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Time to think

Publication Date : 08-10-2012


Mostly, what people know is what they are told; controlling the narrative amounts to near perfect control. In this bald statement lies wisdom for the knowing.

Currently, the case of nuclear power generation is a hot topic in several parts of the world as state administrations square up to an increasingly energy-starved world.

Many countries shifted significant parts of their generation needs to this mode many years ago (France, for example, which derives over 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy). The anti-nuclear lobby that kept harping on about the Chernobyl disaster was denounced as alarmist. Man is in control of his technology, people were told, and the chances of an accident were minimal.

Much of the world became convinced and, for a few years, it was actually the case that people who argued against nuclear power plants were generally dismissed as being anti-progressive. But last year, a quarter of a century after the disaster that is considered the worst such accident in history, that never-to-be-thought-of accident happened again.

Following the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered cascading equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive material. The amount of radioactivity released into the atmosphere is estimated by the Japanese government to be one-tenth of that released during the Chernobyl disaster, but the government still had to ban the sale of food grown in the area.

There can be little insurance against natural disaster. The scale of the Fukushima accident forced the world to sit up. Soon after the Japan catastrophe, Germany passed legislation pledging to replace nuclear power with renewable energy sources within a decade.

While that project is progressing slower than its proponent, Angela Merkel, had hoped, it is still very much on the cards. While gleaning energy from renewable sources was one of the main points of concern, so were the safety issues surrounding nuclear power. Switzerland, Italy and Japan have also announced the intent to phase out nuclear energy.

Closer to home, India is seeing strong opposition to the Koodankulam nuclear reactors being built in Tamil Nadu.

The Fukushima accident caused countries around the world to inspect their nuclear power plants, many of them under pressure from concerned citizens. An EU-wide "stress test" examination of the plants was ordered, the results of which were released on Thursday.

It turns out that while the region’s 132 reactors show an overall "satisfactory" safety assessment, “there is no reason for us to be complacent”, according to the EU’s energy commissioner.

His conclusion was that many of the reactors failed to meet international safety standards and immediate safety upgrades requiring billions of euros in investment are required.

Nuclear power has been on the wane around the globe for a fair few years. The number of reactors in operation was at its highest point a decade ago, and according to several reports their installed capacities have been falling since 2010. It’s not simply about criticism on account of safety; reactor costs have also tripled over the decade.

In terms of nuclear energy, then, it would appear that the cat is out of the bag — hopefully for good. The scale of the Fukushima disaster illustrated to even proponents of the technology how the best-laid plans can be laid to waste, and how massive the scale of damage can be as far as nuclear technology is concerned.

The narrative now seems to be in the hands of the anti-nuclear and pro-renewable energy sources lobby — and it has to be said that the pro-nuclear group have been forced to give up control.

While they controlled the narrative, though, at its peak around half a century ago, the future was going to be "atomic".

Back then, even though the tragedy of Hiroshima was still fresh in the collective global consciousness, the destructive potential of a nuclear reaction kept people’s minds transfixed, particularly in the US which got off relatively lightly during the Second World War.

This fascination is in my reading experience most entertainingly captured by Bill Bryson in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, an exploration of the very different planet Americans inhabited during the 1950s.

In the era of the discovery of nuclear weapons’ potential, “When the military started testing nuclear weapons at a dried lakebed called Frenchman Flat in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas it became the town’s hottest tourist attraction.

“People came to Las Vegas not to gamble … but to stand on the desert’s edge, feel the ground shake beneath their feet and watch the air before them fill with billowing pillars of smoke and dust. … As many as four nuclear detonations a month were conducted in Nevada in the peak years.

“…[M]ost visitors went to the edge of the blast zone itself, often with picnic lunches, to watch the tests and enjoy the fallout afterwards. …[G]overnment technicians in white lab coats went through the city running Geiger counters over everything. People lined up to see how radioactive they were.”

Why is this relevant to Pakistan? Because here, still, the narrative has not really been owned by anybody. The energy crisis that the country has been in for some years now has the decision-makers hamstrung, and amongst the slated solutions is nuclear power.

We already have a few nuclear power plants, Kanupp amongst them. In anticipation of the financial year under way, the budget of the atomic energy commission was increased by a reported 78 per cent to 39.2 bliion rupees (US$410.38 million) in May. The aim, obviously, is cheaper electricity.

The question is, will we get cheaper electricity or disaster in potentia? I am no expert on the subject, and so would appreciate a wider debate in which the state puts its cards on the table and explains the pros and cons of its options. Citizens have a very active interest in such policies, given that they stand directly affected.

The writer is a member of staff, Dawn.


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