst M V Ramana, derives its power from two sources: the Bomb, and promise, not performance.

Indian policymakers also delude themselves that imported reactors will somehow help the DAE achieve what indigenous technology couldn’t. It has installed just 4,780 MW in nuclear capacity – less than 2.5 per cent of India’s total current power capacity. But they forget that the existing technology isn’t indigenous at all. All of it is imported from the US or Canada.

The official nuclear fantasy has since been extended to two Russian-supplied reactors being built at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, against which the local people have waged a resolute, two decades-long, peaceful struggle. This gathered great momentum after the still-continuing Fukushima meltdown began in March 2011. The government has viciously maligned and demonised the movement and unleashed savage repression on the protesters, including arbitrary arrests, FIRs against more than 2,00,000 people, and charges of sedition, waging war on the state, and attempt to murder against thousands. It betrayed the promise not to proceed with the project until the people’s safety concerns are fully allayed.

Meanwhile, evidence has piled up that the Koodankulam operator, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), violated numerous safety regulations in its rush to commission the project, and that it repeatedly missed some 20 officially announced commencement deadlines because of serious engineering problems, including supply of sub-standard equipment by Russian company ZiO-Podolsk whose CEO has been jailed for fraud.

Exasperated, a sympathetic environmental group moved a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking its intervention in implementing and strengthening safety norms and enforcing public accountability. The petition cited chapter and verse to show that Koodankulam lacks proper Environmental and Coastal Zone Regulation clearances, that NPCIL has breached norms stipulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), and has no plans for hazardous spent-fuel storage.

The Court pronounced its judgment on 6 May, giving the green light to the plant while declaring it safe – without examining the relevant issues. Worse, the verdict trivialises people’s legitimate safety concerns, declares nuclear energy indispensable for India’s progress, legitimises the malfunctioning nuclear establishment as infallible, and propounds a perverse notion of the public interest which runs against the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution.

The Koodankulam verdict will go down as an anti-people, anti-environment black mark in Indian jurisprudence comparable to the Narmada judgment. Its greatest failure lies in strenuously, dogmatically denying that nuclear power poses certain unique hazards. Even a conservative, but thoughtful, judgment would have acknowledged this and explored ways of minimising the hazards while boosting transparency and public confidence. This verdict totally fails to do that.

The verdict dismisses people’s legitimate safety apprehensions, heightened after Fukushima, as an ‘emotional reaction’.  IPA
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