Why are we biased about nuclear power?
Features Sunday, October 26, 2014 - 05:30
Nihit Goyal | IANS | October 26, 2014 | 11.30 am IST Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to triple the country's nuclear power capacity by 2023-24. No sooner had he done so than some quarters issued statements protesting against the proposed Jaitapur power plant in Maharashtra. This highlights the sharp responses that nuclear power generates, which are partly responsible for the slow growth of nuclear power in the country, even as India desperately needs energy. Estimates suggest that, efforts in energy efficiency notwithstanding, India will need to at least triple electricity generation by 2030 to ensure energy access to all. Given this huge challenge, India needs to consider all sources of energy. Though renewable sources such as solar and wind will play an important role, they are intermittent and do not provide stable electricity generation. Hydro power is also seasonal in nature and biomass has limited potential to be a major source of electricity. For reliable supply, we still need to rely on fossil fuels - mainly coal and natural gas - and nuclear energy. How do coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy compare? At a levelised cost of Rs.3-4 per unit of electricity (kWh), electricity from coal is cheaper than the other two. Electricity from natural gas can range from Rs.4-8 per kWh, depending on the price and availability of gas, and electricity from nuclear power costs about Rs. 4-6 per kWh. However, coal also emits 0.9 kg of carbon dioxide per kWh, almost double the emissions from natural gas. On the other hand, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from nuclear power are negligible. Further, fuel cost as a share of the levelised cost of electricity is much higher for coal (over 50 percent) and natural gas (over 75 percent) than for nuclear power (less than 20 percent). So, nuclear energy does not compare unfavourably with coal and natural gas when economics, fuel supply, and GHG emissions are considered together. But what about risk to human life? Thus far, the operation of nuclear power plants has not resulted in any death in India. On the other hand, studies estimate a large number of deaths because of particulate emissions from coal power. As per a Forbes report, globally, the average mortality from coal is estimated at 170 deaths per billion kWh in comparison to four deaths per kWh from natural gas. The mortality rate for nuclear power is less than one death (0.09, to be accurate) per kWh, after accounting for Chernobyl and Fukushima, deaths from uranium mining and using the Linear No-Threshold Dose hypothesis. (In fact, thus far wind power has killed more people per kWh of generation than nuclear power). And this is without even considering the threat of climate change. If this is the case, why do we find it difficult to accept nuclear power as a viable alternative? Several biases and heuristics influence our ability to perceive risk accurately. These include the availability heuristic, probability neglect, and the affect heuristic. The availability heuristic is a phenomenon that causes us to assess the probability of an event based on the ease with which its examples come to mind. This may be particularly applicable for nuclear energy as we are more likely to remember major nuclear incidents, such as the Chernobyl disaster or the Fukushima accident, than incidents involving other forms of energy, such as the Banqio and Shimantan Dam failures in China and the British Petroleum oil spill. Also, a silent killer may not catch our attention to the necessary extent. For instance, as per the IEA, uranium mining accounts for over half of the deaths attributed to nuclear power, yet it does not evoke as much debate as the possibility of a nuclear accident or radiation exposure from nuclear waste. Nuclear technology, whether in the form of energy, medicine, or weaponry, evokes much fear. In fact, the name of the medical diagnostic examination of nuclear magnetic resonance was changed to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to dispel fear associated with 'nuclear.' Therefore, it should come as no surprise that while people rate nuclear power or nuclear waste as riskier than other instances of exposure to radiation such as medical x-rays, a majority of experts disagree. The risk-benefit analysis is skewed further for those living close to a nuclear facility, as they face almost the entire risk but seldom benefit from the uninterrupted power supply. That nuclear reactors are usually seen as being imposed without public consultation only increases the risk perception and strengthens opposition to them. No energy source is risk free and that includes nuclear power as well. To assess the alternatives objectively, biases described above would need to be scientifically addressed. This also calls for more transparency with information about economics, safety, and waste disposal. Without an informed dialogue on nuclear power and energy policy, we may continue to overestimate some risks we face while ignoring others that do us more harm. And, in the process, compromise our energy security and the environment as well.