No one can deny that nuclear energy carries radiation hazards. The question is the extent of these hazards, when compared to other risks we take in the modern, industrial world. The radiation hazards of a normally functioning reactor are limited. However, the consequences of a reactor explosion are serious, as Fukushima has shown. Still, the hazards need to be quantified in a statistically reliable manner, and not left to anecdotal evidence.
The divide between those who oppose nuclear energy and those who support it seems unbridgeable. The estimates offered by the two sides — on likely long term, low-dosage cancers resulting from Fukushima and Chernobyl — differ widely. Consensus on such a complicated issue has to be arrived at though debate and dialogue. In India, dialogue between the two groups which could lead to common understanding is missing. Each side basically preaches to its own choir.
Three years ago at a symposium organised by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) apex scientists from the nuclear establishment as well as scientists with serious misgivings heard each other out without acrimony, though neither side appeared to convince the other. The symposium’s proceedings have since been published as a book and it offers a starting point to learn about radiation, safety, environmental hazards, the closed fuel cycle and fast breeder reactors, as well as legal and regulatory issues.
While there is some danger associated with nuclear energy, there are other hazards associated with lack of electricity. In India over 30 per cent of rural households and a hundred thousand villages do not have electricity. Unlit roads are unsafe for women, unlit homes and kerosene lamps are bad for children’s eyesight, lungs. Education suffers as also rural hospitals plagued by constant power breakdowns. Has anyone quantified the damage due to these?
The cost factor
The cost of building new reactors is steadily going up. Even in the United States utility companies are unwilling to invest in more nuclear power. In India too, costs are a dampener to nuclear energy. Current estimates offered by Areva, the French nuclear supplier, for its evolutionary power reactors (EPR) at Jaitapur on the west coast of India. runs to over 9 Indian rupees (14 US cents) per unit of electricity. India’s Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is negotiating with Areva to bring this down to about 9 cents per unit, which is already much higher than the six cents cost that the government promised in the heady days of the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is not clear that Areva can successfully deliver power at much lower than 14 cents, given their poor recent history of building similar EPR reactors in Finland and France. Perhaps with greater Indian manufactured reactor components the costs may come down, as is happening with China’s Areva reactors. India’s deal with Russia is supposed to deliver power at 9 US cents per unit, but that is an agreement between two not very transparent government nuclear agencies. One has to look at the fine print to assess hidden subsidies.
Meanwhile the cost of solar power is steadily coming down. With larger storage batteries, wind energy may also become more efficient. If these trends continue, certainly a time may come for diverting more funds and attention away from nuclear to the safer solar and wind sources. Meanwhile, nuclear energy, with its low carbon footprint and proven record of steady reliable input to the grid cannot be given up as one component of India’s energy mix.
R. Rajaraman is emeritus professor of physics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. An expert in nuclear disarmament and civilian nuclear energy technology, he co-chairs the International Panel on Fissile Materials.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.