The fallout of Fukushima

The fallout of Fukushima

By Roopen Roy Mar 22 2011

Tags: Op-ed

The recent earthquake and Tsunami in Japan have wre­aked havoc. More than 19,000 people have died or are reported missing. The financial losses are estimated to be as high as $175 billion. The earthquake, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, unleashed nig­htmares at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant (with its 40 year-old-reactors), whi­ch went beyond any scenarios planned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government in Japan. The Fuk­ushima situation is certainly worse than the Three Mile Island fiasco in the US in 1979. But it is not nearly as bad as the devastating accident in Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 in which thousands of people perished and radioactive clo­uds went all over Europe.

Quite understandably, there is now a huge fear about the safety of nuclear power plants and a public outcry against nuclear power as a source of energy. Some of these protests are spontaneous. Others are orchestrated by political groups such as the Greens.

The reality is sobering. Some countries have a heavy dependence on nuclear power. Topping the list is France with 75 per cent of its electricity supplied by nuclear power plants, followed by Ukraine 49 per cent, South Korea 35 per cent, Japan 29 per cent, Germany 26 per cent, the US 20 per cent and the UK and Russia both having 18 per cent each. In terms of production of electricity from nuclear sources, the largest producer is the US with 800 terawatt hours, followed by France, which produces about half that number, and Japan a third of the number.

In Germany, the issue is a hot political potato. Chancellor Angela Merkel has suspended an agreement to delay the closing of the nation’s old nuclear power plants. Since her party has an election to fight in Baden-Wurttemberg this month, she has ordered the shutting down of the power plants for three months.

India is witnessing a similar emotional reaction. Some opposition parties and environmentalists are calling for the scrapping of the Jaitapur project to begin with. Our prime minister Manmohan Singh has said, “The tragic nuclear incidents in Japan in the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami should make us revisit our strategies for nuclear safety. I have ordered a thorough review by the department of atomic energy."

India has 20 nuclear power reactors, with a total capacity of 4,780 megawatts, which are operated by the state-run Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. India aims to expand its nuclear power generating capacity to 63,000 megawatts by 2032. If we are to achieve this target, private sector participation would be almost inevitable.

China has an even more ambitious plan. According to the China Daily (May 17, 2011), it is building 12 nuclear plants in addition to the six already in operation.

The China Daily report says, “Production capacity is scheduled to be expanded to 86 gigawatts in 2020 from the present 10.8 gigawatts.” The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the country’s largest nuclear power operator, said it is examining all existing plants, as well as th­ose under construction and a government team will re-examine safety standards.

Higher safety standards are not negotiable. We ought to learn from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. But rejecting nuclear power as a source of energy would be, in my view, disastrous for India. A total rejection of nuclear power flies in the face of even the Green argument.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has carried out a study on the future of nuclear power. It predicts that globally, by 2050, we will need to produce 1,000 gigawatts of electricity from nuclear sou­rces, accounting for 20 per cent of the world consumption. Nuclear power is one source of energy we have to get for electricity production with a smaller carbon footprint. In this debate, no one is arguing against the highest safety standards. Before we argue about taking nuclear power off the table in a country like India, where our development and growth are linked to our ability to produce power safely and cheaply, we should consider the following:

n There is vast difference between Japan and India in its seismic history and situation. The earthquake-zoning map of India divides India into four seismic zones (zone 2, 3, 4 and 5) - zone 5 being the most quake-prone. In Japan, all 54 of their nuclear reactors are located in zones 4 and 5 and the archipelago’s unfortunate history of earthquakes and tsunamis is well known. By contrast, the only reactor of India, which is in zone 4, is the one in Narora. The rest are all in zones 2 or 3.

nOur new plants should be built using modern and safer technology.

nSince we are a large country, we should locate our new nuclear plants in regions with stable seismic characteristics.

While the highest safety sta­ndards is an absolute requirement, paranoia and knee-jerk reactions will do us more harm than good. The most balanced view comes from the chief of International Energy Agency No­buo Tanaka who is Japanese himself, “While I understand the public’s fear, I am concerned given the important role of nuclear power. I encourage patience until more information is gathered for a full review, so we can learn lessons. The cost of fighting global warming will increase, that is sure. I think it is difficult to fight global warming, even impossible, without using nuclear power.”

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These

are his personal views)