It is interesting that almost exactly to the day of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, India has decided to approve a new nuclear power plant in Jaitapur in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. While experts have written tomes about it (and mass media has not given a jot of attention to them), here is my quick attempt to dislodge some friends who I know are sitting on-the-fence.

The safety features argument:

The oft repeated argument is that ‘we have learnt from others’ failures’, our plants are safe.

Let us start with the assumption that we are technologically superior to the three countries – USA, USSR, and Japan – where the major nuclear accidents have taken place till now. Let us also make an assumption that there is less graft and corruption in our systems of procurement, construction, day-to-day running and maintenance. No, seriously!

Did any of the countries think that their plants were susceptible to accidents, before the event? Of course not. That is a fundamental fact about accidents – ‘accidents’ by definition are not anticipated, and they mostly happen in spite of best precautions. There is no scientific way to say with 100% confidence that an accident will not happen. The fact that no insurance company is willing to insure a nuclear plant and that plant owners and suppliers want limited liabilities proves just this point. They know accidents can happen. For those looking for additional pointers consider the fact that no new nuclear plant has been commissioned in the USA since the 1970’s and in Europe since the late 80’s.

If you are not familiar with ‘the probability of the consequential rare events’ then I strongly recommend Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’. Shit happens! And when it happens the consequences are huge.

The cost argument:

People believe that nuclear is cheaper, as Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation recently said on record.

The question is: what do we mean by cost? Is it just the cost of constructing and running the plant? Or does it include the cost of nuclear pollution? Does it include the cost of nuclear waste disposal? Does it also include the cost of the ‘unlikely’ accident?

To me it sounds ridiculous to not factor in the cost of an accident, however unlikely, especially if the likely impact is extraordinarily large. That is how business is done, right? If you run an airline you insure the unlikely event of the plane being blown up mid-air. If you run a thermal power plant you will insure the building, machinery, and the lives of people who are likely to be impacted in case of a rare accident, wouldn’t you? And the cost of insurance will be part of the cost of doing business.

It appears that there is no insurance company in the world that is willing to insure all the fall-outs of a nuclear meltdown. If you found one, my contention is that the cost of insurance will make the project unviable. It will be by far more expensive than any other form of energy. If you look at the cost associated with the Chernobyl disaster you might realize why insurance companies are not competing with each other to grab the business of insuring nuclear power plants.

It is difficult to get to the exact death-toll attributable to the Chernobyl accident. The numbers vary from 4,500 to 1 million (New York Academy of Sciences). Greenpeace and World Health Organization (WHO) have indicated that the official numbers are a gross underestimation. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) numbers, simply because it is their mandate to encourage nuclear power. Incidentally, it appears that they have effectively prevented WHO from conducting independent research in this area.

What about the cost of ill health for the estimated 8.5 million people who were exposed to high level of radiations? The effect is expected to be borne even by the children born to parents exposed to radiation. What about the cost to the 800,000 or so liquidators who were recruited to deal with the site immediately after the accident. Apparently 90 per cent of them have bad health. How do you estimate the cost of contaminated lakes, rivers, and groundwater and the cost of contaminated food supply? How do you estimate the cost of evacuating a city and villages?

According to a BBC report President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine estimated the accident cost Ukraine around $120bn to $130bn. According to some estimates ‘in the first 25 years the direct economic damage to Belarus, Ukraine and Russia has exceeded $500 billion’.

And now 25 years after the event, they are building a ‘New Safe Confinement’ structure at Chernobyl that is likely to cost in the region of $1.6 billion. And this of course is not permanent because the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. People will keep paying for this disaster for thousands of years. And what if there is a major natural disaster in the mean time and the containment is partially or fully disturbed?

We can argue about the finer points about the delay by the Soviet government, or the rot in the communist world etc., but please do keep in mind that this was NOT the worst case scenario. There is no guarantee that a worst accident will not happen. Also it may be useful to remember that the density of population in most parts of India is much higher. And also, that we neither have the Soviet style resources nor the Japanese style efficiency. If you have any doubts about this, just go look at Bhopal, apparently the factory is still leaching toxins.

There is no other option argument:

Given global warming, pollution etc., there is no other option. This is the tricky one, because it seems reasonable and till recently I was unsure how to address this issue in my own mind.

Here is what I think now. Indulge me, please. World history is replete with examples of hanging on to a familiar bad thing because a ‘good’ alternative was not obvious, or clear. But eventually human ingenuity figures a way out. When people talked about abolishing slavery, apparently one ‘reasonable’ sounding argument against it was that the economy will come to a grinding halt, because there will be no cheap labour. Some Englishmen argued in favour of staying in India because they were ‘worried’ that India wouldn’t know how to govern itself. Some people still argue against abolishing all forms of child-labour in this country by citing terrible hardships that may befall the children and their families.

I don’t have an alternate solution. But that should not dissuade us from realizing the horrendous inhumanity of the current solution. Only once we reject a ‘bad’ solution will we invest our energy into finding a ‘good’ one.

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First published on April 27, 2011
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