The Broad Mind | Do we need this Faustian bargain?


I bet most of you had never heard of this town in southern Tamilnadu, till the media started to report on the public protests over the nuclear plant coming up there.  The NIMBY resistance has been simmering for a long time (more than 15 years, in fact), but boiled over when politicians and activists sensed that it was an excellent hunting ground for them to move  in for the kill.

As we saw in the previous post, nuclear energy offers tremendous advantages over other forms of energy. Viewed purely from the standpoint of the electricity grid in India, nuclear energy will provide much-needed base-load support and will help reduce the dependence on carbon-intensive coal.  

The Indian experience with nuclear plants has been very good, and we have recorded around 300-years (combined running years of all the plants) of safe operations. The Kalpakkam plant was subjected to a severe test when the tsunami struck in 2004. It was successfully stopped and the cooling system kept running. The new plants that are planned will be state-of-the-art with several new safety features incorporated. India has been a frontrunner in the development of fast-breeder reactors. Much of the fuel used is recycled.

But, drinking at the fount of nuclear energy is a perquisite that comes with a price. Ceaseless vigilance and alert institutions.

The American nuclear physicist, Alvin Weinberg, wrote in an essay 40 years ago, and this has been much-quoted:

“We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society.  On the one hand, we offer — in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) — an inexhaustible source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting.

But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both vigilance and longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to.” 

Opponents of nuclear energy use this quote to support their argument that this Faustian pact imposes a terrible burden on society that can last for decades, even centuries.

The opposition to nuclear energy rests on the following points:

  • It is a high-consequence risk, even if it is a low-probability one. Radiation leaks have the potential to cause grievous harm over a wide area for a very long time. Incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and recently at Fukushima have highlighted the inherent risks with nuclear plants.
  • Safe handling and storage of the waste fuel has to be ensured for many, many years and this pre-supposes- quite unreasonably- that several generations after ours and future governments will demonstrate the same commitment to safety. We’ll need a new “priesthood” –successive generations of  a technical and military elite capable of guarding nuclear waste products and maintaining this legacy for the many centuries  that they could remain dangerous
  • Nuclear fuel can fall into the hands of wrong people or a terror group, who then can hold any country to ransom.

How can we be insensitive to the plight of the residents in the vicinity of the plant who would have to live with the fear of being subjected to radiation leaks from the plant, for the rest of their lives?

When advanced countries such as Germany have announced that there will be no more additions in nuclear capacity, why is India plunging into it with great vigour?  

Japan may have accepted a Faustian bargain in the 1950s. It needed energy for its post-war re-construction and development, and it had no energy resources to boast of. No coal, no major hydro possibilities and no natural gas. Nuclear energy looked the only viable option. Despite being the only country that knew what a nuclear holocaust was, and despite the serious risks posed by earthquakes and tsunamis that it was vulnerable to, Japan went ahead.

But, Japan had its own compulsions. Why does India need to sign such a Faustian pact now, when- unlike Japan- it has the means to fall back on other fossil fuels and emerging renewable sources? Why should we expose our people- and successive generations –to this menace?

When presented in this manner, any counter-argument can sound quite flippant, uncaring and unmindful of the serious threats that nuclear energy poses to humanity. I will, nevertheless, make an attempt in the next post to show that nuclear energy is not the villain it is painted to be. At least it is not the only villain.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.