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Nuclear mystique

For such a controversial technology, nuclear power leads a charmed life. It is no longer seen as the economic wunderkind it was in the 1950s when experts predicted it would mean electricity "too cheap to meter". But almost no country has surrendered the nuclear option. Japan disaster timeline

delhi Updated: Mar 20, 2011 01:48 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

For such a controversial technology, nuclear power leads a charmed life. It is no longer seen as the economic wunderkind it was in the 1950s when experts predicted it would mean electricity "too cheap to meter". But almost no country has surrendered the nuclear option.

The sector has suffered enormous setbacks. Three Mile Island placed a moratorium on new reactors in the United States. Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history, sank public support for nuclear power across Europe.

But a rebound has followed the recession. The past decade has seen a huge surge in nuclear demand. At the forefront has been China's frantic "reactor a month" drive, with India and other emerging economies in its wake.

Even the West began talking themselves out of three decades of nuclear paralysis. Climate change gave nuclear power a green halo.

Despite Fukushima, governments have insisted that what happens in Japan will not dilute commitment to nuclear power. And nowhere is this stronger than in places like China and India.

Here are some of the reasons the nuclear mystique has proven so enduring.

The original motive for post-World War reactor building was the belief they would provide abundant and cheap power. This was true, if one factored out the headache of radioactive waste. The real dampener was that fossil fuels remained wildly cheap in those early years.

The 1970s' Arab oil embargoes frightened countries that depended on imports. Countries like France, Japan and the US began efforts to expand their nuclear power capability.

The Fukushima reactors, points out Jacques Hymans, a University of Southern California specialist in nuclear social psychology, "were built in the 1970s during Japan's high growth period. At that time Japanese government and business elites had an insatiable demand for energy."

A similar urgency is being felt in China and other fast-growing economies wary of fuel imports.

Even as Fukushima was on, Zhang Lijun, the vice-minister for environment, said "China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power."

France is the nuclear poster child. Its reactors provide 70% of its electricity needs, give it an enviable carbon profile, and drastically reduce its dependence on fuel imports.

Ironically, given the N-word has always had four letters for environmentalists, talk of a new nuclear renaissance was legimitised in the developed world by climate change.

Nuclear is still the only renewable energy that can compete with fossil fuels in terms of cost and provide baseload supply needed by industry. And it's a winner in carbon-saving.

David Victor of Stanford University has calculated that 30,000 megawatts of Indian nuclear power would save the world as much carbon as the European Union's entire Kyoto Protocol commitments.

Climate change has given left of centre politicians like Barack Obama cover to become nuclear power advocates. Fukushima may gag this for a few years, but if the global economy recovers so will the global warming debate.

Making a silicon chip is technologically tougher than building a reactor, but most countries take greater power in building the latter. This is particularly true of rising national powers where nukes are often wrapped in a flag.

In India, argues Priyanjali Malik, author of India's Nuclear Debate, harnessing the atom was embedded in the country's vision of modernity.

In 1948 Jawaharlal Nehru said "that if we are to remain abreast of the world as a nation which keeps ahead of things, we must develop this atomic energy."

India's nuclear consensus is set in concrete. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have barely caused a ripple in the stance of both national parties. The same is true of China.

"Nuclear technology is also a symbol of strategic capability of a country…just like in India," said Li Hong of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

Beijing plans wants to add a staggering 68000 MW in nuclear capacity over the next five years.

A handful of countries have given up their nuclear weapons. Very few have given up on nuclear power. Italy did so post-Chernobyl - but imports nuclear-powered electricity from France.

The dirty secret of nuclear reactors: many countries hold on to them because it means they are 70% of the way to having an atom bomb. They are an insurance policy disguised as a mutual fund.

The US nuclear programme was weapons first, electricity second. But even pacifist Japan set out with a plan to ensure the country was "one screwdriver twist" away from a nuclear deterrent. India was similarly ambivalent.

"India's acquiring of nuclear reactors helped it come closer to weapons capability," says physicist R Rajaraman of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Thus as Iran moves closer to making a nuclear weapon, ever more countries in its neighbourhood are suddenly finding a desire for reactors - the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt being among them.

It is the mix of these motivations - economic, status and security -that ensure nuclear power has a political half-life close to infinity. The potency of each reason may rise and fall, but the policy holds steady.

Says Hymans, "For a long time India's nuclear program was driven by prestige considerations, plus the thought of potential weaponisation. Now that their country has entered a high growth period, Indian elites see a purely economic value in nuclear energy as well."

With the ways of the world ever more uncertain, one can bet many countries will pursue a nuclear dream despite the Fukushima nightmare.

(With inputs from Reshma Patil in Beijing, Yashwant Raj in Washington)