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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Nuclear energy is clean but too risky to rely on
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Nuclear energy is clean but too risky to rely on

India and France have plans for this option. Nuclear power does offer us a tempting path to carbon neutrality free of fossil fuels, but we can’t ignore meltdown and waste disposal risks

The extreme hazard of a big Chernobyl-style nuclear meltdown that could irradiate a bunch of districts is at the mega-impact but low-likelihood end of the scale.Premium
The extreme hazard of a big Chernobyl-style nuclear meltdown that could irradiate a bunch of districts is at the mega-impact but low-likelihood end of the scale.

India’s flurry of diplomacy over the weekend included a joint statement issued with France that envisioned the co-development of modular nuclear reactors, the kind with interchangeable parts meant for rapid assembly at scale. Since nuclear plants heat water to drive turbines and generate power without burning fossil fuels, they qualify as climate-friendly from an emission perspective. India’s current pace of renewable capacity addition—wind, solar and hydro energy projects—would need sharp acceleration for non-fossil sources to yield 500 gigawatts of electricity by 2030, a target the country must meet on its way to carbon neutrality by 2070. A huge nuclear step-up is not just a big temptation, but also the elephant in the clean-energy hall. Unlike other ways to keep our lights on and gadgets going, it remains tied up in global geopolitics over its potential for misuse. In 2005, a celebrated nuclear deal with the US gave India access to supplies of reactors and fuel under a regime that had long barred us for our defiant pursuit of nukes. It was an agreement seen as heralding a bold new era of nuclear power. This did not materialize, however. The reason may explain why we hear so little about it today.

At the end of August, India switched on an indigenously developed 700-megawatt nuclear plant in Kakrapar, Gujarat. But news of such inaugurations is rare. In all, this form of energy accounts for only 1.6% of India’s total installed generation capacity, as listed by the ministry of power. This is a remarkably thin sliver of the pie and we’re largely dependent on coal-fired plants to keep our grids alive. Our newfound market access failed to spark off a proliferation of reactors because a secondary legislation put foreign suppliers off. India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act of 2010 made it clear that reactor makers and others in the supply chain would get no indemnity in case of a disaster. Operators would bear a burden for their role, sure, but the liability would not be limited to them, as danger could also arise from faulty equipment, etc. Nor could caps be placed on compensation sums for insurers to price their risk coverage by. The deterrence effect this law had on nuclear suppliers showed just how risky this industry is. Did insurers, as experts of risk estimation, demand premiums that were too steep for supply deals to work out?

The extreme hazard of a big Chernobyl-style nuclear meltdown that could irradiate a bunch of districts is at the mega-impact but low-likelihood end of the scale. No matter how much care is taken, the worst-case scenario is horrific, and with many more reactors at work, the country’s exposure would rise sharply as critical points add up. Even less openly discussed is the problem of waste disposal. The makeshift solution for small quantities of spent fuel is to store these in cooling ponds, though getting rid of coolant water can be a challenge even with far smaller volumes than Japan’s ill-fated Fukushima plant had to dump. Eventually, heavy nuclear waste needs to be sealed off in vaults deep in the ground (or under a seabed), so that no radiation can escape. This is a costly aspect that nuclear advocates tend to play down. Still, it’s a radio- active package that must not be handed over to the government—and by extension, people—as a fait accompli once the country is dotted with nuclear reactors in a quick bid to attain carbon neutrality. Although these seem to offer a useful way to meet our climate goals, without clarity on sticky matters like liability sharing and waste disposal, we must not count on them.

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Published: 11 Sep 2023, 09:12 PM IST
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