Delivering the keynote address at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a pitch for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) made a pitch for India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which was established in 1974 and today controls most of the world’s nuclear trade.
“One challenge that is before us today is that of nuclear energy, because, since we are not a member of the NSG, we do not really have the ability to get the fuel for producing nuclear energy… If we were to get that opportunity, we could perhaps be a model in this area for the world,”Narendra Modi, speaking at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum, New York, 2019.
He was speaking, ironically enough, as a response to a query on climate change and India’s energy requirements. Certainly, nuclear energy has long had the reputation of being the cleanest and most powerful source of renewable energy available; despite the taboo on nuclear weapons, the trade in nuclear materials is primarily aimed at producing nuclear energy in order to replace fossil fuel-based power.
But nuclear energy is not, in fact the most harmless source of energy around. And it’s certainly not the form of energy that’s going to solve the environment and climate crises.
India and nuclear energy
In the simplest terms, nuclear energy is produced by splitting the nucleus of the U-235 uranium atom, a process known as nuclear fission.
Nuclear energy has some serious drawbacks: as depicted in the video, not only does it need enormous, continuous investment, it also generates dangerous waste, the disposal of which we have no realistic solution for. The dangers of nuclear reactors malfunctioning or leaking, as they did in Chernobyl, and more recently, Fukushima, are too well-documented to bear repetition here.
Back in January, China objected to India’s request for NSG membership, since we’re not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty’s aim is to ensure that signatory nations don’t trade in nuclear weapons, engage in their production, and also allows for the trading of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes. India refused to ratify the treaty when it was first opened for signatures in 1968; this, coupled with the Pokhran-I and II nuclear tests and the building of nuclear weapons, soured Indo-American relations for decades, until 2005, and the Indo-US nuclear deal signed by Bush and Manmohan Singh.
But India shouldn’t pursue NSG membership now; we shouldn’t ratify the NPT, either. In fact, we should take a step back from nuclear energy development altogether.
Because it may be a massive avenue for foreign investment and trade, but the risks and investment are far too high (with no end or solution for either) to justify even the enormous amounts of energy that it would generate. It would better for Modi’s government to focus on tightening up the environmental protection acts and processes that they’ve spent the past 5 years determinedly loosening.
Solar energy, wind energy and hybrid power projects would be far better, cleaner and more economical in the mid- to long-term: there is no way that ownership and operational costs of a nuclear reactor could be slowly transferred to local communities; nuclear energy must be privately funded and intensively monitored, thus removing everything from the control of local people except the effects of any possible accidents. Governments and companies never suffer the ill effects- as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy continues to show us.
Nuclear energy production could never be decentralized or fully state-sponsored; therefore, for a developing country like India, it would be far more economical as well as ethical to focus on forms of energy that can be locally sourced and produced in a decentralized manner, and that don’t leave behind toxic waste for later generations to deal with. That is the very opposite of ‘sustainable’.