Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Nuclear Noclear

Amidst all the ruckus caused in the Indian Parliament by the Women’s Reservation Bill, you could be forgiven for having not noticed the stalemate regarding the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010. You would even be forgiven for yawning at the very mention of this “exciting” piece of legislation. Spare a minute to consider how important this is.

Anybody even remotely familiar with India will easily relate to the abysmal power situation in the country. That Indians have come to accept power cuts as a way of life is a sad commentary on Indian stoicism. The worst way to solve the power situation is for each building and shop to own a DG set – it’s the most inefficient and polluting solution possible and yet this is exactly what we do.

As India grows, its power needs will multiply manifold. Where will this power come from ?? Coal ? Too polluting. Hydel ? Not much scope and in any case the likes of Medha Patkar will make it impossible to implement. Oil ? Will increasingly become unaffordable. Solar ? Too costly and the technology is not developed enough to be deployed on scale. Wind ? Tidal ? Ditto – same problem. There is really only one solution – Nuclear.

The word nuclear raises all sorts of visions of Armageddon. In today’s world there seems to be scare mongering and general distrust of science – witness the furore on genetically modified crops. But nuclear power generation can be as safe as any other means of generation, and less polluting. Sure safety standards have to be incredibly rigorous. But there is no risk free ticket to growth and prosperity. There has to be a balance of growth, risk, environment and a whole host of competing considerations.

This is part of the reason why Manmohan Singh was ready to risk his government to sign the US deal a few years ago. India has since then steadily progressed on this front. Multiple agreements have been signed with France and Russia. Now there needs to be legislation to cap liabilities in case of a nuclear accident , which is why the bill with the highly exciting name was introduced. The cap on liabilities is required to make any supplier of nuclear reactors to do business with you – the threat of unlimited liability is simply not a risk any company would take. At first sight, this might sound like a sell off of interests to US companies ; but it isn’t ; there are already international conventions on this subject - the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy, etc. India needed this bill to sign some of the conventions.

Opposition parties have shouted hoarse that this is a sale of national sovereignty to US companies (using whatever lung power they have left after the yelling over the Women’s Reservation Bill). Our elected representatives are not known for their dispassionate evaluation of issues on merit. Very likely, this bill will be shelved. And the power situation will drift, as it always has. Meanwhile, Indians will learn to live with more power cuts. And the rich will keep buying DG sets. And as a nation, we will keep finding the most inefficient way to meet the requirements of power.

I’ll leave you with this thought. When I came to China, I one day asked my IT colleagues, where is the UPS and what is its capacity. I was met by puzzled faces. UPS ?? What is UPS ?? The concept of a power cut is alien in this place.


G3 said...

Me First :)

G3 said...

//I was met by puzzled faces. UPS ?? What is UPS ?? The concept of a power cut is alien in this place//

Kuduthu vecha makkals :)

Anonymous said...

!!! UPS ilaya anga!! wow..u know nuclear is anagram for unclear :D :D namma oor makalukagavay apdi name panirukanga nenakren :D :D

Ramesh said...

G3 - Not kuduthu vecha makals - their government acted. They set up power generating capacity 10 years ahead of demand. They don;t give free colour TVs and loan write offs. Just good policies.

@gils - Trust you to point out the anagram !! France is the country to follow in this regard - 78% of France's power generation is nuclear.

Anonymous said...

//They don;t give free colour TVs and loan write offs. Just good policies.

ROTFL :D :D chinaku auto anupa mudiathungara thairiathula talkinga :D :D

RS said...

This was the only policy the pm was adament about. Now, that will be shelved too?? Btw, where will these 'elected representatives' find power to lure farmers with free supply after 5years?? maybe, that's why they've shifted to free color tvs and lands....

Ramesh said...

@Anon - Absolutely. Inga auto vara chancey illa. Vanda, drivera jailla pottu thalaya vettituduvanga !!

@RS - No, I don't think it would fall away. Manmohan Singh is still pushing this. The trouble is the Congress political capital is being spent on the Women's Reservation Bill.

mahesh said...

No UPS... wow thats an achievement. Is that all over the country or only in key cities?

Dont suffer power-cut problem in Bombay so quiet lucky in that regard but am sure the day is not far when we will face it.

Had heard of the Chinese power plant building capability when I was in SA where they had a power shortage and they compared themselves to China. Apparantely the capacity expansion that was being planned by SA in next 10 years (MW) was equal to what China was expanding in a year...

ambulisamma said...

This issue was taking a front seat 1.5 years back,am not passing any judgement here but still my question is how much of a power supply demand can nuclear stations satisfy?
i remember reading one neutral review that said,nuclear power will not even meet 10% of our demand,also cost involved and wastes?

Srivats said...

ditto i got the same puzzled look when i lived in singapore. some of my friends dont even use batter adapter to laptop, as there would be no power cuts, its directly on power.

I always thought nuclear power has more issues than advantages, dumb me. U wrote it really well.

Yes we indians have learnt to live in regular power cuts, more so in summar, when i saw the earth hour advert, I laughed out loud, bhayya we are doing it everyday , what more do they want!

On a differnt note, its like smoking again, i mean reading ur post, such a kick I tell u, I missed ur writing so much!

kiwibloke said...

trust good ol' nz do something exotic. No NUCLEAR, so much so in the eighties they stopped an American warship (Nuke powered) entering Auckland (thereafter relationship with uncle sam has been frosty!) A stated policy of not going Nuclear. Instead NZ does a lot of Hydel (quite expected), geothermal(uniquely blessed!) and wind. Strange factoid: NZ has enough coal for the next 700 years(that's right!) of power demand. NO MINING, as coal mining will spoil our clean green image!

Adesh Sidhu said...

I visited Ahmedabad two years back and I also asked about power back-up. Person said not required here anymore.
Point is India is making progress but the pace is not enough. And China is fast taking lead in solar and wind energy. It is already become a biggest exporter of wind energy and solar energy equipments and day is not far when whole world will be looking towards China for their energy needs.
Before this year budget, I saw an advertisement which said 'India talks, China executes'. I think it sums up the difference.

Sandhya Sriram said...

the sad part of this country is that the crowd which understands dosent matter and the crowd which matters dosent understand. and the point where the crowd which matters is going to feel the difference, it is far too long to link such big measures to changes.thankfully someone is finally thinking long term in this country and wish this is felt by the country with the same intensity.

Thanks to you Ramesh, i was also a lil confused on whether what the Govt is doing is correct or not. now i agree with you,, completely.

Ramesh said...

@Mahesh - Yes, the Chinese are building for decades ahead, but the issue is easily solvable in India. For a long long while, Bombay has been an oasis of power. As Adesh observed, Ahmedabad today is like that. With a right policy, its easily solvable.

@ambulisamma - We have to create massive generation capacity if we are to grow. The cheapest source is coal (this is what the Chinese use the most). Unfortunately its also the dirtiest and is not really an option. So of the alternatives, nuclear seems a very good alternative. We should do more hydel , oil too, but my argument is a massive investment in nuclear. How much it can meet is simply a function of how many nuclear power plants we are willing to open. For the next ten years it can only be a small proportion of our requirement. But in infrastructure,, the planning horizon has to be 25 years. If we invest now, 10 years later, the situation will be quite different. The French model is the right one I believe.

@Sri - I should not say nuclear power does not have risks - it does. But is the risk manageable and acceptable. I think so. I am arguing that it is better than the alternatives. Take two contrasting approaches. The US has stopped building nuclear power plants for a long time. They believe anything nuclear is dirty. The French have 80% of their power coming from nuclear.

@kiwi - Oh NZ would do that - they are virulently opposed to anything that begins with a N !! Its a right strategy for them - very few people; not much growth and in Thalassa, who needs more power anywhere.

@Adesh - I have heard similar things about Gujarat, although I haven't lived there for a long while now. China's power strategy has its disadvantages too. They rely massively on coal. The environmental damage they are doing is simply massive - every place here has a pollution problem that is astronomical. But they do execute very well. That's a recent phenomenon however - in the 60s and 70s, their execution wasb worse than India's.

@Sandhya - That's a beautiful quote - about the crowds that. matter. Very quotable. On the way the nuclear issues has been handled for the last 2-3 years, the nation owes a massive tribute to Manmohan Singh. Personally . Not the govt; not the party, but the man. This was actually initiated by Vajpayee. Unfortunately the BJP has chosen to oppose this simply for political expediency.

RamMmm said...

I disagree with some aspects of your post. France and Russia have reactors here, because their government underwrites the liability for their suppliers. US being the bulwark of free-markets, doesn't do so. I do agree that unlimited liability is not something that aids business, but the uproar seems be more around where that cap is or should be. We absolutely do not want a Chernobyl here (nor can we absorb it) nor another Union Carbide, which almost got scot-free due to loose laws here and which still drags. Or well, let us take our time and build it with proper safeguards. INR 500 crores (liability for a supplier) seems inadequate to handle a nuclear fallout in case disaster strikes because of the proximity of our reactors to populated areas. Our politicians stash far more than this in their Swiss lockers, but that is one more bigger problem to look at.

Nuclear energy is definitely the best way for India, but let us debate this and move it forward with what could be the right caps and in the right sense.

On the lighter side, we are well equipped for a 2012esque disaster. We survive like a roach, handling power cuts with aplomb, fed on a ration of power and handling the inevitable cuts with UPS and then open our doors and windows, when the UPS dies. And we won't die, if there are even week-long power cuts. We thrive on adversity.

Ramesh said...

@RamMmm - An excellent point of view Ram. Yes the US does not underwrite liabilities. Rather than put massive liabilities on suppliers, I would argue for extremely stringent safety standards and monitoring - that's a better deterrent than the threat of massive liabilities. Secondly, the cap is for the manufacturers; governments will need to add to the potin case something happens. But after reading your comment, maybe the focus should be to increase the cap, but not jettison the bill.

Thanks for a very insightful opinion.

Vishal said...

Very insightful thoughts, Ramesh! it was kind of an eye-opener. Quite often I observe most of the impediments to our growth as a nation are due to few VVIPs who make it to Lok Sabha by whataever means. And I keep coming back to golden words "we deserve what we choose"

I liked this one too :-)

//But there is no risk free ticket to growth and prosperity. There has to be a balance of growth, risk, environment and a whole host of competing considerations//

Ramesh said...

@Vishal - I can readily accept disagreement on merit from the MPs, but then simply disagreeing because you are not the party in power and having no clue of the issues is crazy.

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