What's the verdict?

Tags: Knowledge

Nuclear scores well as a reliable green energy and for countries like India and China, it cannot be ruled out. And yet the safety — or the lack of it — looms large

Of the many non-fossil and, thereby, non-carbon dioxide-emitting sources of energy, nuclear energy scores well as a green, reliable and concentrated one. No greenhouse gases at the smokestack and none of the vagaries associated with the wind, sun and rain (hydropower). But as with everything in life, there are ‘greys’ if not ‘blacks’ on white sheets as well. Even if economically and environmentally, nuclear gets the better of many other options, safety will always be a concern. Thus, the social dimension of the triple bottom line will trump the other two, as is being played out in Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. Passing phase? We do not know. And nuclear fusion is also, perhaps, decades away. If countries like India and China need to balance economy with environment, then nuclear energy clearly cannot be ruled out of the equation. Close to 2.6 billion people (and more to come) and a good percentage of these urbanites, cannot be sustained by wind, sun, hydropower, biomass, wave and tide alone. If big chunks of coal, oil and gas need to be taken out of the electricity mixes of the world and at the same time, there is antagonism towards nuclear energy, it becomes all the more tougher for decision-makers. Imagine what would happen if the Indians and Chinese, like the Germans and the Swedes, start saying a firm no to nuclear energy… in India, as it is a democracy, the government needs to listen to the people; and also be under great pressure to contribute to the mitigation of climate change. For China, well, it would be a different matter altogether, perhaps…

At present, 434 nuclear reactors are operating in 31 countries worldwide and together have a generating capacity of 374 GW (on date, about 2,500 TWh of electricity is generated in nuclear power plants around the world). These are, in alphabetical order — Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Brazil, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine, the UK and the USA. Of these, in a few years’ time, 38 reactors (all in Europe — Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland) with a capacity of 38 GW will be taken out of operation.

In other words, these five countries will not have nuclear energy as part of their electricity mix. But even as popular discontent and antagonism would phase out nuclear energy from these five countries of the western world, several in East Europe, West Asia and South and South East Asia would be investing in nuclear energy. And this would mean, that it would be more than just a matter of compensating for the 38 GW which would be going out. Belarus and the UAE are building three reactors between themselves (4 GW). Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey are planning to add 21 GW to the global generating capacity through 22 reactors in the near future. Chile, Israel. North Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Saudi Arabia have ambitious proposals — 29 reactors among themselves, adding 31 GW. Saudi Arabia, quite rightly, is attempting to wean away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

But the one which stands out of the pack — and continues to startle the world — is China. At present, it has 20 reactors operating (4.5 per cent of the total). Its ‘progress + plan + proposal’ count is a massive 205 GW from 204 reactors… Of course, over several years into the future. From 20 to 204; from 18 GW to 205 GW…now that is more than a giant leap forward! Does that mean that China will no longer be dependent on coal, oil and gas for its electricity generation? This, when the country has committed the greatest amount of funds to renewable energy? Unclear as of now… we just have to wait and watch.

Now, as said before, nothing can be blemishless. Faults and drawbacks are inherent in everyone, everything, everywhere and at all times. With nuclear energy, it is a matter of the risks associated with accidents. There have been several accidents till date, of varying degrees of severity. Most people in the world may remember one or more of the following three: Japan’s Fukushima (2011), Ukraine’s Chernobyl (part of the erstwhile USSR in 1986) and the USA’s Three Mile Island (1979). The first two were more damaging than the third. However, there were two more in the 1950s which caused as much if not greater damage as the 1979 one in the USA. Both occurred in 1957 — one in Russia and one in the UK.

At 2500 TWh per year, nuclear energy supplies between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the world’s electricity demand on date. In some countries, the share of nuclear energy is quite high. France for one stands out in this regard and the irony is that it borders four of the countries which wish to exclude nuclear energy from their mixes.

Nuclear energy is one of the many steps the world can take to combat climate change. But how should one weigh safety against mitigation of climate change? Aren’t both important? In fact, the former would appear to be more important than the latter to many of us, right? Smaller countries like Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden can combine efficiency with renewable energy and also infuse a little sufficiency (think of the Kuznets curve) to sustain the socio-economic development within their borders and keep their relative small populations happy. What about India and China? Surely, the sun, wind and rain are not more benevolent to these two countries than the others. They would be fickle and unreliable, generally. Nuclear energy ought to get its chance, must not it? And one can certainly hope that lessons learnt in 1957, 1979, 1986 and 2011 will stand engineers, operators and managers in very good stead. Of course, this is mandatory!

Things may seem a bit unclear about nuclear. Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure. The centre of gravity of nuclear energy will be shifting eastward for now… till such a time as nuclear fusion comes into the fray. And well, nuclear fusion’s history may not mirror that of solar photovoltaics, for that matter.

(The writer is senior lecturer at the faculty of health,

science and technology of Karlstad University in Sweden)


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