It was very strange indeed. Nuclear babus at an environment meeting. During the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol - the legally binding protocol for reducing greenhouse gas emissions - in The Hague recently, one issue, among others, that would constantly hold up progress was nuclear power. And every time the issue was raised, India was mentioned as the country leading the pack in favour of this dying source of energy. When confronted, the Indian delegation would hum and haw and push arguments of sovereignty - some cock and bull line that each country has the right to decide which project it will chose - but would also claim that it was not advocating nuclear power per se . However, lurking in their midst was a senior official of the Atomic Energy Commission who had flown in from Mumbai to be part of the official delegation.
The issue is this, will nuclear power be included in the "clean projects" list under the proposed Clean Development Mechanism (cdm). Under this mechanism, industrialised countries, which have to cut their emissions, can invest in cleaner technologies in developing countries and, in turn, get credits for carbon emissions to add to their national balance sheet for carbon accounting. As nuclear plants do not emit greenhouse gas emissions, it could on paper, qualify for such projects.
The problem is that these are green negotiations. And for environmentalists, nuclear power remains an evil energy source that is dangerous with toxic waste impossible to dispose off even five decades after the technology was developed. The issue generated a lot of heat with India being bandied around as the country most desperate to get nuclear power as part of the deal. It was said so often and from such authoritative sources that we knew there was more to it, regardless of what the Indian delegation said.
We wondered why. The Indian government is, at best, not known for strong positions in environmental negotiations. Where then was their motivation coming from? The pieces began to fall together, when a colleague of mine was recently on a panel together with an official of the Confederation of Indian Industry (cii). Ironically, the occasion was a meeting at the local Ukrainian embassy to mark the shut down of the infamous Chernobyl power plant.
The cii official was advocating nuclear power with the zeal of a neophyte. According to him, cii has been putting this proposal before the government with the idea that private investment should be permitted in the nuclear power sector. The man believes that technological problems in nuclear power have been sorted out and it is now clean and safe. That, in fact, more people die in road accidents and air crashes than nuclear accidents.
The problem, however, he admitted is that nuclear energy is very expensive and industry does not have funds. International investment is difficult because there is a long payback period involved as this is not a cost-effective source of power. Therefore, for private investment to boom in this sector, public financial support is required.
Now, the Indian position during the climate negotiations began to make sense. The financial support could come from cdm . The international nuclear industry would get a new lease of life. Its partners in India would be subsidised through financial transfers in the name of climate protection.
This despite the fact that the Indian nuclear establishment has never lacked money or clout. Yet, after decades, it generates less than two per cent of the total power output of the country. In this age of nuclear phase-out, the Indian establishment is proposing to expand its capacity from the current 2,000 megawatt (mw) to 20,000 mw by 2020.
On the other hand, many industrialised countries are spending money to close down their nuclear plants. Germany for instance, has agreed to set a lifespan of 32 years for the country's 19 reactors - closing the last by 2021. For over 20 years there have been no new orders for plants in the us and Europe - except France. Even in France, there is a growing concern as nuclear power is too expensive and the government has to subsidise its sale to neighbouring countries. The recent accident in Japan is forcing a review there.
Even as the world learns more, our government and our industry wear blinkers. A much better option would be to insist that funds for cdm be used to support renewable energy sources - the energy for the future. This is not to say that all energy would come from renewables. But that it could match the target that the nuclear establishment has set and it would be far less dangerous.
It is also important to note that while nuclear energy costs will not fall with additional investment, renewable energy costs, per unit of output generated, will fall with additional investment. Renewable energy is a growing technology with a steep learning curve - has diminishing costs with increasing experience and investment. For instance, solar and wind energy have shown a 20 per cent learning rate over the years, which means that for every doubling of production, there is a 20 per cent reduction in investment costs. Nuclear power on the other hand is a static technology.
But then we are asking for too much, when we ask our government and industrial leaders to make political or economic sense.