Japan’s nuclear disaster has fueled fear and uncertainty among all of the world’s producers of nuclear power. For India, an energy-starved country, much is at stake.
That fear factor has two main causes. Although nuclear power ranks as a “clean” source of energy, it is accompanied by the terrible shadow of nuclear war, which emerged from Japan’s last reckoning with nuclear catastrophe, 65 years ago at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which lends it an automatic association with mass destruction and death. Moreover, the secrecy that attends all things “nuclear” has left people not knowing enough to feel confident.
The fear inspired by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster will be reflected in soaring costs for nuclear power worldwide, largely owing to demands for improved safety and the need to pay more to insure the potential risks. Indeed, nuclear plants are prone to a form of “panic transference.” Should a reactor of one design go wrong, all reactors of that type will be shut down instantly around the world.
India’s dilemma is this: It has 20 nuclear plants in operation, with an additional 23 on order. With the country desperately short of power, and requiring energy to grow, concerned citizens are asking if nuclear is still the answer for India.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has cautiously announced that a “special safety review” of all plants will be undertaken. “Not enough,” say about 50 eminent Indians, who at the end of March demanded a “radical review” of the country’s entire nuclear-power policy for “appropriateness, safety, costs and public acceptance.”
The group also called for an “independent, transparent safety audit” of all nuclear facilities, to be undertaken with the “involvement of civil-society organizations and experts outside the Department of Atomic Energy.”
Until then, there should be “a moratorium on all … nuclear activity” and “revocation of recent clearances.”
This is as explicit as opposition can get.
How have other countries reacted? France, which relies on nuclear energy for about 80 percent of its power, and is a big exporter of nuclear-plant technology, initially avoided most of the global anti-nuclear concerns. However, now it, too, is promising to draw the necessary lessons from Japan’s experience and upgrade its safety procedures, including a reassessment of the potential effects of natural disasters on nuclear-plant operations, conceding that the occurrence of more than one natural disaster simultaneously had not been previously considered.
China, which has 77 nuclear reactors at various stages of construction, planning and discussion, has said that it will “review its program.” Though Russia has formally announced that it will go ahead with its program, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev — on whose watch the Chernobyl meltdown occurred 25 years ago — is not so sanguine.
While the US is the principal exporter of reactors, it currently has just two under construction in its own territory. Denmark, Greece, Ireland and Portugal are strongly anti-nuclear, and Switzerland has stopped all nuclear-power projects. All of this will lead to cost evaluation and escalation. According to a study conducted by former Indian government minister Arun Shourie, the price of uranium could rise to US$140 per pound (0.45kg), close to its record high.