03/14/2014 - 10:23

Conspiracy-mindedness and nuclear machismo

My Round One essay has attracted a lot of apparently orchestrated criticism in the comments section. Sadly, the commenters don't usefully address the safety issues that surround the untested Chinese nuclear reactors that are to be installed close to Karachi, my home city. Rather, they exemplify the mindset of nuclear nationalists everywhere, especially nuclear officials in countries such as Pakistan and India.

For nuclear nationalists it is quite common to vilify, as agents of foreign powers and nongovernmental organizations, people who are concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants. Even Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India—whom I consider a decent man otherwise—recently raged against protesters at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and attributed their opposition to the influence of American nongovernmental organizations. (Whom does Singh blame for antinuclear sentiment in the United States—the commies?) Meanwhile, a rightwing Hindu movement called the Sangh Parivar sees a Christian proselytizing hand behind the Kudankulam protests.

All this conspiracy-minded nonsense detracts from serious discussion of nuclear power in developing countries. Yes, more energy is desperately needed, but can the risk of nuclear disaster be made acceptably small? And just how does one define "acceptably?" No single answer exists, and I don't pretend to provide one. But surely people can learn to debate an important issue reasonably, without imputing foul motives to those with whom they disagree.

Concerns about nuclear power are prevalent in every country where the technology exists or is being developed. In a number of developing countries, these concerns are having an impact on policy. We learn from my roundtable colleague Yun Zhou that even energy-hungry China has become less gung ho about nuclear power since Fukushima. The Chinese government now expects that 58 gigawatts of nuclear capacity will be installed by 2020 instead of the 80 gigawatts contemplated earlier, and design requirements are being tightened. Even in a country where dissent is generally not tolerated, public fears about the negative environmental consequences of nuclear power have made some difference. We learn from Sulfikar Amir that nuclear ambitions have been downsized in Indonesia as well—two reactors are now slated to be built there instead of the four reactors planned a few years ago. This stems from public doubt about the government's capacity to ensure public safety and its poor mitigation record following natural disasters.

But Pakistan and India, two nations with abysmal records in disaster management, have simply shrugged off the Fukushima experience. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission has just announced that, with Chinese help and financing, it plans over an unspecified (but short) period of time to increase nuclear capacity, which currently amounts to about 700 megawatts, to an astounding 4 gigawatts. India plans by 2020 to increase nuclear capacity from about 6 gigawatts, its current level, to 20 gigawatts.

Why are India and Pakistan bucking the trend? The answer lies partly in economics—but even more in nuclear machismo. Both countries' atomic energy establishments are well-funded and also house large and growing nuclear weapons programs. Massive, rapid expansion of nuclear power is driven by a conviction that all things nuclear—whether bombs or power—are a sign of national virility, success, and progress. But this false belief means that the development of alternative energy sources takes a back seat.

India has only begun to scratch the surface of its abundant wind and solar potential—but the results so far are good. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy reports that the country has an installed capacity of about 30 gigawatts of renewable grid power (including wind, solar, and a few other categories). Although renewable sources are being utilized at rates far below their potential, they already produce more energy in India than does nuclear power. Pakistan, unfortunately, has hardly begun to develop its wind and solar potential—as I noted in Round One, the total capacity of currently installed windmills is a mere 50 megawatts, which is a pittance compared to the potential 50 gigawatts of power that the country's wind corridors are thought to be capable of producing.

Rapid development of nuclear energy sucks away scarce capital and expertise that developing countries could put to more productive uses. Wind turbines and solar plants, for example—unlike imported turn-key nuclear power plants, which are enormously complex—could be manufactured locally, providing an important stimulus to a nation's economy. But when nuclear energy is conflated with national security strategy, it is very hard for alternative energy to receive the attention it deserves.