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Don't press the panic button

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:36 IST

Hindustan Times
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With at least four Japanese reactors in various stages of crisis, it is inevitable that questions are being asked about the safety and costs of nuclear power. New Delhi, along with the governments of most industrial economies, insists it will not pull back from existing plans to expand the role nuclear power will play in the country's energy profile. Like most governments, New Delhi has called for a review of existing safety procedures and technology - and stopped there. At the heart of this reluctance to reconsider the nuclear option are three issues. One is a recognition that no technology is without risk. The real issue is whether the benefits of such a technology outweigh such risks. Nuclear power is particularly tricky because of the unusual toxicity of radioactive substances. The other issue is that nuclear power comes with an added benefit because of increasing concerns regarding fossil fuels - that they may be on a forever rising price curve and that they are contributing to catastrophic climate change. The truth is that, for now, nuclear power remains the only economically viable renewable source of energy. Finally, for countries like India who live in geopolitically tough neighbourhoods, having some reactors is an essential component of national security. If one is going to have some reactors, it makes little sense not to benefit from the electricity they generate.

The Fukushima emergency notwithstanding, the truth is nuclear power has a relatively good safety record. When things have gone wrong, it is often because some basic precautions or poorly thought through acts have been taken. What lessons can be drawn from Fukushima? The first is to have the best technology available. The Fukushima reactors were due for retirement. The Department of Atomic Energy says the newer Indian reactors would be able to cool their cores even if their power systems were knocked out - a circumstance that lies behind the present problems in Japan. The second is to avoid seismically active areas. India is generally less geologically unstable than Japan, but keeping reactors away from potential tsunami zones and the Himalayas is plain common sense. The third, and the one area where Japan excels and question marks arise over India's capability, is to have well-rehearsed and thought-out safety procedures and drills. The Indian nuclear system's drills have been described as infrequent and half-hearted. And the fact the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the industry watchdog, is subordinate to the department it is supposed to be overseeing does not inspire confidence. India has an additional security concern in terrorism.

There is no reason to panic about nuclear power. Every nation has understood that maintaining options regarding energy sources is a crucial element of national security and prosperity in the coming century. Nuclear power should not be taken off the table. But there can be no excuse for not taking the fullest precautions to ensure that the risks that go with this, or any other technology, are contained or controlled.