The recent announcement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that her country intends to phase out all nuclear reactors by 2022 has once again set tongues wagging amongst the nuclear naysayers back home. To them, the statement underlines the growing realization across the world of the many perils of nuclear energy as a country’s dominant source of power, and in the aftermath of Fukushima, is yet another reason for the Indian Govt to immediately put a halt to its ambitious plans on nuclear power in the coming decade, with the recent high profile contract awarded to Areva for the construction of six plants in Maharshtra’s Jaitapur district coming in for special attention.
Now, let’s get a few things straight. It doesn’t require any special genius to figure out that the very word ‘nuclear’, carries a rather negative connotation, conjuring up images of mushroom shaped clouds and a general sense of discomfort at the very thought of ‘what if something goes wrong…’( as it tragically did in Japan ). But while accepting this obvious reality, let us not also forget the circumstances prevailing in our country at the moment, and how they are likely to get much worse in the years ahead. As a majority of India’s urban denizens would affirm, the daily ritual of 3-4 hour long power cuts in peak summer-often just as you crash in bed after a hard day’s work- is a reality most of live through year after year. Now as much as you may enjoy the candle light dinners, for an aspiring global power, with visions of acquiring super-power status within the next decade, it is hardly a state of affairs that we can afford to carry on with. So is nuclear energy the only option, you may well ask?… Well, of course not, there are other options aplenty. We could just keep buying oil from Middle East, notwithstanding the fact that it has already gone above a $100 a barrel, and is expected to only rise further in the years ahead-notwithstanding short-term fluctuations. Or you could put our energy security in the hands of the TAPI pipeline, traveling as it does through Taliban controlled territory in Afghanistan, only to enter an even more hostile environment in Under No One’s Control Pakistan, where even a heavily fortified naval base was unable to avoid the attention of trouble-makers in the not so distant past. The only realistic option we have at the moment is to count on the Iranians for supplying us with gas from their seemingly endless reserves, but even that involves the construction of complex pipelines underneath the Arabian Sea, besides the diplomatic blowback that can be expected from the Americans, for whom any business links with the increasingly dominant Shia state is nothing short of anathema. . As you might have guessed by now, there really are no easy options available. In an ideal world we would have had oil wells bursting forth from the sands of Rajasthan, and natural gas fountains erupting from the shores of the Godvari. However, given the sheer scale of energy supplies needed to fuel a 10% growth rate for the next decade, ruling out the nuclear option is just not going to happen- and the naysayers might as well learn to deal with it.
On a domestic note, the Govt has invested far too much political capital in the Jaitapur project to backtrack at this stage. Already rattled by the land acquisition mess vis-à-vis POSCO and Vedanta projects, it simply can’t afford to cancel the multi-billion dollar contract awarded to the French nuclear energy giant.. Going back at this stage, besides being a major diplomatic embarrassment, would send out yet more negative signals in so far as the investment climate in the country is concerned.
So, does that mean we ignore safety concerns at the altar of creating a conducive business environment?..Of course not- putting in place the most stringent safety measures is a right that all of us must legitimately demand and secure-no matter what it takes. And ensuring that all those displaced are not only given a fair compensation package, but also the means to secure a stable livelihood for the future is something over which there can be no debate- that’s a debt the entire nation owes to a people being forced to move out from their ancestral villages and take up a very different way of life from what they have been accustomed to for centuries.
But at the same time, it’s high time we realized that given the energy mess we find ourselves in today, nuclear power is going to be an integral part of the mix in the years ahead- and while drawing the right lessons from accidents that have taken place elsewhere, the core realities of India being a massively power-deficit country have still not changed.