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'Focus on ramming through nuclear power is misplaced'

Last updated on: March 27, 2012 08:24 IST

'Focus on ramming through nuclear power is misplaced'

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Devangshu Datta

Instead of trying to bulldoze through the stalled project, the establishment's energies could be more efficiently deployed in targeting other sectoral problems, says Devangshu Datta

The Koodankulam row encapsulates the tragicomedy of Indian governance. On one side, there's the establishment determined to push through a nuclear agenda. On the other, there's a bunch of activists determined to oppose it. To a dispassionate observer, it's a huge misdirection of energy.

The nuclear power industry accounts for two to three per cent of India's electricity generation with about 4,800 MW in installed capacity. Even if opposition magically evaporates and the 2,000 MW Koodankulam project goes ahead, it will not make a material difference to power shortages, for the next three years.

Instead of trying to bulldoze through the stalled project, the establishment's energies could be more efficiently deployed in targeting other sectoral problems. There are many lower-hanging fruit visible.

For example, national transmission and distribution losses are close to 30 per cent. China has a gross eight per cent T&D loss; the European Union averages around seven per cent. If India cut T&D losses to, say, 10-15 per cent, it would be the equivalent of instantly adding five or six times nuclear capacity, while incurring zero environmental costs and risks. There would be no protests about implementing improved T&D practices.

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Image: Protest against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project
Photographs: Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

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'Other political sensitive issues less explosive than nuclear power'

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Many other issues can also be tackled with a little common sense and some managerial skill. For example, Coal India's lackadaisical performance results in significant fuel shortages and lower plant load factors. State power companies' losses lead to unpaid bills for fuel suppliers and central utilities. The national grid is incomplete. Open access norms have been legislated but not adopted.

The above issues are long-standing. They have never been dealt with adequately. They mostly involve government-run organisations. There would be no protests if they were faced head-on. The pay-offs, for the sector and downstream for the entire economy, would be huge.

Also, there are more politically sensitive issues at hand in the country's conventional sector. But even these are less explosive than nuclear and they offer larger pay-offs for viable solutions. Captive coal blocks are allocated non-transparently, thus leading to scandals. Environmental clearances for projects are delayed and arbitrary. Captive blocks are awarded (never mind how), and then the environmental boffins point out that these blocks are in no-go areas. Would it hurt for "Power" to talk to "Coal" and "Environment" and work out transparent formulae for block awards, with clear timelines for clearances?

The focus on ramming through nuclear power is, therefore, misplaced. Long-term nuclear plans project a ramp-up to 45,000 Mw by 2020 (around nine per cent of 2020 capacity) and to 63,000 Mw by 2032. It's unlikely that those deadlines will be met, given the vehemence of protests at Jaitapur and Koodankulam.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Wikipedia Commons

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'Fukushima put the nuclear industry on the back foot'

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Nuclear power has been centre stage since 2008, when the Indo-US rapprochement occurred during the first term of the United Progressive Alliance. It was the last time India's prime minister displayed a spine. In theory, that cleared the way for the import of technology and fuel supply.

However, Fukushima put the nuclear industry on the back foot. It triggered a wave of NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) protests by locals at proposed plant locations. Nuclear plants have to be near water sources and that makes them vulnerable to cyclones, tidal waves, floods, etc. It's a moot point if Indian plants will be designed, operated and maintained with such high standards as to allay fears of disaster. Even more troubling, the methods of disposal of spent fuel don't inspire confidence.

Everyone who is anyone, from A P J Abdul Kalam to Jairam Ramesh, concurs that India will have to develop a nuclear power industry in the long run. However, it would be far more efficient in terms of both time and pay-off to do simpler, less politically explosive things first, and thus put the conventional power industry on a more stable footing. But then, instead of beating up activists in Koodankulam, the establishment would need to take a long hard look in the mirror and get its own act together.


Image: A fire truck sprays water at No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant
Photographs: Reuters

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