More on nuclear power

Madhumita Dutta responds in The Hindu to my previous article in that paper. My response also appears.

My response is not much less brief than this post. I am working on a longer response addressing many other points raised on this blog, on email, in person, and elsewhere.

Reply to Prof Atul Chokshi

Prof Atul Chokshi sent me a longish e-mail last Friday in response to my article on Kudankulam. I replied the same day. He has now published his e-mail (perhaps slightly edited) on Dianuke. Go read it. Below is my response (verbatim except for a couple of deleted and irrelevant sentences) that I sent him on Friday.

Date: Fri, 14 Sep 2012 22:13:43 +0530
From: Rahul Siddharthan
To: Atul Chokshi
Subject: Re: Your Hindu op-ed on Koodankulam

Dear Atul,

Thanks for your detailed mail. I am surprised that nobody in IISc was
willing to speak up for nuclear plants: I have had only positive
responses from other scientists so far (including the colleagues I
alluded to, who have previously protested nuclear weapons), and the
only other negative response (not counting comments on the Hindu's
page) was from a journalist who thought I was too rough on the DAE!

Regarding your points, if I respond it may be even longer than your
mail, but I will try anyway. But basically, I agree with some things
you say, disagree with others, and fully agree that scientists should
have more debate. Being an articulate writer, perhaps you can write a
counterpoint to my article?

Someone pointed to an earlier Hindu article by Suvrat Raju and M V
Ramana, calling Kudankulam "untenable":
But I did not find it very convincing. (Raju, by the way, is also a
scientist at a DAE institution, namely HRI Allahabad.)

Regarding your specific points:

> Unlike George Monbiot, I turned the opposite way after Fukushima, so
> that I am now a nuclear energy skeptic, especially for India. This
> is largely to do with our cultural casual attitude to safety on many
> fronts, and the related trust deficiency with the nuclear industry
> (worldwide) and our Govt. As you have rightly pointed out, the lack
> of an independent regulator is one of the key problems. However,
> even with an independent regulator, the implementation of the
> regulatory orders will remain perhaps a bigger challenge.

I fully agree with your concerns about our attitude to safety and feel
that any regulatory body should have international representation and
some sort of punitive power. That said, I feel the DAE has one of the
better safety records internationally and this is unlikely to change.

> While nuclear energy may be relatively clean during regular
> operation, there are several factors such as mining, getting the ore
> to the necessary concentration for use, and other factors which add
> to the environmental burden so that nuclear power is not as benign
> as it is advertised. It is substantially better than coal, but then
> so are many other renewable possibilities. You may be surprised to
> know, as I was, that because of the small concentrations in ores the
> current nuclear plants need almost as much mining as coal for a
> similar energy (as Arati has shown) - a comparison is misleading
> when it is coal vs U235 (usually shown as 1 kg of U235 ~ million kgs
> of coal).

I would like to see some numbers here (reference to Arati's article?)
My understanding is, while thorium is scattered in the sands, uranium
tends to be easier to mine. I am no expert in any of this, however.

Regarding other renewal possibilities, I am even less convinced.
While Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear plants, it buys
substantial amounts of electricity from France, which runs mainly on
nuclear plants and exports much of its production (except, apparently,
during cold spells, because much of French heating is electric). But
indeed if German solar power turns out to be a success story, that
will be good news.

> Nuclear power plants have a long gestation period, even without
> local protests. Despite the large-scale planned increase in the
> number of nuclear plants in India, the influence of this on carbon
> emission in India will be marginal at least over the next two
> decades, as current plans involve substantial increase in coal power
> until 2050.

This is unfortunately true. However, the 2000 MW at Kudankulam and
9000 MW at Jaitapur should not be dismissed and, if rejected, will
have to be replaced by other means. These projects are on the verge
of completion and that is part of my problem with these agitations.
Even apart from environmental concerns, cancelling the project means a
waste of tens of thousands of crores of public money, for what seem to
me scientifically very dubious reasons.

> Furthermore, with the ongoing global warming and
> erratic weather, several nuclear plants have had to reduce power
> (and possibly shut down temporarily) during summer time because of
> reduced water and higher temperatures in rivers. I was shocked to
> learn that there have not yet been any large scale emergency
> evacuation exercises in India. Even after Fukushima, there was a
> news report of a successful offsite emergency exercise conducted
> near Tarapur, but when one goes beyond the headlines one discovers
> that the exercise involved moving 100 (yes - the number of zeroes is
> correct!) people from a village - just read about this yesterday.

You are right. But there are many reasons to practise emergency
evacuation, and nuclear meltdowns seem to me the least likely of the
lot. Cyclones and floods would top the list, with non-nuclear
industrial disasters like Sivakasi a close second.

> already a potentially dangerous technology. To add even more to
> this burden, the Govt is planning to import several designs from
> Russia, France and USA. There are likely to be important variations
> in means to handle safety issues, and this will increase the scale
> of complexity that NPCIL will need to deal with.

Again, there are two sides to this. If these are tried and tested
designs there is less cause for concern and safety procedures should
already be well-documented.

> relatively benign options available. Finally, I have not touched
> upon social costs of the choices we make, and to question at what
> level is a democracy a democracy - as it is too easy to use the
> "greater public good" to ram down options on the unwilling. In this
> context, I did feel that you last paragraph was somewhat harsh and
> condescending. Having seen and heard about some of the people
> involved, I know that there is a great understanding of the issues
> involved and people are very committed to the cause they are
> protesting against and for the choices they want to make - such
> language works against fruitful discussion and deliberation.

Yet again, it is a two-sided business and it is too easy, in a
democracy like India, for a minority to hold the country hostage with
unreasonable demands. And I do find the demands of the Kudankulam
crowd (like demanding the blueprints of the plant) unreasonable).

I do know many activists on the ground in Kudankulam and don't doubt
their commitment -- i.e. I don't doubt that they are doing what they
think is right. I do doubt their open-mindedness. I explicitly
offered to help set up a discussion between them and DAE scientists.
They refused because "they already know what DAE has to say." And I
find what is going on in Kudankulam, especially the jal satyagraha,
extremely manipulative -- a cynical imitation of a genuine jal
satyagraha that has been happening in another state, where the
protestors were not demanding a halt to the project, but merely
implementation of Supreme Court orders on rehabilitation and
resettlement. Incidentally, it was specifically this that prompted me
to add the last paragraph -- I originally sent it to The Hindu on
Wednesday without that paragraph, and yesterday I asked to add those
lines before publication.

With best regards


Nuclear power and the necessity of oversight

My thoughts on nuclear power and the Kudankulam protests.

In a nutshell: Nuclear power, properly implemented and with safeguards, is not just safe but essential to cut down emission of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution. But an independent and transparent regulatory body is essential. The protestors’ worries are not surprising, but demanding a shutdown of all nuclear projects is unreasonable and not in anyone’s interests — especially not the interests of coastal fishing communities who will be the first affected by rising sea levels and extreme climate.

And the role of certain motivated activists in instigating these protests is despicable. Particularly revolting is yesterday’s news of a “jal satyagraha”, an exploitative imitation of the very genuine protest in Harda. (Note that the Harda people were not demanding a stop to the dam — they were demanding rehabiliation and compensation for their land being usurped, both of which had been promised by the Supreme Court and stalled by the state government.)

Bayes by the Bay

A slightly delayed announcement (previously made via email, G+ and other means): my colleague Ronojoy Adhikari and I are organising a pedagogical workshop from January 4 to 8, 2013, on Bayesian statistics and its applications to various areas of science — biology, physics, climate science, geosciences, computer science an AI, data mining, and other topics. The goal is to introduce these methods in a unified way to a non-expert audience, as well as to explore and stimulate new research areas and collaborations. Go to the workshop webpage for more information and to apply — it’s filling up fairly rapidly.