ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Nuclear Power at What Cost?

The environmental movement, as it increasingly grapples with the ecological impossibilities posed by the commitment to open-ended economic growth, needs to move beyond its general silence in matters of realpolitik and engage more concretely in that sphere. The ongoing contests in India over the future of nuclear power - seen in Jaitapur and Koodankulam - are part of a fight over two broad visions of the future.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and should not be associated with the author’s affi liation.

A widespread assumption in the current debate on nuclear power is that a rational decision is within reach, if only everyone had access to and was able to understand the science. This approach holds that opposing arguments can be presented, and out of that discord, a rational view validated by scientific understanding and technical soundness would emerge. The ongoing discussions about the safety of nuclear plants or impacts of radiation on human health or the lack of transparency of the nuclear establishment, illustrate this approach. However, it is worth asking whether the debate on nuclear power can be circumscribed by terms alone. What if the science is less than forthcoming with “certainty” and that catastrophic but minuscule risk is normal? What if the commitment to nuclear energy is a predetermined outcome of a particular arrangement of values, visions and ideological preferences? And what if these are less than ideal commitments for living in a shared and finite biosphere?

Much is known about the technical, scientific and economic aspects of nuclear power. We can surmise that nuclear power is abundant, immensely powerful and expensive to build and insure. We know that it is not immune to accidents, which are rare, but impose multi-generational costs when they do occur. We know that the connections between radiation and public health are complex and scientists struggle to furnish results that are beyond debate. It has been understood, especially by early proponents that the safe operation of nuclear power demands “eternal vigilance” (Weinberg 1972: 34). Yet human institutions, even in relatively regimented social milieus such as Japan, have fallen short on this score. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the “argumentative” (borrowed from Sen 2005) and far more spontaneous attitude that populates the Indian milieu is a suitable contender to deliver such vigilance. The absence of transparency and instances of incompetence (e g, the collapse during construction of a part of the inner containment dome at Kaiga unit one) that afflicts the atomic energy establishment serve to further erode confidence in nuclear power.

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