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Climate Change, Terrorism and Nuclear Energy

November 29, 2009

Three news items are making headlines and they have a common thread running through them. The first is the case of a luxury train in Russia having been bombed leading to derailment and loss of life. Another bomb blast on the same line has the security setup in a tizzy in Moscow. This possibly is another terrorist attack.

The second news item that caught my eye was a ‘flood’ in the Saudi city of Jeddah. The city has come to a standstill, the roads have been blocked and the drains are chocked. Jeddah was never ready for such a down pour. Coming in the month of Ramzan, the misery has been compounded as there is a deluge of people from all across the globe. The result has been that ninety eight people have lost their lives in these floods. Is this unlikely downpour due to climate change?

The third news item that is more innocuous and may not have made news in the west is that heavy water was found to have been mixed with drinking water in Kaiga, here in Karnataka. Kaiga nuclear plant is used for power generation and parts of the state depend on Kaiga for their energy needs.  Anil Kakodkar, the chief of the Indian Atomic Energy has termed this as mischief. 55 people have been exposed to radiation and needed to be hospitalized.

The fact is that climate change is a reality. The sea levels are rising, the monsoon cycle has been erratic and the glaciers are melting. Because of the rise in the sea levels humanity may lose some of the most beautiful Pacific islands in the next couple of decades. The monsoons in India this year were extraordinarily late and there was drought declared in many parts of India. And when the rains did come, they were so ferocious that many parts of Bihar were inundated and there was a flood like situation. Many people lost their homes to floods yet again this year. Gangotri, the mouth of river Ganga is not where the glaciers melt and the formation of the river starts now as it used to be some decades ago. One has to tread another few kilometers up the hills to find the source of the Ganges – another indication of global warming!! The Arctic icecap is melting and that could spell disaster in the years to come. Europe and America saw a dip in temperature last winters and that was quite unprecedented. Five to six meters of snow halted life in North America. Is humanity listening? The answer is yes and no.

The fact is that most people realize that our world is in danger because man has pillaged nature indiscriminately. We have had little regard to our environment and we have done as we thought fit with Mother Nature. We have scant respect for our surroundings and we are myopic in our approach.  Ancient Hindus realized that humans were a part of the cycle of life and not life per se. The Western approach that all is for the convenience of the human race is a very ungrateful way of looking at life on this planet.  We are a part of a whole, a small part and not the be all and end all of this planet that has been bestowed with life.

The present US president has taken up the cause of climate change and global warming as his political raison de entre and has vigorously pushed for a global consensus on measures to check global warming with participation from the major economies in the world. The presumption is that with industrialization starts pillage and pollution which consequently contributes to global warming. This is true but may not be the whole story. The focus of this debate seems to be the power industry. The coal burning thermal energy has been targeted most furiously. I do not for a moment defend this method of power generation. Burning coal is surely not the most eco-friendly way of power generation, but I have serious reservations about the alternative that is being bandied about so forcefully. The answer to this problem, the experts say is to go in for the ‘clean’ energy option of – guess what – nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants were all but discarded by most western nations after the eighties Chernobyl disaster. Humans have short memories. People have forgotten what a nightmare Chernobyl was not only for the Soviet Union of that time but also many adjoining countries. Europe was shivering not with the biting cold but because of the possible horrific outcome of the Chernobyl disaster. And now countries like Finland have built one of the largest nuclear power stations in the world. Other western countries and some of the developing countries like India, China and Brazil are looking closely at the developments in Finland so as to be able to build similar nuclear behemoths to serve their increasing power needs.  Even such backward countries like Bangladesh are being encouraged to have nuclear power plants as a source of ‘clean energy’.

Apart from the fundamental environmental questions that emanate from such a rampant use of nuclear power plants and the expertise needed to run them and the paucity of trained staff in such backward nations, I am also concerned about the safety and security of these strategic installations from terror attacks. I am also inclined to think that some of these nations may want to further enrich the uranium at their disposal and try and build nuclear weapons. Proliferation may be a very real outfall of this rampant use of nuclear energy. I know that the IAEA is doing a wonderful job and will keep a hawk’s eye on all these nuclear reactors but some cheating may take place and the checks and balances are not foolproof.

What has happened in Kaiga could well be a terror plot. This is just a precursor to the things to come. No technology is so well guarded and so complicated that a group of persons with vile intentions cannot use it to unleash carnage at a people unmindful of the dangers around them. Access to the control room in a nuclear power plant even for a short time could be enough for a jihadi who has come on a suicide mission to wreck the kind of havoc that we can only imagine. If small weapons like rifles and grenades made a Mumbai happen, access to any of the nuclear installations to one of the jihadis could well mean Armageddon for the region (I do not believe in the year 2012 theory though). This whole debate on climate change to me seems to be a concerted attempt by a lobby to force the world to take up technology that is not necessarily clean but could mean billions of dollars in profits for these multinational behemoths.

For starters we need to realize that our daily life needs to be more environmental friendly. The use of plastics and chemical based materials must be banned. In India the use of polythene bags is rampant and these are the worst environmental hazard. Cows munch on them and many have died because of kilos of such toxics accumulate in their stomachs. The use of trucks and Lorries that run on diesel is a huge pollutant. Railroad is a much cleaner option (Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway has invested heavily in rail road companies in the US looking at the possibilities in future. Returns may start only after at least a decade or so, but then the Guru was always a long term investor). High rise buildings are seen as a solution to the burgeoning housing needs of the modern citizens of metropolises that abound. These are a huge burden on a fragile eco system of any city. The cities need to expand laterally rather than vertically. The onus should be on each home to be a self sufficient and eco-friendly dwelling. In a country like India, solar power is a very real option. Homes must be given licenses only if they comply with solar power generation norms that the state must outline. These may vary according to the size of the home. Public transport, like the Metro must be expanded so that cheap and comfortable option dissuades people from using private vehicles. Besides, if cities expand laterally it will be tedious for people to drive for hours to work. The public option if comfortable and fast will be the preferred option – the environmental friendly option. Wind energy is another source that is not being harnessed. In both solar and wind energy, my only reservation is the lead battery that is used to store the power generated. Lead is carcinogenic and we need to develop better storage options for the power generated. All this can be done without much cost. This high rise homes option is really an ecological disaster and taxes the resources exponentially. While there are many builders here in Bangalore, where I live, offering home solutions in the form of high rise buildings, not many are attracted.  Bangalorean’s want their own ‘house’ and not a flat to live in. Bangalore is expanding like no other city. The Bangalore Metro will only help the city expand further as this a fast, comfortable and cheap option.  Most of these layouts in an ever expanding Bangalore are green and have lots of trees around them.  Most houses have solar panels for water heating. These could be expanded and could well be the source of power for most of these homes. Rainwater harvesting is also being done in most houses, though this could be taken up more vigorously, I feel. The clean air that we breathe is such a boon. But the traffic is increasing and most roads face a traffic jam during peak hours. I hope the public transport option comes fast and the roads can then be free of most of the gasoline guzzling monsters that hum around belching out fumes that suffocate us.

The coming Copenhagen Summit is more of a charade than any real effort at cleaning the environment. I would be impressed if the White House had eco-friendly energy options. It is good that the first lady has again started the kitchen garden in the White House’s sprawling lawns. We need to emulate that too – try and grow organically our own food.  The solutions to climate change that are being put forward just do not excite me. They are not solutions but a mockery and a circus that has little import. Man needs to learn to live with the environment around him. Nature has enough for us all. We need to learn to listen to Mother Nature more closely.

Update 4.12.2009: India has decided to unilaterally cut 20 to 25% of emissions. Sounds good. Copenhagen is going to be one big circus with little to show except maybe help a few industries that shall benefit from this extravagant exercise. While the colder nations may need nuclear energy as the ‘clean’ alternative, here in tropical countries we must try and harness solar energy that we have in abundance. That is surely clean and renewable, besides in countries like India there is sunshine almost 300 days a year, we do not need expensive nuclear power where the spent fuel is such a headache and a threat to humankind.

To me this whole hype over climate change is a lot of hot air. Especially when there are such ridiculously outrageous ‘serious’ attempts at controlling greenhouse gases. There was this one report about a group of scientists trying to genetically engineer sheep so that they burp less. Their take is that sheep burp is methane and this in turn affects the environment. How about genetically modifying humans so that we burp and fart less, we are many more in numbers. This debate is getting out of hand and from doing small things that count we are going to outlandish detail which is an exercise in futility.

China has also said that they will cut emissions by 40 percent. That’s nice – but who is going to monitor there. It is a closed country and we will have no choice but to take their word for it.

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