Mohan Murti

Time for bye to N-power?

Updated on: Apr 17, 2011

Germans have shut almost half the nuclear plants as signs of angst have enveloped this risk-averse nation.

Twenty-five years ago when Chernobyl happened, I was living in Paris and, have grim memories of the plume of radioactive fallout that drifted over much of Europe, including France at that time.

I recall, most Europeans then were filled with contemptuous, disparaging, cynical comfort, that it was the result of ‘outdated Soviet technology and careless human error'. Even so, I have nothing but respect for Germany and Japan's aptitude when it comes to application of knowledge, science and technology. That is why Fukushima has been such a crucial, defining moment for many. It has made us start to distrust, doubt and question. If the Japanese have not been able to master this technology and, the Germans have panic running down their spine, then does nuclear energy mask risks that none could see, in the past?

Given the apparent severity, should not all of Europe and the rest of the world bid adieu to atomic energy as soon as possible? The answer seems to be ‘no'. Let's take a look.

The news of the Fukushima catastrophe came as a thunderbolt. On March 15, the day the 27 European Union member-states were to agree to perform stress tests on the 153 reactors on European soil, Germany announced the immediate shut-down of seven of its plants for three months. And Germany is not alone. Italy may forsake its idea of revisiting nuclear power, and Poland is asking the same questions.

Austria was the first to demand that stress tests be carried out at the European level, whilst Switzerland has declared it is suspending its nuclear projects in anticipation of more rigorous safety standards. Europe has become the world title-holder of hysteria around nuclear power.

Nuclear Angst

Germany currently relies on nuclear plants to cover 23 per cent of its energy demand. On the other hand, a new era seems to have begun in Germany. The new mantra is to embrace the changeover to clean energy. Germany has drawn up a six-point plan which includes expanding renewable energy. Ambitious plan!

But the reality is that while more than 80 per cent of Germans want to see the country abandon nuclear energy, there is one major caveat: When it comes to key alternate energy projects, most Germans do not want them in their own courtyard. As soon as plans are divulged for mass wind turbines or solar farms near residential areas, home owners and locals are quick to organise local campaigns and legal action to bring construction to a standstill.

Other European countries have already tried to go even further than Germany on the path toward green energy — and failed. Take the example of the Netherlands. The traditional Dutch people's pride in their ancient windmills doesn't seem to have carried over to contemporary wind turbines. Instead, antagonism continues to grow, and the government's targets for wind power are looking increasingly unrealistic. As things stand now, the country won't even achieve 50 per cent of the 6,000 megawatt capacity that had been planned by 2020. It's not that the Dutch lack technological capacity when it comes to wind power. They simply do not want it. Only France maintains its confidence in one of its leading industries where a radical energy shift is much more problematic than in Germany or elsewhere because it is profoundly dependent on nuclear energy.

The second-biggest user of nuclear power in the world after the United States has 104 reactors delivering a substantial share of the country's electricity. Not only does France's nuclear industry create innumerable jobs, but it also supplies reasonably priced electricity to the people, directly boosting the economy. So, despite the swelling fears triggered by the Fukushima disaster, the French may - out of compulsions, rather than disquiet - leisurely plod along the tentative road of nuclear energy.

Dangerous Alternatives

While a majority of Europeans apparently want to escape nuclear energy now, the alternatives in mind are unfortunately not too alluring. We all know that global warming is the cost of using fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. It is estimated that in coal mining, more than 10,000 people die each year. Added to this are lives gone in carrying and burning coal. And, under some circumstances, smouldering coal releases more radiation into the environment than a nuclear power station under normal functioning conditions.

If nuclear is too dangerous, fossil fuels are too mucky and renewable energy is too convoluted, where are we supposed to get our electricity? There are known hazards with other forms of energy making as well. Even solar power releases radioactivity. Solar power stations need large amounts of copper for pipes, and their production discharges uranium.

Boom Time

Unfortunately, the Japanese catastrophe comes at a boom time for nuclear power station construction, driven by the massive demand for energy in rapidly growing economies including India.

In Europe, it's driven by the need to stop burning fossil fuels in the facade of climate change. It is time for politicians to re-think, reassess nuclear power plant developments in their countries. And, scientists and engineers will need to go back to the drawing board to have another look at their assumptions, designing reliable, safe nuclear plants.

(The author is a former Europe Director, CII and lives in Cologne, Germany. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in. )

Published on April 22, 2011

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