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It is the devil’s alternative

Shutting down nuclear reactors will hasten global warming. It’s a tough choice. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: May 04, 2012 20:29 IST

Today, for the first time since 1966, Japan’s electric power will be completely nuclear-free as the last operating plant in Tomari, Hokkaido, goes offline. The growing anti-nuclear lobby is claiming victory, industry is deeply depressed and there are public protests against plans to bring other reactors online.

All of Japan’s 54 reactors, which supplied a third of its energy needs, were shut down after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, some for fear of more tsunamis and some more for routine inspection and refurbishment. Now, in an increasingly anti-nuclear climate, no municipality is willing to restart reactors in their jurisdiction.

Fukushima made nuclear energy a political issue in several countries, including India, where it powered the agitation against the Kudankulam facility. Most notably, Germany committed to shut down all power reactors in a decade. This summer, nuclear-free Japan will see a de facto referendum on the question. As temperatures rise and power demand grows, its people may be exposed to a uniquely Indian summer — load shedding is predicted.

The nuclear question is an unusual debate. Shutting down reactors immediately would escalate fossil fuel use, increasing emissions and hastening global warming. And ironically, the very groups which oppose nuclear energy are also agitated about climate change.

It’s the devil’s alternative, like another contemporary issue — can we reasonably expect to enjoy both security and privacy? The world’s most populous nations are putting their money on security. China may soon outstrip Britain as the nation with the largest number of surveillance cameras per capita. Since China is vastly more populous than Britain, that’s a phenomenal number of cameras, which will erase the notion of privacy in public spaces. Meanwhile, India is creating a database of databases on its citizens anchored by the Aadhaar card, which will be almost as omniscient as the almighty.

God knows what’s on your mind. A camera or a card does not, but the systems behind them can read behaviour patterns and hazard a reasonable guess. That’s what makes them the devil’s alternative, if the ungodly get access to them. They may help to nail criminals and terrorists but they treat law-abiding people on par with them until proven innocent. Decent people live in fear of terrorism but they cannot live comfortably under pervasive surveillance either.

Devil’s alternatives represent a new challenge for governments and the voters who elect them. Privacy concerns can be laid to rest by legislating stringent, punitive laws against the misuse of data, but no government would want to do that. Because governments themselves love to lurk and eavesdrop.

The nuclear debate is easier to resolve. What’s happening in Japan suggests that no one wants a reactor in their backyard. The obvious answer is to situate nuclear power reactors in mid-ocean, where they would only rile groups concerned about marine life and the seabed.

Dear reader, I’ll leave you to ponder this slightly facetious solution. I’m checking out. This is my last column on this page, which has been my comfort zone for some years. Next week, I take on a new assignment at another fine newspaper. Personally, it was a difficult choice. But finally, you do what you want to do. How else can you handle the devil’s alternative?

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 04, 2012 20:26 IST