Blessing or blight?

Nuclear energy has become an evocative article of faith. Its supporters view it as the obvious answer to the world's rapidly increasing energy appetite and its opponents call it costly, unsafe and unethical. HT Research team tries to assess the viability of nuclear energy as an option for India.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 17:58 IST

Albert Einstein said if the world succeeds in using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, "it will open the way to a new paradise." The humanist scientist briefly supported the US nuclear bomb plans because of his apprehension about the Nazis making it first. Einstein later regretted his decision after the questionable US attack caused atomic catastrophe in Japan.

The tragic attack showed how political implications can alter the entire context of scientific progress. Using building blocks Galileo, Newton and numerous other pioneers left behind, Einstein proved that mass and energy are manifestations of the same thing. His work laid the foundation for splitting the atom and sustaining a nuclear chain reaction.

Nuclear energy has since then become an evocative article of faith. Its supporters view it as the obvious answer to the world's rapidly increasing energy appetite and its opponents call it costly, unsafe and unethical. It is true that some of its harmful effects can't be undone in a thousand years but it is equally true that it can be part of the solution for improving the quality of air we breathe.

HT Research team tries to assess the viability of nuclear energy as an option for India. The adjoining box contrasts some of the biggest rewards of nuclear energy with its main drawbacks and the graphic explains the nuclear fuel cycle. The first article looks at the politics of nuclear power, its many hazards and social and political implications. The second write up analyses the long-term viability of nuclear power in view of India's future energy needs.

In India, the main criticism of nuclear energy has been its high costs. The price of atomic power is nowhere close to the expectations of the fifties when it was hailed as the energy of the future that would be too cheap to meter. Its real current cost is difficult to assess as rival academics have used similar data to arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions. In future, potential advancements like International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) and research in fusion at room temperature could dramatically change the way we look at nuclear power today.

Atomic research is the most significant scientific advancement of our times. Obtaining huge amounts of energy from tiny amounts of matter is only one among countless applications of nuclear physics. Radioisotopes have a great role in medical sciences, agriculture and industry. The future research could indeed open the way to 'a new paradise' as envisaged by Einstein if only the modern world learns to take scientific progress in its right context. Moving towards nuclear disarmament, despite choosing to opt for civilian nuclear programme, could be a milestone in that direction.

First Published: Mar 20, 2006 17:58 IST