Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Upside Down of Nuclear Power

Thanks to the magic of Google, anyone with basic internet skills can write a guide book. During the recent debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal, a cottage industry of self-appointed experts churned out opinion editorials on all sorts of things from technical matters to economics to security. A soup of acronyms boiled over and the result was a terrible mashup of misconceptions, bad ideas and unviable rubbish.

I wish to be very clear for the benefit of jaded readers in this field - The Upside Down of Nuclear Power - is NOT like that.

Someone who knows what they are talking about, can take facts and opinions, and place them in the context of a workable plan of action. The author of The Upside Down of Nuclear Power has done exactly that. He has put in a lot of effort into keeping the vocabulary clear - but there is an unbroken chain that connects all the words in the book - the basic policy statement that - nuclear power is the best form of baseload generation for India .

Those of us who are familiar with GoI literature on such topics will instantly realise that this policy idea is completely independent and distinct from anything the DAE has said on this issue. The DAE's public posture on this issue has been limited to positions set out in the Nehru-Bhabha era i.e. the department only seeks to reduce the technology gap between India and the developed world by building new energy solutions that are responsive to the country's needs.

Very little is known about how India's present electricity needs will evolve. Currently a wide disparity exists between electricity consumption in the urbanised, industrialised, Indian rimland and the rural, agricentric mainland. Everyone acknowledges that this kind of disparity is also echoed in the developmental differences and everyone wants the developmental disparity to heal. However no clear ideas exist on the impact of developmental reforms on electricity needs. Against that backdrop a robust reliable baseload generation option based on locally available "green" fuels makes sense.

However the debate on nuclear power in India is hostage to public perceptions of the DAE's competence to deliver on stated goals. Heretofore the DAE has had difficulty importing nuclear fuels and faced severe technology development hurdles. The lack of fuel and technology development problems have conspired to reduce the quality of nuclear generation low. This has ensured that the position of nuclear power's place in the generation pecking order remained low.

The author appears to have realised that DAE's own efforts on the technology side in last fifty years, and the improved situation vis-a-vis fuel supplies after the Indo-US nuclear deal have completely changed the game. Also growing sci-tech competence in India will significantly reduce the time associated with technology development cycles. This fact is missed by most advocates of renewable energy generation in India.

Despite enthusiastically advocating nuclear power generation in India, the author does not shrink away from discussing the concerns about health safety and environmental degradation. While there is obviously no prescriptive approach that will sufficiently address all the issues that have been raised, there is no attempt being made to hide them. The discussion on nuclear liability issues is quite stark. Try getting such honesty from the sea of people that advocate carbon energy usage.

Similarly the book acknowledges the development costs that come with the advanced fuel cycles proposed in India. However as the author is an economist, the costs of this are subtly contrasted with costs of similar initiatives to reduce emissions from carbon energy sources. That is the kind of thinking that allows you to look past the usual "sticker price" appeals.

All in all, I found the book to be a refreshingly honest affair, written in a style that can be read by ordinary people. Keeping a complex discussion on this topic readable by non specialists without resorting to hype is very difficult and I feel the author has succeeded in that task.

My only minor gripe with this book is the cover, which is somewhat quirky. I feel that it distracts the reader from the book.

That said, I enjoyed the book and I hope you will too.