VIEW: Shed no nuclear tears— Saleem H Ali
Instead of trying to emulate and compete with India we should consider the way countries like Thailand have developed. One thing is quite clear, the nuclear deal is bad news for India and indeed a silver lining for Pakistan. The closure of the nuclear option will force the government to focus on alternative, renewable and more cost-effective energy strategies
Celebration and consternation over India’s nuclear deal with America continues across the subcontinent. Yet, there has been little analysis of the wider repercussions for India or Pakistan of a civilian nuclear energy programme. Instead, the hawks and the doves have been quarrelling about whether commercial links or security concerns should take precedence in Indo-US relations.
Pakistanis, who see themselves in perpetual misplaced competition with India, are not seeing the silver lining in this cloud. The reality is that there is absolutely no economic or environmental advantage to a civilian nuclear programme for either country.
Unfortunately, the public has been led astray by protests over dam projects and fossil fuels being relegated to the margins due to concerns over supply or climate change. People are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon without much analysis of the issues.
Let us first consider the options available to India for energy security. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi estimates that the Indian government will have to spend over $700 billion on energy infrastructure to meet the energy needs of the country over the next 25 years. Of this investment we should consider which energy alternative is the most cost-effective as well as environmentally desirable for the country. Despite the Bush administration’s euphoria over nuclear energy the reality is that it remains among the most expensive forms of energy per kilowatt hour. Much of the technology transfer that the US plans for India would focus on developing fuel reprocessing technologies. This creates the illusion of reducing wastes and being cost effective.
But reprocessing of nuclear fuel does not reduce fuel but can only reduce the amount of mined uranium. France, among the world’s leading nuclear energy users, spends about $1 billion per year on reprocessing plutonium fuel to avoid using more uranium. Plutonium fuel obtained by reprocessing (also called mixed-oxide fuel or MOX) is two to three times costlier than uranium fuel.
Apart from the machismo of being a nuclear energy producer, increased investment in nuclear power makes little economic sense. By playing around with discount rates the nuclear industry can sometimes come up with ostensibly cost-effective comparisons with other fuels but there is little doubt that the construction cost of a nuclear power plant is inordinately higher than any other source. On average a modern nuclear power plant costs over $2 billion.
In a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the all-inclusive cost for a nuclear power plant operating over 40 years is 6.7 cents per kilowatt, which is almost twice the cost for natural gas at current prices. If non-renewable fuels are to be the focus of India’s energy policy, natural gas should certainly take precedence. Indeed, the more important feature of President Bush’s visit to South Asia was his reference to the Iran gas deal.
Apart from helping improve relations between the nuclear neighbours, the gas deal would provide energy to India at an enormous discount over even world market rates for gas. According to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington, the spot market prices for natural gas are $13 to $14 per million BTU (British Thermal Units). The Iranian gas delivered via pipeline through Pakistan would cost India around $3.5-$4 per million BTU.
Another aspect that needs to be considered is that of nuclear waste. Even the most optimistic projections of “ultra-safe” nuclear energy reactors provide no solution for high-level nuclear wastes. The US has itself been embroiled in litigation with communities in Nevada over the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain for the past decade.
While we should always keep the nuclear option open, it should be a last resort. Apart from natural gas, there is tremendous potential for wind and solar energy across South Asia that has hardly been explored. According to Winrock International, less than 10 percent of India’s estimated wind energy generation potential of 45,000 MW has been harnessed so far. Solar energy potential — an estimated 300 days per year of full solar exposure in many areas of the country — is enormous as well.
Any perception of a favourable deal with India is automatically considered a negative in Pakistan without realising our divergent needs for energy and regional competencies. Instead of trying to emulate and compete with India we should consider the way countries of similar size and demographics such as Thailand have developed.
One thing is quite clear, the nuclear deal is bad news for India and indeed a silver lining for Pakistan. The closure of nuclear option will force the government to focus on alternative, renewable and more cost-effective energy strategies.
With funding from the Asian Development bank, Pakistan’s government has set a target of generating 10 percent of its electricity needs using renewable energy resources (approximately 2,700 MW) by 2015. The government has established an Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB) and will launch a Renewable Energy Project that will invest in developing electricity sources for rural areas. However, this target is woefully inadequate.
Based on comparative data from India, we have the potential for solar and wind energy that far exceeds this goal. We could also have several “invisible” power stations by simply reducing energy wastage in our delivery and operation system. If there should be any competition between India and Pakistan in this domain, it should be over how fast each can harness safe renewable energy sources rather than being each other’s nuclear nemesis.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning at the University of Vermont. He can be reached via email at email@example.com