Originally Published 2011-04-28 00:00:00 Published on Apr 28, 2011
MoEF, on the one hand, abruptly enforces the 'no-go' rule on 203 coal blocks with a potential output of 660 million tonne of coal per annum, jeopardising power generation, while on the other, it talks about developmental needs taking precedence over environmental and safety concerns when it comes to nuclear power plants.
India's nuclear option largely unaffected
The most convincing case for nuclear energy in India is neither its clean and green credentials nor the popular view that nuclear energy will eliminate energy poverty in India but that it is the only option that can replace coal as a source of steady base load power if coal resources do not materialise to the extent required in the next three to four decades. India's current energy system is essentially a coal based system accounting for over 76 per cent of power generated, and is likely to remain so for at least the next two decades.

Coal is widely thought to be virtually inexhaustible and the Government of India routinely overestimates domestic reserves by a factor of four or more on the assumption that hard-to-reach coal seams would one day be extracted thanks to new technology. This assumption is increasingly looking like a belief rather than an achievable goal. Out of our proved coal reserves of over 200 billion tonne only a third is estimated to be recoverable on account of an overemphasis of open cast mining which has rendered much of India's deeper coal resources unrecoverable.

If domestic coal production continues to increase at the rate of 5 per cent per annum, proven reserves accessible through existing technologies would be consumed in the next 45 years. Though a number of possibilities exist for technological improvements that could increase coal extraction, current trends seem to indicate that coal reserves in India are well on their way to exhaustion. Coal imports are possible from countries like Australia, Indonesia and South Africa but whether or not these countries will invest in extraction and export infrastructure is uncertain, given the looming threat of a penalty on the use of fossil fuels.

Other renewable sources such as solar and wind energy could meet incremental demand for power as they do in some industrial economies but they cannot substitute for base load power which India needs. Most authoritative studies on energy are in agreement that in a low carbon electricity system, the base load would have to come either from nuclear or from fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage systems (CCS).

CCS is yet to be proved viable on a commercial scale and deploying enough CCS systems to replace nuclear plants is close to impossible. In this light nuclear power is increasingly looking like a necessity rather than an option in India's energy basket in the longer term and therefore India does not have the luxury of altering its energy options substantially in the light of the accident at Fukushima.

India's dominant discourse on nuclear energy is framed from a 'foreign policy' or 'national security interest' perspective rather than an energy, economics, environment or safety perspective as it should be. Nuclear energy is seen as a means to 'great power' status apart from key component of its military arsenal and not really a means to improve quality of life in India. The strategic significance of the nuclear sector is presumed to be so important it is excused from even minimal checks and balances that are vital parts of any other government department. For many decades the atomic energy establishment did not even see the need to have an independent regulatory body. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board was set up only after the serious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. But the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board which was established with the mission of ensuring the safety of atomic energy, reports directly to the Atomic Energy Commission which is chaired by the head of the Department of Atomic Energy.

Under this incestuous set up, it is no surprise that India's Nuclear Liability Bill passed recently essentially socialises risk, by passing it to the tax payer and privatises profits, by offering undue protection to the suppliers of technology and operators of nuclear facilities. This is a built-in mechanism for mismanagement of risk in the system as Fukushima clearly demonstrates. The assumption of low probability for a nuclear disaster of biblical proportions is probably one factor behind the skewed framing of the Nuclear Liability Bill but the lesson that India must take away from Fukushima is that there is no such thing as a low probability risk any more.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) which has taken environmental activism to new heights also considers the nuclear industry special enough to make exceptions. On the one hand the MoEF abruptly enforces the 'no-go' rule on 203 coal blocks with a potential output of 660 million tonne of coal per annum, thus jeopardising power generation in the country, while on the other it talks about developmental needs taking precedence over environmental and safety concerns when it comes to nuclear power plants. The inconsistency is partly because of the special status that the nuclear industry enjoys and partly because environmental activism in India is often only a moral front for industrial, political and inter-ministerial battles. Such a corrupt and perverted pretence over environmental integrity and safety that disregards people and their lives will ensure that we will face a Fukushima situation in the future even without assistance from an earthquake or tsunami.

(Lydia Powell is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Pioneer

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.