The impact of the nuclear crisis in Japan is being felt in India, with a major debate now taking place over the wisdom of relying on nuclear energy when there are such potential safety risks in the event of a natural disaster.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered all nuclear reactors in India be tested in light of the reported radiation leaks in Japan, to establish their ability to withstand major natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. In an effort to reassure the nation, the prime minister said that India’s nuclear plants have in the past withstood geological disturbances, such as in Gujarat when a major earthquake struck in January, 2002, and in Tamil Nadu in December 2004, when a massive tsunami hit the coast.
Former Atomic Energy Commission of India Chief Anil Kakodkar has also tried to allay some of the growing fears by asserting that Indian reactors are safe. Addressing the Maharashtra Assembly, Kakodkar stressed the importance of nuclear technology in generating the significant amounts of electricity needed to fulfill the demands of a new India.
These assurances have come in the wake of controversy over the current development of some major nuclear plants across India. High-profile nuclear power projects have been slated for construction in collaboration with French firm Areva in areas like Jaitapur in the western state of Maharashtra, but the projects are already running into trouble, with protesters arguing such structures will harm the local environment and put locals at risk. If things deteriorate any further in Japan, it would become extremely difficult to convince people in Jaitapur and other locations of the safety of nuclear power plants.
Some have argued that India should tap the vast potential for solar energy, but the government has raised the issue of the high costs that would be involved in generating electricity through solar power plants. While developed countries like Germany are now using solar energy to supplement their electricity requirements, emerging economies like India are still falling back on nuclear reactors.
But as expensive as solar energy may be, isn’t the extra cost worth it for safety reasons? In the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, Germany has suspended, pending a review, a plan to extend the lives of its ageing nuclear power stations. The Swiss government has also suspended its nuclear plans, putting safety first. The European Union, meanwhile, called an emergency meeting to review all safety measures for nuclear reactors.
Nuclear power is currently the fourth biggest source of electricity in India (after thermal, hydro and renewable resources). As of 2010, there were 20 nuclear power reactors across six power plants in India, generating a total of 4,780 megawatts of energy. Five more plants are under construction, and the country aims to up its nuclear power output to 64,000 megawatts by 2032.
Yet no matter how foolproof a nuclear power plant is said to be, we should never take official assurances as a guarantee of safety. Japan is seeing the consequences of doing so now.