When the Group of Eight summit began in Heilingdamm, Germany, everyone agreed that the big issue there would be climate change. With President George W Bush, the world’s most famous skeptic also making noises about climate change, nearly everyone agreed that climate change is a man-made phenomenon and we need to do something about it.
But there is no unanimity on what to do. Some want to banish automobiles, others want cutbacks in lifestyles, Germany and Japan want deeper mandatory cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Bush’s modest proposal is to send the issue to a committee where developed polluters like the US will sit with the developing polluters like India and China to work out ways of dealing with global warming.
The Thursday G8 declaration was neither here nor there. It spoke of “substantial” cuts in emissions, but it did not set any targets, leave alone mandate action. The G8’s shift in favour of nuclear energy, too, is tentative. The declaration notes that “some of the group” believed that “nuclear energy would contribute to global energy security, while simultaneously reducing harmful air pollution and addressing the climate change challenge.”
The alarming evidence of global warming is changing attitudes towards nuclear energy across the West. Beginning with James Lovelock in 2003, several scientists and environmental activists have begun to endorse nuclear power as a way of dealing with global warming. In June 2005, a month before he took the dramatic step to reopen nuclear trade with India, Bush became the first president in 26 years to visit a nuclear power plant, at Calvert Cliffs near Washington, DC, where he endorsed nuclear as an “environmentally friendly” energy source.
As for India, since the 1970s, embargoes have crippled our nuclear power programme, to the point where privately funded wind energy capacity (6191 MW) exceeds our heavily government funded nuclear energy (4120MW). The Indo-US nuclear deal is seen as the key that will open the locks that have been put on us by the advanced countries. The July 18, 2005 Indo-US joint statement notes that the discussions recognised “the significance of civilian nuclear energy for meeting growing global energy demands in a cleaner and more efficient manner.”
Indian per capita incomes today are 45 per cent of that of China and 25 per cent of Brazil. By 2030, we could touch present-day Brazil’s level, but just think: Brazil’s per capita consumption of electricity today is 1,950 units, while it is still 440 in India (and 1,380 in China). India will need to generate 3,880 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2030 to sustain an 8 per cent growth rate. To achieve this, we would need to max our hydro use — tap all our rivers, generate 63,000 MW of nuclear power and 14,000 from wind farms. Even then, 78 per cent of our electricity would have to come from carbon dioxide-spewing coal.
But can we even reach that nuclear target, and play any role in checking global warming? The 2030 target poses huge investment and managerial challenges, its nuclear part still needs to overcome important technological and political hurdles. India works along an indigenous programme based on eventually exploiting our vast thorium resources. But we are only at the beginning of stage II of a technologically complex process which crucially hinges on the amount of plutonium our fast breeder reactors will make, because the country is short of natural uranium. With our current breeder technology we’re not sure yet whether we can produce the amount of plutonium needed to kick off the third stage of the programme based on advanced thorium-based reactors.
The Indo-US nuclear deal is an insurance policy since the imported nuclear fuel will help make up plutonium shortfalls. Most importantly, it will enable us to rejoin the global scientific community from which we have been barred. However, we need to overcome resistance, both in this country and abroad. Non-proliferation lobbies in the US are trying to block the agreement, and back home in India, some of our scientists are convinced that our three-stage nuclear plan, envisaged half-a-century ago, is the only way to go, and that to open doors would undermine our autonomy.
But the world is moving in many new directions, in nuclear policy, as well as technology. The High Temperature Reactor Technology has already been proved in Germany, and is now being taken up in China and South Africa. Importantly, this is also based on using thorium and further, it is safer than contemporary reactors. Thirteen advanced countries have set up a “Gen IV forum” to develop the fourth generation nuclear energy systems. Indian scientists and engineers can benefit from such international collaborations, as well as contribute to them.
By 2030, India will reach the current levels of US carbon emissions, with all its negative implications for global warming. But right now as most Indians know, the problem seems to be having power at all. In just one year — 2006 — China added 60,000 MW of electricity generating capacity. In five years of the 10th five year plan, we missed all targets and managed 40,000. Looked at any way, the choice seems to be not so much between nuclear, wind or thermal energy, but energy from whatever source it comes from. As for global warming...should we care?