Two roads to Koodankulam
The protests in Koodankulam have brought the entire debate over nuclear energy into sharp focus. The nuclear energy debate spans questions of safety, environment, ethics, energy-economics, development perspectives and undoubtedly it includes the question of social justice as well — after all the issue of who faces the risks and who benefits from the fruits becomes a contentious one in a country like ours.
The ordinary individual could be easily caught between a volley of powerful arguments, buttressed with formidable figures and powerful rhetoric thrown from both sides — the proponents and opponents of nuclear energy. Just as in India, the debate rages the world over.
Sometimes, looking at events far removed from one’s vicinity helps bring about clarity. We could look at faraway Finland or Flamanville in France. These are two sites that will have the latest EPR (evolutionary power reactor) nuclear reactors. EPR design, while supposedly heralding in a new generation of reactors, lays claim to being the safest and most economical of nuclear technologies for power plants. These are planned to be large and complex plants. Finland was the first to sign up for this technology and the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant was held as the shining example of nuclear resurgence in Europe. For nearly 20 years no nuclear plants had been built in Europe and in 2005 work began at the Olkiluoto 3 site. After six years into construction, in October 2011, a further delay of five years was announced — the original date of commissioning the plant was 2009. This led Areva — the supplier of EPR reactor technology — and TVO, the power plant owner in Finland, to a legal dispute. The costs had spiralled out of control. From the initial estimate of three billion euros it is now expected to touch 6.6 billion euros.
At Flamanville, too, cost overruns are of a similar magnitude where initial estimates were budgeted around three billion euros, and current escalations have led to an overrun that stands at more than double that figure. And the final bill, on completion, is expected to be seven or 7.5 billion euros for the power plant owners. The original date of commissioning for the Flamanville plant was 2013 and it looks as though it will now stretch to 2016. Notwithstanding all this, the construction process has been plagued by all kinds of problems raising quality and safety concerns, making the whole effort an unwieldy gargantuan exercise. The sheer complexity is daunting. China’s Taishan power plants were the next to opt for EPR technology. In these projects, Areva is just a subcontractor.
While there was no information available initially on these, it now emerges that while keeping to schedules does not seem to be a major concern here, several quality and safety concerns have come up in the course of the construction as revealed in inspection reports. The international nuclear safety watchdog, STUK, was shown safety inspection reports from China by the Finnish broadcasting company Yle, which had obtained the reports. STUK has since written to the Chinese authorities requesting for the inspection reports on the EPR projects, it is learnt.
The economics of nuclear power is yet another area that is hotly debated. Be it initial investments, decommissioning expenses or winding up costs — this aspect too is bitterly argued over in this imbroglio. Recently, in August 2012, Exelon Corporation, the US’ largest nuclear power plants operator, withdrew its application to develop two reactors in Victoria, Texas, citing nuclear power plants being uneconomical for now and in the foreseeable future. Exelon withdrew its applications for permits pending at the US nuclear regulatory commission for these projects.
This tells us a lot. In the economics of nuclear energy one has to remember decommissioning reactors involves costs. The decommissioning cost of the Niederaichbach nuclear power plant was 1.9 million euro per MW and if one were to factor in the cost of decommissioning the Finnish EPR it would be around three billion euros.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster, of course, has changed the nuclear debate permanently in ways more than one. The sheer magnitude of the disaster has made several governments roll back their nuclear programmes. But then the proponents of nuclear energy quickly point out that there was the Onagawa nuclear power plant that survived the tsunami despite its greater proximity to the epicentre, just as they respond to the economics of nuclear power by saying that in our developing country, energy is crucial and what is applicable in the US and Europe need not be transported into our reality. The debate gets shriller by the day. VVER — Russian version of the pressurised water reactor — is not the same as EPR.
Arguments and counter-arguments heat up the air. In the end one realises there are two opposing paradigms, and two opposing worldviews locked in an unending battle. Opponents of the nuclear technology are deeply convinced that the nuclear option is fundamentally flawed and is unjust in a very fundamental sense.
The proponents see this as a dogma. While the opponents of nuclear energy say they have their heart in the right place, the proponents’ retort is that their heads are in the wrong place. The proponents are usually hardnosed pragmatists who see all technologies as having risks and hold that it is a question of managing them and trading off wisely. Should we stop all development because there are certain risks, they ask. Moved by a sense of overarching responsibility for all life present and future, the opponents find the supporters of nuclear energy basically embracing a human-centric worldview, driven by macro-economic imperatives, that is myopic and self-centred. A shortsighted and lopsided version of development that is neither sustainable nor fair, they hold. The proponents see the other camp as dreamers and idealists not grounded in reality and even charge the opponents of nuclear power of being oblivious of development imperatives. The opponents are quick to respond that it is the pro-nuclear lot who are oblivious of the plight of the poor, whilst being elitist.
One camp is convinced that security is in exploiting technology and getting to a position of strength, while the other is convinced that only in conviviality lies ultimate security — in a shared world seeking a shared future. The opponents feel morally obligated to their position and see nuclear question typifying a wrong paradigm that has come to dominate the development discourse. In such a divided situation, it’s important that democratic norms prevail and, however long it may take, earnest dialogue in an atmosphere of trust is the way forward and that nobody muscles their way through.
The author is an IT consultant and freelance writer based in The Hague, Netherlands.