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Not A Dirty Word
Saurav Jha believes it is time India seriously considered nuclear power as an energy alternative.
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The Upside Down Book Of Nuclear Power
The Upside Down Book Of Nuclear Power
By
Saurav Jha
Harper Collins | Pages: 220 | Price: Rs 250

Their names conjure up images of endearing, affectionate figures. But there was nothing lovable about Little Boy and Fat Man. The two atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki more than 60 years ago, ensuring that the word ‘nuclear’ would always be associated with fear and death. And, even as the nuclear energy industry struggled to overcome that bias, the Chernobyl accident happened, in 1986. Naturally, the fear and loathing continued.

But things are changing. Today, like it or not, there’s a nuclear renaissance underway, as concerns escalate over climate change and the depletion of fossil-fuel reserves. For a world eternally seeking new energy sources, nuclear power seems the only sensible option—it’s clean, reliable and available in plenty. But, to accept it, the world needs to shed its fears and look at it objectively—something easier said than done.

Saurav Jha understands that driving home the benefits of nuclear energy is an uphill task. The Upside Down Book Of Nuclear Power is his attempt to demystify this esoteric subject. Often, politicians and lobbyists exploit the fact that most people do not understand this complex technology. Jha’s book clears many of the cobwebs, churning out hard numbers and facts to break down preconceived notions. The tone is easy and conversational, making it seem more like a beachside read rather than the preachy lecture a reader expects.

Some of the numbers Jha dishes out are striking. Consider the figures that show how energy starved India is. At present, only 55% of households in India have electricity. The country’s per capita power consumption stands at 631kWh while the global average is 2,429 kWh. China generates six times more electricity than India. True, it is endowed with considerable coal and water resources, but given the concerns over global warming, China has also been expediting construction of nuclear plants.

While nuclear power generates a mere 2-3% of electricity in Brazil, China and India, it accounts for 20% of the US’s total power-generation capacity. In France, “the hotbed of Left Wing activism”, that capacity is at an incredible 80%. Even in Japan, the only country to have experienced a nuclear strike, nuclear power accounts for 30-40% of the country’s installed capacity.

Jha traces this relationship between energy and development to build a solid case for the nuclear industry getting the importance it deserves. He compares it with renewables and finds nuclear energy better because of its ability to provide non-stop power for a longer period. But Jha doesn’t say nuclear power is the only answer. Instead, he says, that the way forward is to have an energy basket with multiple options. India has to install power-generation capacity to about 800 GWe (Giga Watt electric) by 2032 to eliminate the demand-supply gap that is expected to result by then, if the economy grows 9% annually. Compare this to our existing capacity of just over 150 GWe, and it is clear that we need to act fast.

The book touches on every aspect of the subject—history, technology, economics, geopolitics and policies. Of particular interest is the chapter on the history of nuclear power in India, which talks about the thinkers and scientists who first dared to dream of building a nuclear India. These were the men who helped the country make great strides in the development of various nuclear technologies.

The only time Jha sounds unconvincing is when he is dealing with the single biggest drawback of nuclear power: radioactive waste. His argument: radioactive wastes accounts for less than 1% of the total industrial toxic waste in countries with nuclear power. Coal burning produces some 280 million tonnes of ash a year, a lot of it containing low levels of radioactive materials. But, the fact is: even the most modern reactors are still working on ways to dispose radioactive waste, including burying it underground and even beneath the sea floor.

Perhaps it’s not really fair to blame Jha for not offering concrete solutions to a problem that nuclear power-reliant countries are still grappling with. But in a country where irradiation machines from universities end up in scrapyards and lead to the deaths of garbage collectors, it may take a while for people to develop trust the safety of nuclear power. And to embrace it thereafter.

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