Nuclear Power for India at the cost of Environment?

A few days back, I and my students had a chance to interact with a Nuclear Physicist. The pertinent question that all of us had on our minds and came out in our discussions was Would Nuclear Power mean a boon or a curse for India?

Nuclear Power is amazing! In a nutshell, it takes just a little radioactive substance to be 'processed' in a Nuclear Power reactor and the whole substance with its looooong half life, takes its own sweet time to divide itself into smaller and smaller particles, producing large amounts of heat and thereby power for India. Sounds simple, isn't it? However its not so!

The underlying political, administrative and technical processes finally will define how the nuclear power gets generatedand used. The N-Deal that was publicized by the media and politically negotiated by our Prime Minister simply states that we can now import Nuclear fuel for power generation in our country. The technical negotiations will now begin to fire up existing nuclear reactors and perhaps set up new reactors to generate Power. The administration of generating and distributing power will be through the existing set up of the Power Grid. But that about the environmental considerations?

There are two main, and if ignored, devastating, implications of Nuclear Power. The first is the Safety aspects of the Nuclear Reactors itself. Technically, all nuclear scientists will swear that there can be no or very few Nuclear accidents. However, can we be ever entirely sure of that? Across the world, accidents of nuclear reactors have left thousands of people dead and the repercussions of nuclear radiations have been carried forward across generations...maiming and deforming children. Lets us, however, for purposes of having a debate consider that India will take enough care to see that we have no nuclear accidents (an almost impossible scenario to foresee). The second aspect is environmental pollution. What happens to the unspent fuel in the reactor? This is the much dreaded aspect of Nuclear Power. This radioactive unspent fuel today is disposed of in oceans in concealed containers. With only about 3% energy in India generated by nuclear sources today, this nuclear waste is minimal. What will be the volume of this waste generation once India decides to increase its Nuclear Power capacity? Can we be assured that this hazardous waste remains inert and harmless under the ocean waters? Will the ocean be enough, or will we need to put this waste buried under mountains. Frankly, India is still grappling even with domestic solid waste. Can we as Indians be assured that Nuclear waste will be handled efficiently? Or will 100 years hence, our children will have to face the monsters of Nuclear Power hidden in dark and unseen corners of the Earth?

Today India also faces the issue of Climate Change. On the other side, we also desperately lack in energy generation. With most of India's power generated from coal fired thermal power plants, we need to urgently cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2. So the nuclear power option will help India to generate more power through a non CO2 emitting source. But shouldn't India be looking at renewable energy and investing more money into research and development of renewable sources of energy or should we be spending millions of rupees into setting up Nuclear reactors?

Our discussions ended on this note. With perhaps a lot more questions that when we started. But at least a bit more aware that in this time of 'sustainability' and talking about the welfare of future generations, with Nuclear Power, we are taking a step backwards in generating more problems that solving existing ones!

Comments

  1. Anagha,
    Isn't Atomic power renewable? Besides non emmission of CO2,this is also an advantage of Atomic Power.Apart from Coal India depends on Petrolium and Natural GAs ,both --internationally volatile.So presently no other option than to switch to Atomic Power as short term solution to come out of day to day power shortage .As long term solution as you say India must take lead for non conventional sources

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  2. Anagha,

    The environmental issue of an accident in plant holds good for any of the plant be it nuclear or thermal...The gravity may be different in each case, but it is still disastrous! Handling of nuclear waste is definitely a matter of concern...but the issues of necessary land, emission of CO2, disruption of aquatic ecosystem caused by hydoelectricity harvesting; for example; pose a more immediate concern.

    Agreed that India is spending a huge amount on the n-deal but a proposed increase in generation from 4.2 % to 9% (30,000MW) is a huge leap! India has also invested a lot in Wind and Solar energies. India is ranked 5th in wind power installed capacity and will also spend an estimated $19 billion to generate 20,000 MW of solar power by 2020.

    With a mix of these sources and newer harvesting technologies, I am sure India can generate reliable, quality power for all reducing the environmental hazards.

    Tejal

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