Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mother Nuclear? :: India and Sustainable Energy

Last July, South Korea signed a nuclear deal with India. For me, this deal encapsulates so many issues I’m concerned about. Living in India, I see that the energy issue is huge in terms of sustainable development for this country and the poor to middle class communities of this nation.

Just since morning today, the power has turned off for hours at a time. I was helping a friend with his user settings on his computer and the lights went out. I told him, “Sorry yaar, I’m not sure what’s going to happen when the lights come on. You may not be able to find your files!” What’s the use of the emerging IT India if there’s no electricity to run computers?

Some of the lower middle class business families depend on electricity for income. At times a whole freezer’s worth of ice-cream is gone. Even poorer than them are the ice-cream men who go around with carts, selling 10 to 50 cent ice-creams. If they don’t charge up their ice-cream stall all night, then no income for the day.

The UN has declared this year (2012) as the Year of Sustainable Energy For All. So my question is: Is nuclear the right solution as a sustainable energy source to develop the poor and middle class of this nation?

In the 1990s in college I wrote a paper on the relationship between nuclear weapons and public health. At that time, it seemed like nuclear power was case closed for environmentalists. Greenpeace still vehemently opposes it.

I slept on it for some time and only woke up to it again during the Obama presidential debate when this seemingly environmentally-friendly presidential candidate came out pro-nuclear with roaring applause on TV. So what, I thought, is nuclear now environmentally friendly?

Apparently environmentalists are divided. Prominent environmentalists do not agree on the cost-benefits of nuclear. Some say nuclear is even more eco-friendly than wind and solar. God forbid! While some highlight that the potential of nuclear disaster via meltdown, weapons proliferation, fuel and waste transport, etc. etc. etc. is too risky, leading to mass amounts of death and destruction… plus not being very eco-friendly. (Very insightful TED Debate.)

What the question boils down to for me is: Is nuclear energy good for India environmentally, socially and economically? These three areas are the circle trinity of sustainable development, and where these three merge is the lovely (and seemingly imaginative) epicenter of the perfect development scenario. So does nuclear power end up in that sweet jelly donut center for India? Or to be more culturally appropriate: Does it land in the center of its spicy samosa?

Well, what I haven’t really highlighted yet is the “social” aspect of it. What do the people want? At present, the largest nuclear power plant in the world is planned to be built in India in a village called Jaitapur. Do the people want this nuclear plant in their backyard? No way. And after the Japan nuclear crisis, the outcry has gotten even louder. About 1 in 4 Indians oppose nuclear power; however this is still less than the global average of 1 in 3 after the Japan incident.

The village still has many concerns. After the gas leak tragedy in Bhopal which released neurotoxic gases into poor communities, many years in waiting the victims were compensated with pittance. A victim told me, “People shouted that the gas was coming! I suddenly fell down and it was like I couldn’t control myself.” Truth be told, the government is not known for its ability to regulate and manage high risk industries, let alone an ability to properly compensate victims of such tragedies. And this is what the people are afraid of. And one more thing, this new world’s largest nuclear plant is set to be built in a Zone 4 high damage risk earthquake zone. Does that sound safe to you? (Photos of the village:

So let’s break it down. Can nuclear power be considered sustainable energy for India? Economically… I think so. Environmentally… the environmental jury is still out. Socially, hmm… sounds like no one wants a potential nuclear bomb in their backyard. Plus, particularly in hydroelectric dams, many times the local people do not benefit from the electricity produced from these things. It all goes to big cities or even exported to richer nations. So they get all the pollution with little to no benefit of energy.

As I was concluding this blog, I looked at a website about saving the Ganges from dams and at the bottom a comment caught my eye which was directed to those trying to stop dam building: “You are the real enemies of this country. You won't let the nation progress. (Avaneesh Kaushik)”

And here we are, the perfect tension between development and sustainability. One side saying (as the top of the dam website says): “Save India! Save Ganga! Save Heritage!” The other side saying: “Save India! Build Dams! Save Progress!” (as Kaushik implies on the bottom of the website). So is “sustainable development” feasible?

Maybe we aren’t using the right models to think about development and sustainability. Maybe we’re not asking the right questions. I mean, should we even be requiring so much energy in the first place? Or am I asking an even more insurmountable question?

Note: Nuclear power will grow despite Japan disaster...  Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway oppose nuclear power while Germany and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power. US, France, Japan, Germany, Russia and S Korea put out the most nuclear power. India is in the top 15 countries for nuclear power output, more than China.