Nukes in town: Be prepared for all hell to break loose
*The government of Bangladesh has promised us a safe and risk-free nuke in our backyard.
*The Ruppoor nuclear power plant is designed to add a minimum of 1000 MW electricity to the national grid.
*It will be strong enough to handle a 10 Richter scale earthquake.
*It will be well equipped to prevent any accident.
All governments lie, indeed. All governments try to hide the hippopotamus under the rug. And when it comes to a nuclear deal, public relation becomes more important than public safety.
The myth of a clean nuke
They say nuclear technology is clean. And the only time a reactor actually releases a bulk of radiation is during an accident.
The truth is every nuclear power plant is capable of an accident.
Every nuclear plant releases radiation during every stage of its production. Workers at all stages of the uranium purification process are exposed to radiation. The fairytale of safe nuclear power is thus mostly based on imperfect assumptions and wishful thinking.
According to environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva: Just because we donât get to see radiation, doesn’t mean that nukes are clean.
The myth of a safe nuke
They say, other than Chernobyl, Three Miles Island, and Fukushima, there has never occurred any serious accident at any other nuclear plants.
However, unfortunately, there is quite a lengthy list of nuclear accidents, which includes explosions, near-meltdowns, burnt cables, electrical errors, faulty installation, underground pipe leakage, accidental release of plutonium sludge, radioactive fluids leaking into drains and ending up into nearby rivers, and so on. Hundreds of nuclear accidents are reported each year only in the United States alone. Between 1993-1995, international researchers pointed out more than hundreds of âhazardous incidentsâ at nuclear plants in India.
The claim of a âsaferâ nuke is thus ambitious, obnoxious, and inaccurate.
At a time, when the Germans are getting ready to shut down all their nuclear plants by 2022, the Chinese are putting the construction of all their nuclear power plants on hold, the Indians are relentlessly protesting against it for the last 20 years; somehow, we have managed to come up with a safe nuke!
Are we not sleepwalking towards a disaster?
The myth of a cheap nuke
They say nuclear technology is a good technology with a low cost. The question is, how good and how low?
According to various studies:
- It takes around $800 million to set up a 1000 MW gas based plant.
- It takes around $1400 million to set up a 1000 MW coal fired plant.
- It takes around $2-3 billion (around $2000-3000 million) to set up a 1000 MW nuclear power plant. So it is clear that nukes cost way more in terms of capital investment.
However the biggest argument in defence of nuclear power is that the per unit production cost/fuel cost for a nuclear power plant is actually much lower than a coal based or natural gas based power plant.
In short, in case of a nuke, you put more bucks in the beginning, so that you can save up later. Sounds like a deal, but here is the hitch.
The piece of information they donât give us:
a) The maintenance cost of such a nuclear power plant is ludicrously high compared to coal/gas/solar plants.
b) The day to day operation of a nuclear plant requires continuous cooling down of the reactor by the use of a titanic amount of water which handsomely skyrockets the operation cost of nuclear energy, deeply challenging the popular myth âNukes are cheap.â
c) To run a 1000 MW nuclear plant, it requires at least 185 MW electricity. Which means a nuke eats up at least one fifth of its own energy.
d) The waste disposal of a nuclear power plant is costly, complex and chaotically hazardous.
e) In case of an accident (which is almost inherent to nuclear technology) the repair or replacement cost could be a terrible rip-off. (Since 1987 to 2002, at least 6 serious accidents had occurred in different nuclear power plants in India which cost nearly 1 billion dollar to repair).
So the bottom line is: Nukes cost a hell lot, and doesnât really save a hell lot. Now the question on the table is, is there any comfortable alternative?
The energy debate: Can we have a coal-free, nuke-free future?
It is true that fossil fuels or nuclear power both are capable of producing an enormous amount of energy which is crucial for rapid industrialisation and heavy manufacturing. It is true that in an exponentially expanding growth economy, solar and wind offer no practical alternative to fossil fuel and nuclear power. It is also true that the adoption of renewable energy, such as the construction of a 1000 MW equivalent PV solar panel (equivalent to a Ruppoor Nuclear plant) may turn out to be costlier than a nuclear power plant (at this point).
However, the good news is, the Sun is taking over! In the last few years the cost of solar energy have been falling fabulously low, while the cost of nuclear energy have been flying terribly high.  The most recent cost projection for a brand new nuclear reactor is pointed out to be at least four times higher than the earlier projections. 
Meanwhile the renewable energy scientists have already declared that the historic âsolar-nuclear-cost-crossover-momentâ has finally been reached (which simply means, the per unit production cost for solar photovoltaics is finally becoming cheaper than nukes). 
In addition, here are some recent headlines:
Prices of solar panels falling: By 2013 they will be half of what they cost in 2009 (The Guardian, June, 2011).
Solar, once the most expensive of the ârenewables,â has become cheaper than nuclear plants. (NC Warn, July 2011).
A sharp 70 percent reduction in the cost of solar panels since 2009 (Clean Technica.com, December 2011).
The Europeans have already shown in practicality, renewable energy can actually take the load away from the national grid only if the right amount of money is put into it. For instance, in the year of 2011 alone, as much as 7,400 MW of electricity has been produced in Germany (equivalent to seven Ruppoor power plant) based on solar technology only.  Certainly, the Germans are wholeheartedly shifting their resources from nukes to solar.
Therefore, it doesnât sound too complicated when the energy scientists say: Europe can go â100% renewableâ by the mid century, and ultimately phase out âdirtyâ energy. 
In short, if we are so equipped to accommodate a super expensive nuke, and if we are already super-subsidising the short-term, oil-based quick-rental power plants; it only makes super-sense to shift our resources to solar, which is super safe, sustainable, long-term and also, on the way to be super-cheap! And most importantly, it doesnât leak (it emits neither carbon, nor radiation).
The nature of the beast we have come to call growth
However, the real danger still exists, and that is our obsession for Growth. In general a countryâs energy appetite gets fatter and fatter in direct proportion to its economic growth. To keep up with the âgrowthâ ladder, human civilisation has moved from wood to coal, coal to oil, and ultimately oil to nukes. The age of easy oil is over. We have already burnt too much of fossil fuels (up to a point that it dug a hole in the ozone layer), the natural gas bases are shrinking as well.
Too many of us are consuming too many resources too fast in the name of economic growth. The expansion of the global nuclear industry (based on today’s apparent affluence of Uranium) is therefore, the inevitable by-product of the hysterical expansion of the âgrowthâ economy.
The Roman civilisation ran on slavery. The 21st century civilisation runs on energy. And the universal energy law runs on a simple algebra: The more and more you dig, the less and less you get. The less and less you get, the more and more energy you require to dig deeper and deeper. It comes to a point where digging deeper requires more energy than what it actually gets from digging. The end game is simple: sooner or later the global enterprise of âdigging & drillingâ will be asking for a bail out. Indeed, the earthâs natural resources are finite. If we keep digging for them, we will eventually exhaust them.
It has become a matter of simple commonsense.
If we simply choose to âgrowâ, which is the default position of our politicians and economists, no combination of nukes, fossil fuel, solar, and wind will be able to sustain such an arrogant economy. The ones who desire Bangladesh to be a middle-income economy by 2020, or aspire to have an India-like-super-duper-growth-rate, need to ask a simple question: Do we have the fuel to fuel a fat economy?
Therefore, it is vital to look beyond the very wasteful system of economic growth. It is vital to stop the chaotic expansion of the urban base. It is vital to rethink and reorganise the grammar of economics. Rapid urbanisation and gigantic development projects do not necessarily raise the quality of life of people. The â50s Nehruvian vision of big development projects had ultimately come to be known as âanti-peopleâ, due to its built-in characteristic of destruction and displacement. Indiaâs monstrous nuclear power industry has ultimately been tagged as friends of âIndustrial Indiaâ but enemy of the common men. A long and brutal history of economic growth tells us, a double digit growth does not ensure quality of water, freshness of air, fertility of seeds and soils, health of human beings.
A big economy eats up big energy, a small economy eats up smaller.
Therefore, it is important to look for small and localised solutions, rather than humongous, highly centralised, and filthy rich projects.
Ultimately, âdecentralisationâ is the key to energy distribution. Thus, the alternative lies in thousands of tiny projects of renewable energy. The alternative lies in preserving our agriculture, our rivers, our rural communities, and our âsmallerâ ways of lives. As Gandhi once said: âEarth provides enough to satisfy every manâs need, but not every manâs greedâ. Interestingly, the Gandhian way of âsaneâ consumption is becoming more relevant than ever.
Lastly: nuclear energy is neither cheap, nor clean, nor safe. It is a brutal and wasteful technology which doesnât do âGandhiâ very well.
Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist. She is a graduate in economics and international political economy.
1. Benjamin K. Sovacool. A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2010, p. 380.
2. Risto and Aija. Comparison of Electricy generation costs. Lappeenranta University of Technology. Lappeenranta, 2008.
3. Cooper, Mark. The Economics of Nuclear Reactors: Renaissance or Relapse. Vermont Law School, 2009.
4. Blackburn and Cunningham. Solar and Nuclear Costs âThe Historic Crossover, Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy. NC Warn. 2010.
6. Cost comparison of energy supply technologies:http://www.unenergy.org/Popup%20pages/Comparecosts.html
7. Battle of the Grids, a 2011 report, by Greenpeace International.