Nuclear Energy – Are We Sitting On A Ticking Bomb?

A study conducted at Jadugoda showed that 4.49% of the new born children had congenital deformities and 9.25% of the mothers reported deaths of their children due to congenital deformities... - Anuj Mahajan

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Nuclear Energy - Are We Sitting On A Ticking Bomb?

Nuclear energy is irreversibly destructive and its pernicious effects on the surrounding environment far outnumber its benefits.

India has an installed electricity generation capacity of 274 GW. Whereas, it presently requires 1,100 billion kWh of electricity, which is slated to go up to 1,524 billion kWh by 2016 –17, 2,118 billion kWh by 2021–22 and 3,880 billion kWh by 2031–32, considering an average GDP growth rate of 8%. As a measure to bridge this gaping hole, India has been investing heavily to augment its nuclear power generation capacity. It has already installed a few nuclear reactors and is in the process of setting up a few more. India initially plans to increase its nuclear electricity generation capacity from present 5,780 MW to 63 GW by 2032, but the target was revised in 2011 to a more realistic 27.5 GW. The Atomic Energy Commission envisages a target of 500 GW of nuclear energy generation by 2060. But the mad race for setting up nuclear power plants, owing to their chequered past, has raised a red flag over the issue.

Although India has ambitious plans regarding nuclear energy, people residing near uranium mines and nuclear reactors are paying the price for that ambition. Usually, those working directly or indirectly in the mines and those living in the surrounding areas of mines and nuclear reactors bear the brunt of harmful radiations. Poverty and illiteracy further compounds the problems as these people usually are not aware of the harmful effects of nuclear radiation and only take notice when these effects reach alarming levels. Following is an example of Jadugoda, a small township in Jharkhand, where the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) mines uranium and supplies it to nuclear reactors. Large scale mining in the region has led to an increase in cancer and gene mutation in the areas surrounding the mines. A study conducted showed that 4.49% of the new born children had congenital deformities and 9.25% of the mothers reported deaths of their children due to congenital deformities. Moreover, 9.6% of the couples could not conceive even after three years of marriage, and 2.87% of the households attributed cancer as a cause of death in their household. An alarming 68.33% of the deaths occurred before reaching the average life expectancy age of 62 years. Apart from this, the amount of air – gamma dose exceeds 1 milli Sievert (1mSv) per year in the nearby villages and 10 mSv/y around tailing ponds.

Leakage from nuclear power plants poses another threat to the ambient life and property. The most prominent example has been the Chernobyl disaster. It had, by 2005, caused 0.065 million man – Sieverts (Sv) of radiation exposure to recovery workers and evacuees and a further 25% more exposure would be received from residual radio isotopes after 2005. Incidents of thyroid cancer have increased among the young people exposed to the radiation. Apart from this, there has been an increase in the frequencies of Down’s syndrome, congenital anomalies, miscarriages and pre – natal mortalities, among the people exposed.

Given the threats it poses to the people, is it still viable to go ahead with nuclear power generation?

The cost of installation of a nuclear power plant is very high, and combining it with operational cost, fuel cost, waste storage cost and cost of decommissioning, it becomes virtually untenable for developing countries to invest in the sector. The unit cost of electricity from a nuclear power plant, although initially estimated to be very low, is also steadily rising and burning a hole in the government’s pocket. The expected cost of electricity from Jaitapur power plant is expected to be ` 9/unit in 2020 – 21 and that from Mithi Virdhi Nuclear power project is expected to be ` 12/unit. As compared to this, the expected cost of solar power, under National Solar Mission, is expected to be ` 6 to 8/unit and may fall even further due to decrease in the cost of solar PV, which can be attributed to improvement in technology.

What can be alternatives to the nuclear energy, considering the huge energy deficit that India faces and the vitality of maintaining her energy security? Renewable energy technologies, such as solar energy and wind energy, can play a major role in bridging the major gap in electricity demand and supply, which India is currently staring at. National Solar Mission, started under the aegis of National Action Plan on Climate Change, envisages increasing the country’s grid connected solar power generation to 20,000 MW by the end of 2022.

More recently, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has revised the figure and set an ambitious target of 100 GW generation of solar energy by the end of 2022. According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the wind energy potential of India is expected to be 1,02,788 MW. These renewable technologies are safe in all respects to the surrounding life and property – and are poised to become major contributors in electricity generation.

Worldwide, countries have started reducing their dependency on nuclear energy and are turning towards renewable sources of energy. Germany has decided to shut down all its nuclear reactors, while many other countries have decided not to build any new reactors. Nuclear energy, although symbolic of technical prowess of a nation, has always been at the receiving end and subjected to obloquy from environmentalists and general public alike. The government cannot afford to look the other way when it comes to safeguarding the interests of its citizens.

Although the chances of leakage from nuclear plant are low, but if it does leak, the price to be paid is quite high. It is quite evident that the road to energy security goes through renewable energy and not nuclear energy. The sooner it is accepted, the better it will be. Let us all accept this and get down to the business.

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