Specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” despots

Thursday, April 7, 2011

West is on a slippery slope

By BRAHMA CHELLANEY
Japan Times

From initially seeking to protect civilians to now aiming for a swift, total victory in Libya, the mission creep that has characterized the Western powers’ military attack raises troubling questions about their Libyan strategy and the risks that it could end up creating — however inadvertently — a jihadist citadel at the southern doorsteps of Europe.

After having tacitly encouraged and endorsed the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to crush peaceful protests against a totalitarian monarchy, the military intervention in a tribally divided Libya indeed has helped highlight a selective approach to the promotion of freedom and the protection of civilians — an approach reinforced by these powers’ continuing support to other Western-backed Arab regimes that have employed disproportionate force to quell popular uprisings or unrest.

The Western powers must be applauded for enunciating the goal to prevent civilian slaughter. The free world cannot stand by while tyrants use military forces to massacre civilians. But any intervention — whether military in nature or in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions — must meet the test of impartiality, if despots are to be stopped from unleashing untrammeled repression.

Ivory Coast — where rampant abuses and widespread killings have led up to one million residents to flee Abidjan, as strongman Laurent Gbagbo openly defies the international community — was clearly a more-pressing case for international intervention than Libya. But because it lacks strategic importance or oil, the exodus of Ivorians into Liberia and the influx of Liberian mercenaries have continued unchecked.

The political upheaval in the Arab world is tectonic in nature, with the potential to transform the Middle East and North Africa in the same way that the 1989 Berlin Wall’s fall fundamentally changed Europe. Indeed, 1989 was such a watershed in world history that the most profound geopolitical change has occurred in the period since in the most compressed historical time frame. Yet, with the same regimes and practices firmly entrenched for decades, the Arab world had escaped change.

Now, the tumult in the Arab world represents a belated reaction — a yearning for change that signals a grassroots democratic awakening. But will this awakening lead to democratic empowerment of the masses? After all, there is a wide gulf between democratic awakening and democratic empowerment.

The air of expectancy in the Arab world today parallels the new hope that emerged in the East bloc in 1989. Yet history rarely moves in a linear or predictable fashion. While it is now clear that much of the Arab world is in transition from the present order, it is not clear what it is in transition to.

In 1989, an American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, smugly claimed in an essay that made him famous that the Cold War’s end marked the end of ideological evolution, “the end of history,” with the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Yet two decades after the Cold War’s end, the global spread of democracy is still encountering strong head winds, with only a small minority of states in Asia, for example, being true democracies.

In fact, a new bipolar, Cold War-style ideological divide has re-emerged in the world. The rise of authoritarian capitalism — best symbolized by China but embraced by countries as disparate as Malaysia, Singapore, Kazakhstan and Qatar in different forms, soft or hard — has created a new international model that competes with (and openly challenges) liberal democracy.

Latest developments indeed are a reminder that democratic empowerment hinges on complex factors in any society — both endogenous and exogenous. Internally, two factors usually hold the key: the role of security forces, and the technological sophistication of a state’s repressive capacity.

In recent weeks, security forces have helped shape developments in different ways in three Arab states. While the popular uprising in Yemen has splintered the security establishment there, with different military factions now in charge of different neighborhoods in the capital San’a, the Bahraini monarchy has employed foreign Sunni mercenaries that dominate its police force to fire on the predominantly Shiite demonstrators.

In Egypt, it was the military’s refusal to side with Hosni Mubarak that helped end that ex-air force commander’s three-decade-long dictatorial rule. The military, long part of the political power structure, had become increasingly wary of Mubarak’s efforts to groom his son as his successor.

Today, the heady talk of freedom cannot obscure the reality that the people’s revolution in Egypt thus far has spawned only a direct military takeover, with the 30-year emergency law still in force and the country’s political direction uncertain. Although the ruling military council has scheduled parliamentary elections in September, the fact is that is no country has the military voluntarily ceded power without mass protests or other pressures.

As for the second key internal factor, an autocracy’s ability to effectively police cell-phone calls, electronic messages, e-mail and access to the Internet has become as important as a well-oiled security apparatus. The use of social networking sites and instant messaging to organize mass protests has made national capability to enforce stringent, real-time censorship of electronic communications critical.

Take China: its internal-security system extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extralegal detention centers to an army of paid informants and neighborhood patrols looking out for troublemakers. In response to Internet calls for people to gather on Sundays at specific sites in Shanghai and Beijing to help launch a jasmine revolution, China has bared a new strategy: pre-emptively flood the protest-designated squares with police to leave no room for protesters.

As the world leader in stringent, real-time censorship of electronic communications, China appears strongly placed to block the contagion from the Arab world reaching its shores.

External factors are especially important in small or internally weak countries. Nothing illustrates this better than Bahrain: The House of Saud sent forces into that nation under the Gulf Cooperation Council banner to crush peaceful protests, yet it is civil war-torn Libya that became the target of an international military attack.

The blunt fact is that no nation has contributed more to the spread of global jihad than Saudi Arabia. Indeed, this terror-bankrolling state’s military intervention to prop up the Bahraini regime parallels the 1979 Soviet intervention to bolster a besieged Afghan regime in Kabul — an invasion that led to the multibillion-dollar, CIA-scripted arming of Afghan rebels and the consequent rise of transnational Islamic terrorists, including al-Qaida.

Yet, as the CIA conducts covert operations in Libya to aid rebels, Washington is in danger of coming full circle and spurring the rise of a jihadist haven at Europe’s southern gates.

The broadening of the Libya intervention from a limited, humanitarian mission to an all-out assault on the Libyan military suggests that this war is really about ensuring that the Arab world does not slip out of Western control. The intervention has seemingly been driven by a cold geopolitical calculation: to bottle up or eliminate Moammar Gadhafi so that his regime doesn’t exploit the political vacuum in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

Yet few have examined the costs the free world is made to pay — in the form of rising Islamic extremism and terrorism — for the overpowering U.S. intent to have only puppet Arab regimes, an objective that has fostered an alliance with inimical Wahhabi forces.

At a time when America needs comprehensive domestic renewal, it has slid — under a president who won a Nobel peace prize in his first year in office — into a third war when the other two wars already carry an aggregate $150 billion annual price tag. A quick military victory in Libya is what President Barack Obama badly needs to reverse his declining popularity at home and win re-election.

But even if the Gadhafi regime collapses quickly under the mounting military attacks, re-creating a unified, stable Libya free of Islamist groups may prove difficult. Saddam Hussein’s ouster by the invading U.S. forces did not yield the desired results. Instead, a once-stable, secular Iraq has been destabilized, radicalized and effectively partitioned.

With Libya set to become Obama’s Iraq, a plausible scenario there is a protracted stalemate, coupled with a tribally partitioned country. The paradox is that while aiding Libyan contras even at the risk of creating another Afghanistan, the U.S. is desperately seeking a deal with medieval forces — the Taliban — to stave off certain defeat in the decade-long Afghan war.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently rebuked allies for effectively abandoning the Afghan war. Why blame allies when the U.S. itself has abandoned the goal of victory and now seeks only a face-saving exit? And even as the U.S. fires hundreds of missiles at Libyan targets, its policy on Pakistan — the main sanctuary for transnational terrorists — is unraveling fast, with Washington clueless on how to stem the rising tide of anti-Americanism in a country that is now its largest aid recipient.

In fact, with popular revolts sweeping much of the Arab world, the White House has concluded that the Arab monarchs are likely to survive but the Arab presidents are more likely to fall and, therefore, it is OK for the U.S. to continue to coddle tyrannical kings.

The effort to draw specious distinctions between “good” or valuable despots and “bad” or discardable despots is redolent of the manner in which the arming of “good” contras has exacted heavy international costs.

The resort to different standards and practices in the name of promoting human freedom, unfortunately, sends the message that democratic empowerment in any society is possible only if it is in the great powers’ geopolitical interest. This also plays into the hands of the world’s largest, oldest and most-powerful autocracy, China, which has long accused the West of using promotion of democracy as a geopolitical tool.

More fundamentally, the issue is whether there should be a rules-based international order or an order pivoted on military might and driven by the narrow interests of the most powerful.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (Harper Paperbacks) and “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield” (Georgetown University Press, forthcoming).

The Japan Times: Thursday, April 7, 2011

A blow to the global nuclear-power industry

Fukushima blast shows nuclear is not the answer

Inherently risky, water-intensive and unreliable — we must admit we cannot depend on nuclear power

Brahma Chellaney
guardian.co.uk, 15 March 2011
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The troubles of the Fukushima nuclear-power plant — and other reactors — in earthquake-hit Japan have dealt a severe blow to the global nuclear industry, a powerful cartel of less than a dozen major state-owned or state-guided firms that have been trumpeting a nuclear-power renaissance.

But the risks that seaside reactors like Fukushima face from natural disasters are well-known. Indeed, they became evident six years ago, when the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 inundated India’s second-largest nuclear complex, shutting down the Madras power station.

Many nuclear-power plants are located along coastlines, because they are highly water-intensive. Yet natural disasters such as storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis are becoming more common, owing to climate change, which will also cause a rise in ocean levels, making seaside reactors even more vulnerable.

For example, many nuclear-power plants located along the British coast are just a few metres above sea level. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused significant damage at the Turkey Point nuclear-power plant on Biscayne Bay, Florida, but, fortunately, not to any critical systems.

All energy generators, including coal- and gas-fired plants, make major demands on water resources. But nuclear power requires even more. Light-water reactors (LWRs) like those at Fukushima, which use water as a primary coolant, produce most of the world’s nuclear power. The huge quantities of local water that LWRs consume for their operations become hot-water outflows, which are pumped back into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Because reactors located inland put serious strain on local freshwater resources — including greater damage to plant life and fish — water-stressed countries that are not landlocked try to find suitable seashore sites. But, whether located inland or on a coast, nuclear power is vulnerable to the likely effects of climate change.

As global warming brings about a rise in average temperatures and ocean levels, inland reactors will increasingly contribute to, and be affected by, water shortages. During the record-breaking 2003 heatwave in France, operations at 17 commercial nuclear reactors had to be scaled back or stopped because of rapidly rising temperatures in rivers and lakes. Spain’s reactor at Santa María de Garoña was shut for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro river.

Paradoxically, then, the very conditions that made it impossible for the nuclear industry to deliver full power in Europe in 2003 and 2006 created peak demand for electricity, as use of air-conditioning increased.

During the 2003 heat wave, Électricité de France, which operates 58 reactors — the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers such as the Loire — was compelled to buy power from neighboring countries on the European spot market. The state-owned EDF, which normally exports power, ended up paying 10 times the price of domestic power, incurring a financial cost of €300m.

Similarly, although the 2006 European heatwave was less intense, water and heat problems forced Germany, Spain, and France to take some nuclear power plants offline and reduce operations at others. Highlighting the vulnerability of nuclear power to environmental change or extreme-weather patterns, in 2006 plant operators in western Europe also secured exemptions from regulations that would have prevented them from discharging overheated water into natural ecosystems, affecting fisheries.

France likes to showcase its nuclear power industry, which supplies 78% of the country’s electricity. But such is the nuclear industry’s water intensity that EDF withdraws up to 19bn cubic metres of water per year from rivers and lakes, or roughly half of France’s total freshwater consumption. Freshwater scarcity is a growing international challenge, and the vast majority of countries are in no position to approve of such highly water-intensive inland-based energy systems.

Nuclear plants located by the sea do not face similar problems in hot conditions, because ocean waters do not heat up anywhere near as rapidly as rivers or lakes. And, because they rely on seawater, they cause no freshwater scarcity. But as Japan’s reactors have shown, coastal nuclear-power plants confront more serious dangers.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, the Madras reactor’s core could be kept in safe shutdown condition because the electrical systems had been ingeniously installed on higher ground than the plant itself. And, unlike Fukushima, which bore a direct impact, Madras was far away from the epicenter of the earthquake that unleashed the tsunami.

The central dilemma of nuclear power in an increasingly water-stressed world is that it is a water-guzzler, yet vulnerable to water. And, decades after Lewis L Strauss, chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Agency, claimed that nuclear power would become “too cheap to meter”, the nuclear industry everywhere still subsists on government subsidies.

While the appeal of nuclear power has declined considerably in the west, it has grown among the so-called “nuclear newcomers”, which brings with it new challenges, including concerns about proliferation of nuclear weapons. Moreover, with nearly two-fifths of the world’s population living within 100km of a coastline, finding suitable seaside sites for initiation or expansion of a nuclear-power programme is no longer easy.

Fukushima is likely to stunt the appeal of nuclear power in a way similar to the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 did, not to mention the far more severe meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986. If the fallout from those incidents is a reliable guide, however, nuclear power’s advocates will eventually be back.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

The Murky Politics of Nuclear Power in India

Ghosts return to haunt nuclear deal

From the resurrected cash-for-votes scandal to a rigged process favouring four foreign vendors — and from new safety concerns to the special legislation that caps the foreign suppliers’ accident liability by burdening the Indian taxpayer — the nuclear deal’s future looks more troubled than ever

Brahma Chellaney
The Economic Times, March 18, 2011
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The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan actually bears a distinct U.S. imprint: All six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were designed by General Electric. The prototype of this reactor model — known as the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) Mark I — was supplied to India by GE, which built the twin-reactor Tarapur station in the 1960s on a turnkey basis. Tarapur, one of the world’s oldest operating nuclear plants, has some of the same risk factors that played a role at Fukushima.

Since the Fukushima crisis erupted, several countries have announced steps to scale back or review nuclear power, with Germany temporarily shutting down seven of its pre-1980 plants and Switzerland suspending plans to build and replace nuclear reactors. Even China, known for its lack of respect for safety issues, has announced that it is suspending new plant approvals until it could strengthen safety standards.

In contrast, New Delhi’s response has been to launch a public-relations campaign to say Indian nuclear plants are safe and secure. The very persons who blurred the line between fact and fiction in the debate over the controversial Indo-U.S. nuclear deal are again engaging in casuistry.

A smarter, wiser and more-credible course for authorities would be to acknowledge that, given the gravity of the Fukushima crisis, India must review its nuclear-power policy and systems to ensure that long-term risks of nuclear accidents are contained.

To be sure, India — given its low per capita energy consumption — needs to generate far more electricity to economically advance. So it must tap all sources of power, including safe and cost-competitive nuclear power.

The consequences of a nuclear accident in a large, densely populated country like India are going to be greater than in an island nation such as Japan. The economics of reactor imports is also a key issue in India because the taxpayer must not be burdened with more subsidies.

Yet those who pushed the nuclear deal through without building a national consensus are now too invested in that deal to be able to take an objective view of cost competitiveness and long-term safety. One indication of that has been the brazen manner in which a nuclear park has been exclusively reserved, without inviting bids, for each of the four chosen foreign vendors.

The Wikileaks disclosures over the cash-for-votes scandal only confirm what has been well known — the role of big money in lubricating the nuclear deal. Now big money is influencing the opaque contract making.

Nevertheless India’s nuclear safety — and the wisdom of a massive import-based expansion of the nuclear power programme — will now come under closer scrutiny. In fact, given the way India handled the Bhopal gas catastrophe that killed at least 22,000, Fukushima holds important implications. Although the exact sequence of events at Fukushima is still not clear, consider some obvious nuclear dangers in India:

■The chain of incidents engulfing all six Fukushima reactors was triggered by their close proximity to each other. With a flare-up at one reactor affecting systems at another, Japan has ended up with serial blasts, fires, spent-fuel exposures and other radiation leaks at the Fukushima complex. The lesson: a string of events can quickly overwhelm emergency preparedness and safety redundancies built into reactor systems.

This seriously calls into question India’s decision to approve construction of six to 12 large reactors at each new nuclear park.

■The Fukushima spent-fuel fire and other problems shine a spotlight on the spent-fuel challenges at the sister plant in Tarapur, where the discharged fuel has been accumulating for over four decades because the U.S. has refused to either take it or allow India to reprocess it. At the so-called Spent Fuel Storage Facility, the Tarapur spent-fuel bundles are kept under water in specially engineered bays.

This mounting, highly radioactive spent fuel poses major space problems and safety and environmental hazards that are greater than at any other plant in the world. In fact, the spent-fuel rods — unlike the reactor — have no containment structure. Yet New Delhi has shied away from exerting pressure on Washington to resolve an issue that threatens environmental and public safety in India’s commercial heartland.

■The operating license of the aging Tarapur BWRs has been periodically extended by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Despite safety and equipment upgrades at Tarapur, the fact is that first-generation reactors have generally some dangerous weaknesses. In fact, much before the Fukushima incidents, several U.S. experts had warned that this BWR model was susceptible to explosion and containment failure.

The power shortages in the Mumbai area have influenced the decision to keep the two BWRs in operation up to 2030. But in the U.S., the utility running a BWR plant of the same vintage as in Tarapur — at Oyster Creek in New Jersey — recently decided to close it in 2019. And the Vermont State Senate last year voted to stop the less-old Vermont Yankee BWR plant from operating past next year.

From the resurrected cash-for-votes scandal to a rigged process favouring four foreign vendors — and from new safety concerns to the special legislation that caps the foreign suppliers’ accident liability by burdening the Indian taxpayer — the nuclear deal’s future looks more troubled than ever.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

Fukushima nos recuerda las debilidades y amenazas de las centrales nucleares en el mundo

TRIBUNA: BRAHMA CHELLANEY
Moraleja nuclear de Japón
Muchas centrales nucleares están situadas en las costas, porque necesitan una gran cantidad de agua. Sin embargo, los desastres naturales y el cambio climático hacen que resulten aún más vulnerables
BRAHMA CHELLANEY
El Pais, 17/03/2011

Los problemas de la central nuclear de Fukushima -y de otros reactores- en el noroeste de Japón han asestado un duro golpe a la industria nuclear mundial, poderoso cartel de menos de una docena de importantes empresas de propiedad u orientación estatal que han estado pregonando un renacimiento de la energía nuclear.

Pero ya se conocen perfectamente los riesgos que corren los reactores costeros, como el de Fukushima, a consecuencia de desastres naturales. De hecho, resultaron evidentes hace seis años, cuando el maremoto habido en el océano Índico en diciembre de 2004 inundó el segundo complejo nuclear en importancia de India, con lo que quedó desconectada la central eléctrica de Madrás.

Muchas centrales nucleares están situadas a lo largo de las costas, porque en ellas se utiliza una gran cantidad de agua. Sin embargo, desastres naturales como las tormentas, los huracanes y los maremotos están resultando más frecuentes a causa del cambio climático, que también causará una elevación del nivel de los océanos, con lo que los reactores costeros resultarán aún más vulnerables.

Por ejemplo, muchas centrales nucleares situadas a lo largo de la costa británica están a tan solo unos metros por encima del nivel del mar. En 1992, el huracán Andrew causó importantes daños en la central nuclear de Turkey Point, en la bahía de Biscayne (Florida), pero no así, por fortuna, a ninguno de los sistemas decisivos para su funcionamiento.

Todos los generadores de energía, incluidas las centrales alimentadas con carbón o gas, requieren grandes cantidades de recursos hídricos, pero la energía nuclear más aún. Los reactores de agua ligera, como los de Fukushima, que utilizan el agua como refrigerante primordial, son los que producen la mayor parte de la energía nuclear. Las enormes cantidades de agua local que dichos reactores consumen para sus operaciones pasan a ser corrientes de agua caliente, que se bombean a los ríos, los lagos y los océanos.

Como los reactores situados en zonas del interior ejercen una grave presión sobre los recursos de agua dulce, incluidos daños mayores a la vida vegetal y a los peces, los países que tienen litoral y padecen escasez de agua procuran buscar emplazamientos costeros adecuados, pero, ya tengan o no litoral, la energía nuclear es vulnerable a los probables efectos del cambio climático.

A medida que el calentamiento planetario provoque un aumento de las temperaturas medias y del nivel de los océanos, los reactores situados en el interior contribuirán cada vez más a la escasez de agua y resultarán afectados por ella. Durante la ola de calor sin precedentes de 2003 en Francia, hubo que reducir o detener las operaciones en 17 reactores nucleares comerciales a causa del rápido aumento de las temperaturas de los ríos y los lagos. En julio de 2006, hubo que desconectar el reactor de Santa María de Garoña (España) durante una semana, después de que se registraran altas temperaturas en el río Ebro.

Así, pues, las propias condiciones que en 2003 y 2006 impidieron a la industria nuclear suministrar toda la energía necesaria en Europa fueron, paradójicamente, las que crearon una demanda máxima de electricidad a causa de un aumento de la utilización del aire acondicionado.

De hecho, durante la ola de calor de 2003, Électricité de France, que tiene 58 reactores en funcionamiento -la mayoría de ellos en ríos ecológicamente delicados, como el Loira- se vio obligada a comprar electricidad a los países vecinos en el mercado europeo al contado. EDF, empresa de propiedad estatal que normalmente exporta electricidad, acabó pagándola a un precio 10 veces mayor, con un coste financiero de 300 millones de euros.

Asimismo, aunque la ola de calor europea de 2006 fue menos intensa, los problemas de agua y calor obligaron a España, Alemania y Francia a desconectar algunas centrales nucleares y reducir las operaciones de otras. En 2006 las empresas propietarias de centrales nucleares de Europa occidental consiguieron también exenciones para incumplir la reglamentación que les habría impedido descargar agua recalentada en los ecosistemas naturales, lo que afectó a la pesca.

Francia gusta de exhibir su industria de energía nuclear, que suministra el 78% de la electricidad del país, pero la intensidad del consumo de agua de dicha industria es tal, que EDF retira todos los años 19.000 millones de metros cúbicos de agua de los ríos y lagos, es decir, la mitad, aproximadamente, del consumo total de agua dulce de Francia. La escasez de agua dulce es una amenaza internacional cada vez mayor y la inmensa mayoría de los países no están en condiciones de aprobar el emplazamiento en el interior de semejantes sistemas energéticos que hacen un consumo tan elevado de agua.

Las centrales nucleares situadas junto al mar no afrontan problemas similares en situaciones de calor, porque el agua de los océanos no se calienta ni mucho menos con la misma rapidez que la de los ríos o los lagos y, al contar con el agua del mar, no provocan escasez de agua dulce, pero, como han demostrado los reactores del Japón, las centrales nucleares costeras afrontan peligros más graves.

Cuando el núcleo del reactor de Madrás resultó afectado por el maremoto del océano Índico, se pudo mantenerlo a salvo desconectado, porque se había tenido la previsión de instalar los sistemas eléctricos en un terreno más alto que la propia central y, a diferencia de lo ocurrido en Fukushima, que recibió un impacto directo, la central de Madrás estaba alejada del epicentro del terremoto que desencadenó el maremoto.

El dilema fundamental de la energía nuclear en un mundo cada vez más afectado por la escasez de agua es el de que necesita enormes cantidades de agua y, sin embargo, es vulnerable ante el agua y, decenios después de que Lewis L. Strauss, el presidente del Organismo de Energía Atómica de Estados Unidos, afirmara que la energía nuclear llegaría a ser “demasiado barata para medirla con contador”, la industria nuclear sigue subsistiendo en todas partes gracias a muníficas subvenciones estatales.

Aunque el atractivo de la energía nuclear ha disminuido considerablemente en Occidente, ha aumentado entre los llamados “recién llegados nucleares”, con el acompañamiento de nuevas amenazas, incluida la preocupación por la proliferación de armas nucleares. Además, cuando casi dos quintas partes de la población mundial viven a menos de 100 kilómetros de una costa, ya no resulta fácil encontrar emplazamientos costeros adecuados para iniciar o ampliar un programa de energía nuclear.

Es probable que lo sucedido en Fukushima afecte irremisiblemente a la energía nuclear de forma similar al accidente en la central de Three Mile Island en Pensilvania en 1979, por no hablar de la fusión, mucho más grave, del reactor de Chernóbil en 1986. Sin embargo, a juzgar por lo sucedido después de aquellos accidentes, los defensores de la energía nuclear acabarán volviendo a la carga.

India’s nuclear-reactor imports a giant scandal in the making

The spectre of India’s Fukushimas

The creeping rot in the country’s nuclear power projects could see Japan’s troubles re-enacted on India’s shores
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Brahma Chellaney
Mint, March 17, 2011

The controversial Indo-US nuclear deal was pushed through without building “the broadest possible national consensus” that the prime minister had promised. Now, the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan is helping to turn the spotlight on India’s nuclear safety and its moves to push through major reactor imports without a competitive bidding process.

These multibillion-dollar imports constitute a giant scandal in the making, with long-term safety implications. Take the plan to install 9,900 MW of nuclear-generated capacity at Jaitapur: Not only was the environmental impact assessment hurriedly approved, coercive efforts are also being made to acquire land to allow France’s Areva to build six reactors—none of these of a type operational anywhere. It is only after the serial incidents at Japan’s six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi plant that India’s nuclear chief has acknowledged the need for an earthquake- and tsunami-related safety evaluation of Areva’s reactor model. Why wasn’t this done before reserving Jaitapur for Areva?

To be sure, India must ramp up its electricity production from all energy sources. This does not preclude the need for safe and cost-competitive nuclear power. Yet the government is acquiring land, without any competitive bidding, on behalf of four chosen foreign vendors. A nuclear park has first been earmarked for each foreign firm and only then, once leverage has been undercut, have prices sought to be negotiated. The import contracts, while making France, Russia and the US major commercial beneficiaries, herald a monsoon of potential kickbacks for corrupt politicians. Such an unabashedly rigged process beats even the 2G telecom scandal.

Given this perversity, is it surprising that the costs of imported generating capacity will be almost double the $1.77 million per installed MW of new indigenous capacity? Worse still, the foreign vendors—in addition to their accident liability having been capped by special legislation—are being freed from the task of producing electricity at marketable rates. The reactors will be owned and operated by the state, with the Indian taxpayer bigheartedly subsidizing the high-priced electricity generated. For the foreign vendors, there is no downside risk—only profits to reap.

Yet for India, there is a clear risk that the nuclear deal, with $150 billion worth of total potential import contracts, could end up as the single largest money-making scheme ever unveiled. After all, contract-making, along with policy changes, serves as the main engine of big-bucks corruption—a situation that has fostered high import dependency and made India the only major exception in Asia to the continent’s model of export-driven economic growth.

India’s imported plants—the US-built Tarapur and the much-delayed, Russian-supplied Kundankulam—are located by the ocean, as are all the new nuclear parks. All the foreign-origin plants, including the planned imports, are light water reactors (LWRs). These, with their once-through cooling process, are the greatest water guzzlers in the world. Building LWRs inland in water-stressed India is thus not a viable option. But despite a large coastline, India has no suitable vacant seaside sites for LWRs. Building nuclear plants by the seashore thus means displacing residents and running into grassroots opposition, as symbolized by Jaitapur, Haripur and Mithi Virdi. And as the late-2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed by inundating and shutting down the Madras Atomic Power Station, seaside reactors are vulnerable to natural disasters. This could be a serious concern going forward: A climate change-driven paradigm will not only make storms, hurricanes and tsunamis more frequent, but also lead to a rise in ocean levels, making seaside reactors even more vulnerable.

India’s transition from a largely indigenous capacity to a heavily import-based programme will mean dependence on foreign vendors even for critical safety-related replacement parts. India today boasts the world’s oldest operating Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) at Tarapur. General Electric, which built the Tarapur plant, also supplied the BWRs at the heart of the Fukushima crisis. With Germany now deciding to shut down all seven of its pre-1980 nuclear plants at least till June, India can expect to come under pressure for still operating the 1969-vintage Tarapur.

Yet such are nuclear power’s inherent risks that the Fukushima disaster centres on reactors that were shut down. The explosions in reactor buildings and fires at spent-fuel ponds there highlight two other dangers in India: The decision to build six or more reactors in close proximity at each park, and the discharged fuel accumulating at Tarapur for four decades because the US refuses to take it back or allow India to reprocess it.

The spectre of India’s own Fukushimas is also being raised by the planned import of four different types of LWR technology, which will make the country’s nuclear power programme the most diverse in the world. This diversity may obviate reliance on one supplier, but it will also make India’s safety responsibilities extremely complex and onerous, given the multiplicity of reactor designs already in place. After all, it takes a long time to create teams of experienced safety engineers for any reactor model.

Fukushima is a warning that India must not compromise on long-term nuclear safety. The country deserves transparency and open debate—an imperative underlined by the pervasive corruption, the creeping politicization of top nuclear officials, and the rise of the corporate nuclear lobby.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
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The paradox of nuclear power: A water-guzzling technology, yet very vulnerable to water

Japan’s Nuclear Morality Tale

Brahma Chellaney
Project Syndicate

The troubles of the Fukushima nuclear-power plant — and other reactors — in northeast Japan have dealt a severe blow to the global nuclear industry, a powerful cartel of less than a dozen major state-owned or state-guided firms that have been trumpeting a nuclear-power renaissance.

But the risks that seaside reactors like Fukushima face from natural disasters are well known. Indeed, they became evident six years ago, when the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 inundated India’s second-largest nuclear complex, shutting down the Madras power station.

Many nuclear-power plants are located along coastlines, because they are highly water-intensive. Yet natural disasters like storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis are becoming more common, owing to climate change, which will also cause a rise in ocean levels, making seaside reactors even more vulnerable.

For example, many nuclear-power plants located along the British coast are just a few meters above sea level. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused significant damage at the Turkey Point nuclear-power plant on Biscayne Bay, Florida, but, fortunately, not to any critical systems.

All energy generators, including coal- and gas-fired plants, make major demands on water resources. But nuclear power requires even more. Light-water reactors (LWRs) like those at Fukushima, which use water as a primary coolant, produce most of the world’s nuclear power. The huge quantities of local water that LWRs consume for their operations become hot-water outflows, which are pumped back into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Because reactors located inland put serious strain on local freshwater resources — including greater damage to plant life and fish — water-stressed countries that are not landlocked try to find suitable seashore sites. But, whether located inland or on a coast, nuclear power is vulnerable to the likely effects of climate change.

As global warming brings about a rise in average temperatures and ocean levels, inland reactors will increasingly contribute to, and be affected by, water shortages. During the record-breaking 2003 heat wave in France, operations at 17 commercial nuclear reactors had to be scaled back or stopped because of rapidly rising temperatures in rivers and lake. Spain’s reactor at Santa María de Garoña was shut for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro River.

Paradoxically, then, the very conditions that made it impossible for the nuclear industry to deliver full power in Europe in 2003 and 2006 created peak demand for electricity, owing to the increased use of air conditioning.

Indeed, during the 2003 heat wave, Électricité de France, which operates 58 reactors — the majority on ecologically sensitive rivers like the Loire — was compelled to buy power from neighboring countries on the European spot market. The state-owned EDF, which normally exports power, ended up paying 10 times the price of domestic power, incurring a financial cost of €300 million.

Similarly, although the 2006 European heat wave was less intense, water and heat problems forced Germany, Spain, and France to take some nuclear power plants offline and reduce operations at others. Highlighting the vulnerability of nuclear power to environmental change or extreme-weather patterns, in 2006 plant operators in Western Europe also secured exemptions from regulations that would have prevented them from discharging overheated water into natural ecosystems, affecting fisheries.

France likes to showcase its nuclear power industry, which supplies 78% of the country’s electricity. But such is the nuclear industry’s water intensity that EDF withdraws up to 19 billion cubic meters of water per year from rivers and lakes, or roughly half of France’s total freshwater consumption. Freshwater scarcity is a growing international challenge, and the vast majority of countries are in no position to approve of such highly water-intensive inland-based energy systems.

Nuclear plants located by the sea do not face similar problems in hot conditions, because ocean waters do not heat up anywhere near as rapidly as rivers or lakes. And, because they rely on seawater, they cause no freshwater scarcity. But, as Japan’s reactors have shown, coastal nuclear-power plants confront more serious dangers.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, the Madras reactor’s core could be kept in safe shutdown condition because the electrical systems had been ingeniously installed on higher ground than the plant itself. And, unlike Fukushima, which bore a direct impact, Madras was far away from the epicenter of the earthquake that unleashed the tsunami.

The central dilemma of nuclear power in an increasingly water-stressed world is that it is a water guzzler, yet vulnerable to water. And, decades after Lewis L. Strauss, the Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Agency, claimed that nuclear power would become “too cheap to meter,” the nuclear industry everywhere still subsists on munificent government subsidies.

While the appeal of nuclear power has declined considerably in the West, it has grown among the so-called “nuclear newcomers,” which brings with it new challenges, including concerns about proliferation of nuclear weapons. Moreover, with nearly two-fifths of the world’s population living within 100 kilometers of a coastline, finding suitable seaside sites for initiation or expansion of a nuclear-power program is no longer easy.

Fukushima is likely to stunt the appeal of nuclear power in a way similar to the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, not to mention the far more severe meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986. If the fallout from those incidents is a reliable guide, however, nuclear power’s advocates will eventually be back.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan (Harper Paperbacks, 2010) and Water: Asia’s New Battlefield (Georgetown University Press, 2011).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.