Power for the people

SC has usefully separated valid safety concerns from generalised fears of nuclear power

In clear and ringing terms, the Supreme Court has backed the operationalising of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Nuclear energy is necessary for the larger public interest, for "present and future generations", it stressed, while ordering the government to comply with all safety measures. The court had been hearing a string of petitions that said the recommended set of safety measures had not been put in place, a charge refuted by the Centre, the Tamil Nadu government and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. The anti-nuclear petitioners also raised questions about the safety of those living nearby and the disposal of toxic waste, citing the Fukushima accident. The SC's judgment has usefully separated valid safety concerns from generalised fears of nuclear power.

Given India's energy shortfall and growing needs a peak hour power deficit of over 12,000 MW in 2012-13, and 40 per cent of the population still without electricity nuclear power is a no-brainer. It is cheap, plentiful and more efficient than fossil fuels. What's more, given climate change concerns and the slow development of other renewable sources, nuclear energy is a pressing imperative. In terms of safety and emergency back-up, third-generation reactors like those at Kudankulam are far ahead of the first-generation Fukushima plant (which was to be decommissioned anyway). The debate, as the apex court clarified, is no longer about nuclear energy, but about optimal regulation, case-by-case assessment of environmental and safety concerns, monitoring of plants and the disposal or reprocessing of spent fuel. Public authorities are responsible for allaying anxieties and countering misinformation in the local community. The exposure to ionising radiation from living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant is about 0.1 microsieverts, compared to 5 microsieverts in a dental X-ray, for example. These are all well-established facts, but somehow, the N-word has remained laden with old fears and spectral associations.

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