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The suffering of the people of Japan must not be in vain

March 31, 2011 18:47 IST
'We need nuclear neutrality to develop a vision of our nuclear future, argues T P Sreenivasan.

The well known strategic analyst, P R Chari, revealed at a seminar this week his experience of studying comparative merits of different forms of energy. He asked eminent people in different energy sectors to write about coal, hydro, petroleum, nuclear, sun, wind and waves and analyse the suitability of each of these for India's requirements.

To his surprise, each of them not only established that his area of specialisation was the most suitable, but also decried the others as polluting, uneconomical, dangerous or undeveloped. None of them was neutral enough to look at the options to come up with a choice.

There can be no better illustration of the nation's dilemma, which has led to the decision in favour of an energy mix, with varying degrees of emphasis at different times.

The energy sector, which has attracted the most passions either for or against is nuclear power and there are only pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear lobbies, no nuclear neutral groups, which can analyse the pros and cons dispassionately.

Any question raised about the options being created for our future generations, particularly in the context of the Fukushima reactor, ignites strong defence on one side and calls for shutting down reactors which have fuelled energy in India without major mishaps, on the other. Any question raised is seen as blasphemy and desertion.

We need nuclear neutrality to develop a vision of our nuclear future.

In the three weeks since a powerful earthquake and tsunami destroyed safety calculations and deep defences in Fukushima, there have been 'knee-jerk reactions' on both sides of the divide the world over and India is no exception.

Peaceniks want to turn nuclear reactors into solar panels and the nuclear scientists swear by their favourite deities that every reactor is safe. Just as accidents in Chernobyl and at Three Mile Island were explained away as resulting from human error, accounts have already started appearing of errors and oversights in Japanese safety preparedness and the inability of IAEA to organise reviews in a proper fashion.

If that mighty tsunami had not happened, none of these irrational fears would have surfaced, some say. Since many thousands have perished in the tsunami itself, some more deaths from radiation should not be the reason for looking at the desirability of continued use of nuclear power.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just noted the worldwide concerns about the safety of nuclear energy as a source of power and stressed that it was 'vitally important' to address the concerns. 'I would like to see accountability and transparency in the functioning of our nuclear power plants', he said. For obvious reasons, he rejected demands for doing away with nuclear power as an energy option, because, in the short term, India cannot but depend on nuclear power.

But addressing universal concerns should include the choice made by Germany, Switzerland and the opposition in Taiwan to seek a structured and organised exit from nuclear power as and when alternate sources of energy are developed adequately. If that option is not explored from now in a spirit of neutrality and enquiry, another serious accident, if it occurs, will force our hands to shut down reactors on an emergency basis.

Elimination of nuclear weapons is fast becoming a global commitment, though no Nuclear Weapon State is willing to disavow nuclear weapons as irrelevant to their defence doctrines. Needless to say, nuclear weapons are destructive, but nuclear power is constructive in intent. But if the consequences of Hiroshima and Fukushima turn out to be equally devastating, should we not begin planning for a gradual and eventual elimination of our dependence on nuclear power and make the necessary investments from now on?

Energy security and public safety should be of equal importance in determining our future policy on nuclear power. According to one expert, C M A Nayar, the accident at Fukushima could have happened very shortly even if there was no tsunami. Apparently, the Nuclear Safety Authority of Japan and TEPCO were aware about this aspect even before the accident. It was known since long that the design of the reactor had some basic flaws. The Fukushima plant should have been decommissioned and closed in 2003 after the expiry of the original design life of thirty years.

According to some reports, a decision was taken to shut down some of the Fukushima reactors in February 2011, a few days before the accident occurred. The closing was postponed for ten more years subsequently.

The most charitable explanation for this is that the operators did not want to disrupt the power supply and decided to cut corners. The motive might also be profitability at the expense of safety.

We too have aged reactors, which should have been closed. We cannot depend on good fortune alone to provide electricity. Moreover, the nature and extent of earthquakes and tsunamis cannot be predicted anymore with accuracy, given the accentuating vagaries of climate.

The review that India has promised to undertake should be without preconditions, not even the inevitability of nuclear power. It will have no credibility if the review begins with the assumption that India should be tied down to nuclear power for all time to come.

In calculating the costs of sources of power, consideration should be given to building a foolproof system for fighting accidents, decommissioning antiquated reactors and disposal of waste.

The present tendency of scientists in different areas to promote their own favourite sources of power must give way to an objective analysis of their merits and demerits. Preconceived notions and dogmas should have no place in this review. We should also not presume that there will be no breakthrough in renewable sources of energy in the near future.

Every cloud has its silver lining. The Three Mile Island taught the United States to do without any new nuclear reactors till recently. Chernobyl gave birth to the World Association of Nuclear Operators to 'maximise the safety and reliability of nuclear power plants worldwide by working together to assess, benchmark and improve performance through mutual support, exchange of information and emulation of best practices.'

If Fukushima injects a sense of nuclear neutrality into the thinking of our policy makers and it leads to a full appraisal of our options for the future, the suffering of the people of Japan will not be in vain.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here.

T P Sreenivasan