Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Earthquakes, Nuclear plants and Dams

As the Nippon tragedy unfolds, I happen to be visiting France, the land of nuclear energy. Do you know that since the end of the 1970s, France has built 58 reactors which produce 63 GW, a staggering 78% of the total electricity required by the country?
Even as the news of Fukushima flashed in the media, a debate had begun: could such a disaster happen in France? Is it not a pointer to abandon the nuclear for ‘cleaner’ energies such as wind and solar?
While in Japan many believe that the tragedy could send the world's third largest economy back into recession, in France, the ‘Greens’ led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former leader of the 1968 student revolution and now European MP, demanded a referendum on nuclear energy. ‘Green ideology’ is one thing, running an industrialised country is another. We can however see some advantages in a serious debate: it can only help to clarify several points about the safety of the plants.
One could regret the absence of Areva in the French debate. The French company perhaps believes that the question is far too serious to be discussed by ‘lay, ignorant’ people, but unless and until the true risks are explained to the ‘common man’ in a way he can understand, the discussion will (and should) go on.
This comes soon after the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) and Areva signed a framework agreement for the construction of two Evolutionary Power Reactors (EPRs), to be followed by four more, at Jaitapur in Maharashtra (with a capacity of 1650 MW each). The accident in Japan might be ‘a big dampener’ on India’s program which plans to spend $ 175 billion on nuclear energy by 2030. However nuclear energy is still considered as the cleanest energy to sustain a 9% to 10% economic growth.
The economic media Bloomberg believes that Manmohan’s nuclear dream might be threatened: “Manmohan Singh who risked his premiership to secure India’s access to atomic reactors and supplies, faces opposition to his $175 billion investment plan.”
The problem for India may not be earthquakes, as no seism of this amplitude has ever been recorded in Western India, but terrorism. Suppose a jihadist group hijacks a plane after take-off from Mumbai and manages to crash with full tanks in Jaitapur, will the structure resist such an impact?
A top-secret document prepared by Electricity de France (EDF) in 2003 stated that the EPR plant could withstand the crash of a plane. The calculations were based on the fall of fighter plane with an extrapolation for a civil plane such an Airbus; however, many were not convinced.
Interestingly, the disaster in Japan as well as the crisis in the Middle East are centred on one subject: energy supply. George Friedman wrote in Stratfor: “Over the past week, everything seemed to converge on energy. The unrest in the Persian Gulf raised the specter of the disruption of oil supplies to the rest of the world, and an earthquake in Japan knocked out a string of nuclear reactors with potentially devastating effect. Japan depends on nuclear energy and it depends on the Persian Gulf, which is where it gets most of its oil.”
Analysts have failed to note a third event linked to energy: it is the ratification of the 12th Five-Year Plan by China. The Middle Kingdom’s booming economy is the greediest ogre needing endless energy. One of the solutions proposed by Beijing is to build dams on rivers originating in Tibet.
China has already built more dams than any other country on the planet. Chinese know-how is even exported: Chinese banks and dam companies are involved in the construction of some 269 dams in 67 different countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia …and PoK (legally an Indian territory).
India of course does not want to be left behind, the business is too lucrative. A recent BJP report on the functioning of the Congress governments in the Northeast has equated the ‘hydropower project scams’ in Arunachal Pradesh with the 2G scandal.
The Report alleges that since the Congress government came to power in 2004, some 137 MoUs were signed and awarded ‘to dubious companies’: “The hydropower scam in Arunachal Pradesh is one of the biggest scams of the region... The MoUs have been signed flouting all procedures and norms set by the Union power ministry,” says the Report, adding that “hydro power projects totalling 70,000 MW and worth Rs 400,000 crore were signed in a short period.” Same thing in China.
An article published in the ‘official’ Global Times shows the dam lobby in China have been able to change the decision taken by Premier Wen Jiabao in April 2004. Wen had then given an assurance that the large hydropower plants (on the Salween to start with) would be “seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.”
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) noted the ‘scientific’ change of wind: “analysts say mainland authorities have clearly pinned their hopes on renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydropower, to help reduce the mainland's reliance on coal amid mounting concern over the country's environmental woes and huge carbon emissions”
Today, in the name of global warming and environment protection, the powerful development lobbies are back with a vengeance. Wang Jian, a river specialist from Beijing who visited sections of the major rivers in December told the Global Times that smaller projects, which do not need Central Government approval, have burgeoned, "They are as dense as the stars in the sky", he said.
The building of dams on the Salween, Mekong or Brahmaputra also has strategic consequences. Everybody seems to have forgotten that on August 15, 1950, one of the most powerful earthquakes of the 20th century, with a magnitude of 8.7, occurred in Tibet.
The young Dalai Lama who was then in Lhasa wrote in his biography: "It was like an artillery barrage – which is what we assumed to be the cause of both the tremors and the noise: a test of some sorts being carried out by the Tibetan army…"
Another witness was Robert Ford, the British wireless operator working for the Tibetan government in Eastern Tibet. He remembered: "This was no ordinary earthquake; it felt like the end of the world. Mountains and valleys exchanged places in an instant, hundreds of villages were swallowed up, the Brahmaputra River was completely rerouted and for hours afterwards, the sky over the south-eastern Tibet glowed with an infernal red light, diffused with the pungent scent of sulphur."
Now the governments of China and India are planning mega-dams in the same area. Beijing even speaks of cascades of hydropower stations.
The situation is extremely worrisome especially after 87,000 died in the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 (the Chinese geologists now admit that it was due to the weight of the reservoir of nearby Zipingpu dam). An earthquake on the Brahmaputra or one of its tributaries could destroy any of these dams. As the result, millions would be washed away in Arunachal, Assam and Bangladesh.
While the earthquake and tsunami in Japan will hopefully trigger more research and inject some new 'thinking' in the brains of the 'deciders', nobody is thinking of the consequences of a seism in Tibet.

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