LAST Monday, Pakistanis watched glumly as President Barack Obama, the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day celebrations, took in a grand display of Indian military hardware, ornate floats, and marching bands. Subsequently, many commentaries have concentrated on the so-called “breakthrough understanding” that overcomes a long-standing obstacle preventing India’s purchase of nuclear reactors and fuel from the United States. Others have revolved around Pakistan’s grievance about being denied a similar nuclear deal. Both sets of commentaries have missed essential points.
It is in this context that one must see the recent US-India “breakthrough”. This involves using Indian public money to shield US corporations from liabilities in the event of a disaster involving an American-supplied reactor. The liability has been capped at a mere $200 million — 40 times less than the limit set in the US! Expectedly, a moribund US nuclear industry, long in the doldrums, has applauded the announced softening. It hopes to make up for lack of domestic sales. For 25 years, no new nuclear reactor was built in the US. Meanwhile, making electricity using natural gas is proving to be so much cheaper that some already operating nuclear reactors in the US are being shut down.
Pakistan must note these developments. Reactor manufacturers everywhere want to sell their products and make money first, and worry about dangers second. Profit-seeking Chinese are no different from profit-seeking Americans. Exporting overseas for the first time, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is currently engaged in building two reactors in Karachi, worth $4.8 billion apiece, on a turnkey basis. A soft Chinese loan of $6.5bn smoothed the way. Unsurprisingly the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) which will operate the reactors, sees not the slightest danger.
But let the truth be told: in Karachi, the world’s biggest nuclear disaster may be in the making. The reactors to be built in Karachi are a Chinese design that has not yet been built or tested anywhere, not even in China. They are to be sited in a city of 20 million which is also the world’s fastest growing and most chaotic megalopolis. Evacuating Karachi in the event of a Fukushima or Chernobyl-like disaster is inconceivable.
Nuclear electricity belongs to the 20th century, not the 21st. Apart from being expensive and potentially dangerous, the earliest that the Karachi reactors can start producing electricity is by 2020 or 2021. On the other hand, there are alternative power sources that could be brought on-line much before then, and much more cheaply. The developed world is already enjoying the Renewables Revolution, triggered by advances in photovoltaic technology, efficient windmills, and smart grids.
Wholly missed by Pakistani commentators was the positive part of Obama’s promise: he offered American assistance to help meet India’s goal of having solar capacity of 100,000 MW by the year 2022. This is 45 times the electrical capacity of the two Karachi nuclear reactors! If India can build this much solar capacity in a few years, why can’t Pakistan? Let us by all means ask China, and the United States, and other countries for help. As Germany is showing so brilliantly, renewables like solar and wind — not nuclear — can safely and effectively meet a nation’s energy needs.
Read more at Obama’s N-mission to India