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Nuclear energy odds in South Asia

Copyright: TAPS India/IAEA

Speed read

  • South Asian countries should base their nuclear energy decisions on evidence

  • Opacity marks the policies of both government and corporations in the nuclear business

  • Globally the trend has been to move away from nuclear energy for costs and safety

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After moderating a SciDev.Net debate on nuclear energy in South Asia, Nalaka Gunawardene says the subject generates more heat than light. 

Openness and evidence-based discussions are essential for South Asian countries to decide whether and how nuclear power should figure in their energy mix.

India and Pakistan already have functional nuclear power plants, which generate around four per cent of electricity in each country. Both have ambitious expansion plans. [1] Bangladesh is building two Russian-supplied nuclear power reactors — the first is expected to be operational by 2020. [2] Meanwhile, Sri Lanka and Nepal are also looking at the option, for more long-term development.

This policy trend has been hugely contentious, and made worse by the high opacity of governments and companies involved. There is a need for more clarity, transparency and public debate on such a vital issue with many economic, health and environmental implications.

Safety of nuclear energy dominate the agenda even four years after the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011. Recently, SciDev.Net South Asia invited an expert panel to participate in an online debate on critical nuclear issues. As its moderator, I saw how polarised the positions are.

Need for more energy

The bottom line is that all South Asian countries must find ways to generate more electricity to bridge existing deficits and to extend the coverage of this basic amenity. There is evidence to suggest that increasing electricity consumption per capita can enhance social development and economic growth.

The World Bank says South Asia still has around 500 million people living without electricity. [3] Many more who are connected to the national grids have a partial and uneven supply due to frequent power outages or scheduled power cuts known as ‘load-shedding’.

Governments are increasingly under pressure to ensure a reliable electricity supply to all people. In a landmark ruling in October 2013, the Madras High Court called electricity supply a legal right and its denial a violation of human rights.

Against this backdrop, can South Asian countries produce sufficient electricity, and fast enough, to meet rising demands and aspirations? What is the optimum mix of power generation options -- and should nuclear be considered alongside hydro, thermal, solar and other sources? And how can we generate more power cheaply, with minimal climate impact and without risking public safety?

Finding answers to these complex questions is not easy. Getting the balance right is harder still.

Nuclear cost benefits

After more than half a century, the global nuclear power industry’s fortunes keep fluctuating. A 2003 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the future of nuclear power traced the “limited prospects for nuclear power” to “four unresolved problems”, i.e. costs, safety, waste and proliferation.

A dozen years on, the nuclear industry is in slow decline in most parts of the world says M. V. Ramana, a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

“In 1996, nuclear power contributed about 17.6 per cent to the world's electricity. In 2013, it has been reduced to a little over 10 per cent. A large factor in this decline has been the fact that it was able to compete economically with other sources of power generation.”

The World Nuclear Association, an industry group, says there are some 435 commercial nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries. Another 70 are under construction. [6]

Beyond capital and recurrent cost considerations, issues of public safety and operator liability dominate. These concerns are aggravated by the culture of secrecy and opacity seen in both India and Pakistan.

Take, for example, Pakistan’s decision to install two Chinese-supplied 1,100 megawatt reactors near Karachi, a chaotic megacity of over 20 million people. When challenged in court by concerned citizens, the authorities pleaded “national security was at stake” and therefore, the public could not be engaged in the siting decision.

Nuclear Opacity

Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, an analyst on science and security, finds this unacceptable. “The (Pakistani) nuclear power programme is opaque since it was earlier connected to the weapons programme. Under secrecy, citizens have much essential information hidden from them both in terms of safety and costs.”

The Indian nuclear establishment is no less evasive. The country’s Official Secrets Act 1923 covers nuclear energy programme which cannot be questioned by the public or media. Even senior parliamentarians struggle to obtain specific information.

“The claim about national security is a way to close off democratic debate rather than a serious expression of some concern. It should be the responsibility of authorities to explain exactly in what way national security is affected,” says Princeton’s Ramana who has written extensively about opacity of India’s nuclear programmes. [7]

“Secrecy is not a black and white quantity. It is always partial. It has never been the case that there is no information that comes out of the nuclear establishment. But it has always been the case that on several matters there is no information available to the public.”

Hoodbhoy, meanwhile, worries about various factors that can go wrong with Karachi’s new nuclear power plants. These include reactor design problems, terrorist attacks and the poor safety culture in South Asia that can lead to operator error. He advocates a non-nuclear future for the region which can be realised by advances in solar and wind technologies as well as improved storage (batteries). [8]

Balancing Acts

R. Rajaraman, emeritus professor of physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, agrees on the need for greater transparency and accountability in the sector – but wants India to retain the nuclear option. “We do need energy in India from every possible source. Nuclear energy, from all that I know, is one good source. Safety considerations are vital — but not enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

In a recent SciDev.Net opinion, Rajaraman said nuclear energy’s dangers need to be compared with the hazards faced by those without electricity — a development dilemma. He also urged for debate between those who promote and oppose nuclear energy, currently lacking in India. Such debates should address radiation, safety, environmental hazards, the closed fuel cycle and fast-breeder reactors, as well as legal and regulatory issues. [9]

S. Rajagopal, an engineer and former secretary to India’s Atomic Energy Commission, argues that many public concerns are already being addressed, and says “no government can afford to be insensitive to the public good.”

In the 120 minutes of the debate, we only touched on other aspects such as nuclear waste storage, liability in the event of accidents, and potential climate benefits of nuclear energy.

If physics and engineering race ahead without social sciences, it can intensify public apprehensions on nuclear energy. There is much to be done — including making governments and companies more open, regulators more independent and everyone in civil society, media and public spheres better informed.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.


References

[1] Critical nuclear issues in South Asia. By Nalaka Gunawardene. SciDev.Net, 28 February 2015.
 
[2] Nuclear power in Bangladesh. World Nuclear Association website. Updated 21 November 2014.
 
[3] The World Bank annual report 2014, South Asia section.
 
[4] Electricity supply is a legal right, Madras high court says. Times of India, 10 October 2013.
 
[5] The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study. MIT, Boston. 2003.
 
[6] Nuclear power in the world today. World Nuclear Association website, accessed on 26 April 2015.
 
[7] India’s Nuclear Enclave and Practice of Secrecy. By M V Ramana. Chapter in ‘South Asian Cultures of the Bomb’ (Itty Abraham, ed., Indiana University Press, 2009).
 
[8] Why South Asia needs a non-nuclear future. By Pervez Hoodbhoy. SciDev.Net, 18 April 2015
 
[9] India needs the nuclear energy option. By R Rajaraman. SciDev.Net 21 April 2015.
 
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