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An Inconvenient Truth

Chennai-based IT professional G Sunderrajan has been on forefront of anti-nuclear power campaigning

Nirupama Sekhri
Publish Date: Sep 7 2016 1:10PM | Updated Date: Sep 8 2016 12:31PM

An Inconvenient Truth

Chennai-based IT professional G Sunderrajan, an active member of Poovulagin Nanbargal (Friends of the Earth) that he insists is a movement more than an organisation, has been on the forefront of anti-nuclear power campaigning. He told Policy Pulse about why it is a bad idea for countries like India and China to be adopting technologies that are being rejected in developed countries 

Considering a third of our population is not connected to the grid, the demand for power and electricity is only set to increase, in such a scenario how inevitable is the use of nuclear power as our government would have us believe?
It is true that a third of our population don’t have access to electricity. But there are few points I would like to raise. When India got into the LPG mode - i.e liberalized, privatized and globalized mode - in 1991-92, our installed capacity was 82,000 MW. At that point in time, 40% of our people didn’t have access to electricity. Now, our installed capacity is 3,00,000 MW and still about 35 crore people don’t have access to  even basic electricity!
People with access to electricity do not enjoy a quality production. This, despite increasing our capacity 4 times. Where has all the produced electricity vanished?
Into malls, IPL matches, SEZs and many more such ‘affordable and luxurious consumers? If all the un-electrified villages of our country has to be electrified, we need only 14,000 more, but India added 16,000 MW of installed capacity in 2015 alone. 
Again, where does our produced electricity go? The development model itself is an issue. How can we set a target to increase the per capita consumption of electricity for the entire country is the question. But, in the process of globalization we have only imitated the western model of development that feeds a fancy lifestyle of the urban rich and completely ignores the needs of our own citizens and demographic.
A mall that is built on a lake in Chennai consumes about 12,000 units of electricity every hour, whereas a village about 25kms away from that mall consumes about 1,000 units per day, which means the electricity consumed by the mall in an hour is sufficient for 12 days in that village. The government is giving 24 hours power supply to the mall and 12 hours supply to that village. Is this a just, fair, sustainable model?
Another important factor is the AT&C loss. The average technical and commercial loss in electricity production, transmission and distribution is about 30-40%. This means that 40% of power that is produced, transmitted and distributed, goes waste. India’s electricity system itself is a “Leaky Bucket” – the electricity produced will only go down the drain. The ‘we need more electricity’ rhetoric by the govt cannot be taken at the face value.
The question is simple: where will you put the money in reducing the losses or increasing capacity. The cost to save electricity per MW is only 50lakhs/MW, whereas we will pay 40 crore/MW to install the Westinghouse plant.
Why has nuclear power generation been opted for by other countries? Are they reviewing and shifting their dependence?
Nuclear Energy was once touted as the future. It was even claimed that it would become so cheap you don’t have to even meter electricity. In reality today, most of the European nations have only made losses in nuclear energy. Germany will dismantle all its nuclear plant by 2022.  The solar renaissance happening there makes the Government pay its people to consume electricity. Italians in a referendum has rejected the nuclear power. Switzerland, Sweden and many more countries have said NO to this devastating method of producing electricity. France is the poster- country of nuclear industry and depends on Nuclear power to the range of 75% and has announced that the dependence will come down to 40% in the coming years. USA has not started one plant since the three mile island accident in 1979. Their claims of building new reactors have only remained largely on paper. The nuclear industry is kept alive in support of the ventilator with the help of countries like India and China. Japan’s dependence on nuclear reactors was about 35 percent but since Fukushima, it has made a shutdown.

Is there any way of generating safe nuclear power?
Not at all. “Atomic energy and Humans cannot co-exist” says a former Japanese Mayor. I would like to quote a data. The total experience of the Human Race in Nuclear reactors is 16,000 reactor years. How is this calculated?
If the govt installs about 6 nuclear plants in Koodankulam and the plant runs for 60 years, it is calculated as 360 Reactor years. In the 16,000 reactor years we have had 3 major accidents and hundreds of small accidents. This means for every 3, 500 reactor years we have a major accident. In Koodankulam  the chance of accident is 1 in 10 (360 in 3,500). let us  even assume for argument sake it is 1 in 100. Will we take a flight if the airline has a history of accident per hundred flights?

Former Finance Minister,  Yashwant Sinha recently mentioned that the present government has diluted the liability clause in India’s nuclear policy? Is there truth in the allegation? Can a tough liability clause help to have safer nuclear plants or get them closed down faster in case of any untoward incident?
Yes. We need to have a strict liability regime. The present liability act itself is a mockery which the suppliers have rejected. The present liability is 1,500 crore for the 1st 5 years. While the constitution says it is absolute liability and polluter pays principle, here is a liability act that limits to 1500 crore. 
Till now the Japanese govt has spent about 15,00,000 crores to clean Fukushima. Why we need a stronger liability regime is that the stricter liability regimes to improve the quality of the components that they supply. GE knew the design fault in the Fukushima. But due to lack of liability laws, they needn’t correct it. Even this weak liability law is not accepted by suppliers like Westinghouse and GE.

Despite powerful protests, the Tamil Nadu government was still able to push through with its nuclear plant in Koodankulam. The coverage of the extent and devastating damage of the Fukushima accident has also not been covered in mainstream media very extensively, how can  greater public interest be generated on the issue?   
The government has pushed through the nuclear plants and protestors have been ruthlessly slapped with various cases including sedition. The people however are still wary of the plant. Though the protestors in Kudankulam enjoyed media support initially, later nothing much happened.
But then, the Kudankulam protestors have inspired many other such struggles against nuclear plants across the country.  I think if there is a debate on nuclear power today, it is because of the historic struggle of people in Kudankulam.
You mention the need for plugging 'leaky' production and developing a distribution model based on fairness and parity, but what other alternatives or longer term, sustainable models do you suggest need more focus - solar, wind, bio? And why?
The best possible and sustainable solutions would be reduction in consumption, equity, minimizing losses and going in for distributed electricity generation systems. 80% of sub-districts require only 15-20MW of power that could be easily managed by a combination of Wind, Solar, Bio-mass, Ocean wave/thermal.
If you were to develop a power policy for India that did not include any nuclear power generation, how do you imagine it.
We need to decentralise the production and distribution of power and go in for Distributed Electricity Generation. This means that a range and variety of small grids generate and/or store energy. This system will help dramatically reduce energy being used to carry electricity, as well support a flexible, locally relevant means of power generation. We need to move away from mega hydro, coal and nuclear generation systems to renewables to reduce harmful environmental effects and ensure a secure supply.
(Interview of  Sunderrajan, an active member of Poovulagin Nanbargal )