Nuclear renaissance a myth

The recent past provides a glimpse of the dangerous nature of confrontations governments are getting into vis-à-vis their citizenry, thanks to their obsessive pursuit of predatory development projects. Take Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, where the disaster called Enron was located. The government is preparing to impose another Enron on Ratnagiri—this time, a nuclear one, with potentially far worse consequences. This is a “nuclear park”, comprising six 1,600 mw reactors to be made by France-based Areva.

So boundless is the government’s zeal in pushing the park that it has proceeded to acquire land for it even before a full agreement has been signed, or a detailed project report prepared. It invoked the emergency provisions of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 to forcibly take over land even though the site has no environmental clearance. The clearance has been taken as a given by the department of atomic energy whose personnel are surveying and demarcating the site. This makes nonsense of the environmental approval process.

The land acquisition effort has met with stiff, determined resistance from the people — mostly growers of the delicious alphonso mango and small farmers. Most have refused cheques given “in compensation” for land. The price offered is not the issue, but there is serious concern about safety. People know that nuclear fission is fraught with routine, low-level but harmful radioactive releases, wastes which remain hazardous for centuries, and the possibility of catastrophic accidents such as Chernobyl (1986). With supreme arrogance, the DAE declares such concerns hyperbolic and unwarranted.

Nothing can better explain the government’s zeal in thrusting the project down a sceptical public’s throat than its belief that nuclear power, moribund for decades in the developed world, is undergoing some kind of renaissance and emerging as the technology of the future — despite unresolved problems of waste storage, other safety issues, long gestation periods and high costs.

Renaissance is a myth. Globally, nuclear power is shrinking, not growing. Annual generation peaked in 2006 and is falling by 2 per cent at present. From a peak of 444, the number of “operating” reactors worldwide has fallen to 438 (17 of these produced no power in 2008). Nuclear power contributes just 12 per cent to global electricity generation, 5 per cent to primary energy production, and 2 per cent to final energy consumption. The number of reactors shutting down far exceeds the number of start-ups or planned reactors. Nuclear power generation is not widely distributed. Only six countries account for two-thirds of the world’s reactors.

The average age of reactors worldwide is 25 years. In a decade, about two-thirds of these will have retired —if past trends prevail. The average age of the 123 reactors shut down till August 2009 was 22 years. Around 1980-85, there were about 250 reactors under construction worldwide. Now there are just 50 or so. Major nuclear-power nations have wound down their programmes or failed to revive them despite generous loan guarantees. In the US, no new reactor has been ordered since 1972 — even before Three-Mile Island (1979).

Western Europe has seen no new reactor completed since Chernobyl. Only one is under construction, based on transparent market principles, Olkiluoto in Finland, of Areva’s so-called Generation III-Plus design. This has run into serious problems. Finnish, French and British nuclear regulatory agencies have raised major questions about its safety. It is unlikely to produce power before 2014 —15 years after the environmental impact assessment. Failure or abandonment of Olkiluoto could well sound the death knell of the nuclear industry in the developed countries.

Three other aspects of the nuclear industry are important. It has a negative “learning-curve”: today’s lead-times are longer than 20 years ago; and US per megawatt capital costs are well over $10,000 compared with $2,000 in the 1970s and $4,000 in the 1980s. France, which draws 78 per cent of electricity from nuclear fission, shows the same trend. Second, there is a shortage of skilled manpower in the west, which will impede future expansion. Third, there are very few specialised equipment manufacturers in the world — just one forge in Japan that can make Areva’s reactors.

Much of the new planned nuclear addition is in countries like China and India, which have a poor record of achieving targets — eg 11 or 27 per cent. Going by 1980 projections, India should have had installed 43,000 mw by 2005 and over 50,000 mw by now. Its actual capacity is 4,120 mw.

Finally, what of the industry’s claim that it can contribute to reducing greenhouse emissions because nuclear fission doesn’t produce them? Calculations show that the same capital invested in nuclear power will contribute 3 to 20 times less to reducing emissions compared to other sources, at 20 to 30 times slower rates. A dollar invested in renewables will go seven times longer in cutting emissions than nuclear power. Nuclear power has industrially failed, is unacceptably unsafe, and extremely costly. India must give up the nuclear illusion.

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