Nuclear energy’s future

Nuclear energy’s future

MURARI SHARMA

Japan is facing the consequences of triple whammy. First, the nine-Richter earthquake off her coast killed thousands of people and flattened towns and villages. Secondly, the monstrous tsunami caused by the quake swept out large swaths of the coastal areas. Thirdly, these two together damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, particularly its cooling system, seriously increasing radiation level in the 30 km radius and causing radiation plume to waft all the way to the western United States.

Japanese officials have been struggling to keep the pools, where spent fuel rods are stored, cool by dropping seawater and reactivating the cooling system, so far without success. If they fail to achieve their objective, the reactors and the spent fuel rods stored in the power station would begin to meltdown, raising the radiation to catastrophic levels that would have horrendous health consequences not just for Japan, but also for several countries around her. Frightened by this, the Japanese are leaving the worst affected areas, foreign embassies are moving from Tokyo to Osaka, and foreigners are leaving Japan in droves.

Resilient, organized and courageous, the Japanese people have been admirably coping with the triple disaster. There is no doubt that they would come out on the other side of this unfortunate tragedy as a stronger and more vibrant nation by kick-starting their stagnant economy and rebuilding their lives. But the debate the Fukushima nuclear disaster has triggered is going to stay with us for many years to come, as the pro- and anti-nuclear lobbies battle over the future of nuclear energy.

The battle has already started. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Lord Hutton, the former energy secretary, said the United Kingdom needed to continue tapping nuclear energy while strengthening safety measures further. But others have not been so sanguine about nuclear energy. Ed Crooks and Sylvia Pfeifer wrote in the Financial Times that nuclear energy has become too hot to handle after the Fukushima disaster. Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post, said if Japan, known for their commitment to safety and quality, could not build safe nuclear stations, then no other country could.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany has shut down seven out of 17 nuclear plants for three months for safety checks. Switzerland has suspended approval of three new nuclear plants. China has imposed a temporary moratorium on new nuclear facilities.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany has shut down seven out of 17 nuclear plants for three months for safety checks. Switzerland has suspended approval of three new nuclear plants. China has imposed a temporary moratorium on new nuclear facilities. Governments in the United Kingdom, which has plans to build 11 reactors in next 15 years, and France, whose 77 percent electricity comes from nuclear plants, are deeply worried about the public backlash. These countries are hoping that the dark clouds over nuclear energy would pass.

Indeed. The world has been there, seen that and moved on. The Three Miles Island nuclear disaster in the USA and Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine generated public disapproval for nuclear energy for a while. But as soon as the ugly vividness of those catastrophes faded from public memory, governments trying to increase energy self-reliance resorted to building nuclear power plants again. I am sure they would seek to follow the trodden path after the public uproar against nuclear energy subsides in next several years.

Although it sounds heartless to say every disaster offers unexpected benefits, it is true. Several Japanese commentators have said the earthquake and the Fukushima disaster have brought out the best in the Japanese people. They are hoping that, as Japan begins its rebuilding efforts, the economy long in a state of stagnation is likely to stir into action and begin to grow again at a respectable rate. I am sure the Fukushima disaster would also encourage the world, at least for a while, to invest more in the renewable sources of energy – such as hydropower.

This is where countries with enormous hydropower potential can contribute to a cleaner and safer world. Hydropower is not immune from natural disasters, but it is the best source of energy. Unlike other renewable sources, hydropower can supply huge amounts of energy in a reliable manner. It is cleaner and more environment-friendly than fossil fuels – oil, coal, etc. And it is much safer than nuclear energy that is associated with terrible radiation, from reactors and spent fuel rods, which causes incurable diseases like cancer and physical deformities for generations.

Because of this, nations that can do so have both obligation and opportunity to develop hydropower. They have an obligation to produce and supply as much clean and renewable energy as possible for the benefit of humanity and mother earth. And they have the opportunity to produce electricity and nudge their economies to a higher plane by selling it. These countries should not shy away from their obligation to the world and opportunity for themselves. They should act before the world forgets the hurt caused to its conscience by the Fukushima disaster.

Nepal is in a position to help the world and herself by tapping her enormous hydropower potential. Out of 84,000 MW potential, half of it is supposed to be already feasible to exploit. Some experts believe that Nepal’s actual potential is much higher than this. And new technologies and methods of production now available, the capacity could be enhanced by many folds. Nepal could turn the Fukushima disaster into her moment for growth and transformation.

After the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet Union decided to electrify the country within a decade. She achieved that goal despite the inept state control of the economy, lack of private initiative, and hostility from the West. There is no reason as to why Nepal should not be able to produce 15/20 thousand MW hydropower in next 10 years under a crash program by working with the domestic and foreign private sectors and bilateral and multilateral development partners, all willing to lend their helping hand. The only thing lacking is political will and honesty.

Monopsonic market for export is a major deterrent to large investment in hydropower, but Nepal can worry about export after she has met the domestic demand and removed the outrageous 14-hour a day load shedding. As endeavors to meet the domestic demand begin to bear fruit, she can and should work to deepen the existing export market and exploring new ones by negotiating with her neighbors and building power transmission lines to Bangladesh through the chicken neck.

Nepal must make a big push for hydropower development before the world resumes its love affair with nuclear energy in a few years. By doing so, she will help the world as well as herself.

Writer is former ambassador to the UN & the UK and can be reached at murarisharma@gmail.com

Published on 2011-03-21 01:05:25
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