World with or without nuclear power plants

Nuclear energy, either for electricity generation or for manufacturing nuclear weapons, is a burning issue and will remain controversial for decades to come. This form of energy follows the equation of Einstein and uses a small mass of radioactive material like uranium or plutonium as fuel to produce energy by nuclear fission.

Some countries like the United States of America, Russia, France, India, China, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran are using nuclear technology for various purposes, mainly focussing on electricity generation. They believe that it is the cleanest form of energy as far as carbon emission is concerned, and produces energy that could meet the growing demand of mammoth economies. Such power plants could prove extremely effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions like carbon-dioxide and nitrous oxide. It could mitigate global warming, which is thought to be the culprit behind the extreme snow in New York, flooding in Nepal and India, drought in Somalia and melting of glaciers in the Himalayas.

There are other countries such as Germany and Japan, which are against the use of this technology. The devastating accident that took place at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima (Japan) on March 11, 2011 after an earthquake was followed by a 14-metre-high tsunami. This nuclear reactor was not designed to withstand an earthquake of such magnitude, and the incident occurred when the backup system supplying coolants to the high temperature rods of nuclear fuel stopped working. This incident was followed by a hydrogen blast in the water storage tank used to store spent fuel, which led to the spread of radioactive material into the surrounding environment. Thus, Japan has decided not to build any new nuclear power plants.

On the other hand, Germany has decided to shut down all of its 17 nuclear power plants by the end of 2022, and currently more than 10 of the reactors have either been decommissioned or are not producing power. This will cost Germany about 1 trillion euros to switch to other renewable forms of energy and coal power plants. Ironically, it along with other European countries are importing electricity, mostly from France, to compensate for the energy deficit, which has 58 nuclear power plants in operation. So, if Germany really wants to set an example for the entire world, it should stop importing such electricity. Emissions of radioactive materials in the event of an accident have serious health complications like cancer, premature births and detrimental genetic mutation for generations.

If one were to summarise nuclear accidents that have occurred till date, the most devastating ones were the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, Fukushima in Japan and Rhode Island incident in the USA. Among these, Chernobyl was the most detrimental because even today it is affecting people and the environment in the vicinity, and the radioactive levels are still thought to be beyond tolerable limits. Most of the people, especially children, have thyroid cancer as plutonium (a radioactive material which has a decay life of millions of years) is still being emitted. Even the scientist who conceptualised this reactor admitted the design was faulty committed suicide.

Iran and North Korea face economic sanctions for their so-called misuse of nuclear reactors. It is believed that they are using the nuclear reactors to manufacture nuclear bombs. Normally, nuclear fuel needs to be enriched up to 3-5 per cent for nuclear power plants, but Iran was said to have been enriching it up to 20 per cent to produce weapons. On the other hand, North Korea is even thought to be using uranium for manufacturing nuclear missiles. Serious implications of a nuclear accident in any part of the world can be transferred within days via water and air.

According to the World Nuclear Association, uranium mines operate in many countries, but more than 85 per cent of it is produced in six countries, namely, Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Namibia, Niger and Russia. These countries are earning billions of dollars just by exporting such fuels used in majority of the nuclear power plants. This is contributing immensely to their economy and generating employment.

According to the Department of Mines and Geology of Nepal, Mustang has a huge deposit of uranium. Thus, if Nepal could mine and export the “yellow cake” (a preliminary form of U-235 and U-238) to India and China, it could earn billions. However, considering the lean infrastructure and expertise, it might be early for Nepal to reap the benefits from such mines. In the absence of a national policy and guidelines for mining such radioactive materials, it would be inappropriate to initiate any mining. Moreover, mine workers and the people living in the vicinity of the mining area could see health implications if not handled properly with safety protocols as per international standards.

Chand is a consultant at the Office of the Investment Board