Climate change

June 23, 2011

What price of Indian independence? Greenpeace under the spotlight

Filed under: Emissions Reduction, Energy Demand, Global Warming — buildeco @ 1:56 pm
Two PWRs under construction in Kudamkulam, India

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. To see a list of other BNC posts by Geoff, click here.


India declared itself a republic in 1950 after more than a century of struggle against British Imperialism. Greenpeace India however, is still locked firmly under the yoke of its parent. Let me explain.

Like many Australians, I only caught up with Bombay’s 1995 change of name to Mumbai some time after it happened. Mumbai is India’s city of finance and film, of banks and Bollywood. A huge seething coastal metropolis on the north western side of India. It’s also the capital of the state of Maharashtra which is about 20 percent bigger than the Australian state of Victoria, but has 112 million people compared to Victoria’s 5.5 million. Mumbai alone has over double Victoria’s entire population. Despite its population, the electricity served up by Maharashtra’s fossil fuel power stations plus one big hydro scheme is just 11.3 GW (giga watts, see Note 3), not much more than the 8 or so GW of Victoria’s coal and gas fumers. So despite Mumbai’s dazzling glass and concrete skyline, many Indians in both rural and urban areas of the state still cook with biomass … things like wood, charcoal and cattle dung.

The modern Mumbai skyline at night

Mumbai’s wealth is a magnet for terrorism. The recent attacks in 2008 which killed 173 follow bombings in 2003 and 1993 which took 209 and 257 lives respectively. Such events are International news, unlike the daily death and illness, particularly to children, from cooking with biomass. Each year, cooking smoke kills about 256,000 Indian children between 1 and 5 years of age with acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI). Those who don’t die can suffer long term consequences to their physical and mental health. A rough pro-rata estimate would see about 23,000 children under 5 die in Maharashtra every year from cooking smoke.

The image is from a presentation by medical Professor Kirk Smith, who has been studying cooking smoke and its implications for 30 years.

Medical Prof. Kirk Smith’s summary of health impacts from cooking fires

The gizmo under the women’s right arm measures the noxious fumes she is exposed to while cooking. Kirk doesn’t just study these illnesses but has been spinning off development projects which develope and distribute cleaner cooking stoves to serve as an interim measure until electricity arrives.

The disconnect between what matters about Mumbai and India generally to an Australian or European audience and what matters locally is extreme. But a visit to the Greenpeace India website shows it is simply a western clone. In a country where real matters of life and death are ubiquitous, the mock panic infecting the front page of the Greenpeace India website at the death-less problems of the Fukushima nuclear plant seem weird at best, and obscene at worst.“Two months since Fukushima, the Jaitapur project has not been stopped“, shouts the text over one front page graphic in reference to the nuclear plant proposed for construction at Jaitapur. In those two months, nobody has died of radiation at Fukushima, but 58,000 Indian children have died from cooking smoke. They have died because of a lack of electricity. Some thousands in Maharashtra alone.

Greenpeace, now an obstructive dinosaur

The whole world loved Greenpeace back in its halcyon days protesting whaling and the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Taking on whalers and the French Navy in the open sea in little rubber boats was indeed worthy of Mahatma Gandhi. But the legacy of those days is now an obstacle to Greenpeace helping to fight the much bigger environmental battles that are being fought. As Greenpeace campaigns to throw out the nuclear powered baby with the weapons testing bathwater, it seems to have forgotten the 2010 floods which displaced 20 million in the sub-continent. The Australian Council for International Development reports in May 2011 that millions are still displaced with 913,000 homes completely destroyed. Millions also have ongoing health issues with rising levels of tuberculosis, dengue fever and the impacts of extended periods of malnutrition. The economic structure of large areas has been devastated along with food and seed stocks. Areas in southern Pakistan are still under water.

This foreshadows the scale of devastation which will be delivered more frequently as global warming bites.

Brown clouds, cooking and climate change

Regardless of what you think about nuclear power, you’d think breathable air would be an environmental issue worthy of Greenpeace’s attention, but biomass cooking is missing from Greenpeace India’s campaign headings.

Biomass cooking isn’t just a consequence of poverty, it feeds into a vicious feedback loop. People, usually women and children, spend long periods collecting wood or cattle dung (see image or full study). This reduces educational opportunities, while pressure on forests for wood and charcoal degrades biodiversity. Infections from smoke, even if not fatal, combine with the marginal nutrition produced by intermittent grain shortages to yield short and sickly lifespans, while burning cattle dung wastes a resource far more valuable as fertiliser.

In 2004, a World Health Organisation Report estimated that, globally, 50 percent of all households and 90 percent of rural households cook with biomass. In India, they estimated that 81 percent of Indian households cook with biomass. That figure will have dropped somewhat with significant growth in Indian power generation over the past decade but will still be high.

Biomass cooking isn’t only a health issue, but a significant player in climate change. Globally, the black carbon in the smoke from over 3 billion people cooking and boiling water daily with wood, charcoal or cattle dung forms large brown clouds with regional and global impacts.

Maharashtra’s nuclear plans

Apart from a reliable food supply, the innovation that most easily distinguishes the developed and developing world is electricity. It’s the shortage of this basic commodity that kills those 256,000 Indian children annually. Electric cooking is clean and slices through the poverty inducing feedback loop outlined above. Refrigeration reduces not just food wastage but also food poisoning.

If you want to protect forests and biodiversity as well as children in India (and the rest of the developing world), then electricity is fundamental. Higher childhood survival is not only a worthy goal in itself, but it is also critical in reducing birthrates.

Apart from a Victorian sized coal fired power supply the 112 million people of Maharashtra also have the biggest nuclear power station in India. This is a cluster of two older reactors and two newer ones opened in 2005 and 2006. The newer reactors were constructed by Indian companies and were completed inside time and below budget. The two old reactors are relatively small, but the combined power of the two newer reactors is nearly a giga watt. India’s has a rich mathematical heritage going back a thousand years which underpins a sophisticated nuclear program. Some high-level analytic techniques were known in India hundreds of years before being discovered in Europe.

India has another nuclear power station planned for Maharashtra. And much bigger. This will be a half a dozen huge 1.7 GW French EPR reactors at Jaitapur, south of Mumbai. On its own, this cluster will surpass the entire current output of the state’s coal fired power stations. The project will occupy 968 hectares and displace 2,335 villagers (Wikipedia). How much land would solar collectors occupy for an Andasol like concentrating solar thermal system? About 40 times more land and either displace something like 80,000 people or eat into India’s few wildlife habitats.

If Greenpeace succeeds in delaying the Jaitapur nuclear plant, biomass cooking in the area it would have serviced will continue together with the associated suffering and death of children. It’s that simple. Greenpeace will have direct responsibility no less than if it had bombed a shipment of medical supplies or prevented the decontamination of a polluted drinking well.

Jaitapur and earthquakes

In the wake of the reactor failures at Fukushima which killed nobody, Greenpeace globally and Greenpeace India are redoubling their efforts to derail the new Jaitapur nuclear plant. The Greenpeace India website (Accessed 9th May) carries a graphic of the Fukushima station with covering text:

The Jaitapur nuclear plant in India is also in an earthquake prone zone. Do we want to take the risk? The people of Jaitapur don’t.

The Greenpeace site claims that the chosen location for the Jaitapur power plant is in a Seismic Zone 4 with a maximum recorded quake of 6.3 on the Richter scale. Accepting this as true (Wikipedia says its Zone 3), should anybody be afraid?

“Confident” and “relaxed” are far more appropriate responses for anybody who understands the Richter scale. It’s logarithmic. Base 10.

Still confused? A quake of Richter scale size 7 is 10 times more powerful than one of size 6. A quake of size 8 is 100 times more powerful than one a size 6. And a scale 9 quake, like Japan’s monster on March the 11th, is a thousand times more powerful than a quake of size 6. The 40 year old Fukushima reactors came through this massive quake with damage but no deaths. The reactors shutdown as they were designed to and subsequent problems, still fatality free and caused primarily by the tsunami, would not have occurred with a more modern reactor. We haven’t stopped building large buildings in earthquake zones because older designs failed.

Steep cliffs and modern reactor designs at Jaitapur will mean that tsunamis won’t be a problem. All over the world people build skyscrapers in major earthquake zones. The success of the elderly Fukushima reactors in the face of a monster quake is cause for relief and confidence, not blind panic. After all, compared to a skyscraper like Taipei 101, designing a low profile building like a nuclear reactor which can handle earthquakes is a relative doddle.

Despite being a 10 on the media’s self-proclaimed Richter scale, subsequent radiation leaks and releases at Fukushima will cause few if any cancers. It’s unlikely that a single worker will get cancer, let alone any of the surrounding population. This is not even a molehill next to the mountain of cancers caused by cigarettes, alcohol and red meat. The Fukushima evacuations are terrible for the individuals involved but even 170,000 evacuees pales beside the millions of evacuations caused by increasing climate based cataclysms.

Greenpeace India haunted by a pallid European ghost

Each year that the electricity supply in Maharashtra is inadequate, some 23,000 children under the age of 5 will die. They will die this year. They will die next year. They will keep dying while the electricity supply in Maharashtra is inadequate. While the children die, their parents will mourn and continue to deplete forests for wood and charcoal. They will continue to burn cattle dung and they will have more children.

A search of the Greenpeace India web pages finds no mention of biomass cooking. No mention of its general, environmental, climate or health impacts. But there are 118 pages referencing Chernobyl.

At Chernobyl, 237 people suffered acute radiation sickness with 28 dying within 4 months and another 19 dying between 1987 and 2006. As a result of the radiation plume and people who were children at the time drinking contaminated milk, there were 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer between 1991 and 2005. These were treated with a success rate of about 98% (implying about 140 deaths). Over the past 25 years there have also been some thousands of other cancers that might, or might not, have been caused by Chernobyl amongst the millions of cancers caused by factors that Greenpeace doesn’t seem the least worried by, things like cigarettes, alcohol and red meat.

On the other hand, each year that India’s electricity supply is inadequate will see about 256,000 childhood deaths. As an exercise, readers may wish to calculate the number of Indian children who have died due to inadequate cooking fuels over the past 25 years and compare it with the 140 children who died due to the Chernobyl accident. Every one of those Indian deaths was every bit as tragic as every one of those Chernobyl deaths.

Greenpeace India is dominated by the nuclear obsession of its parent organisation. On the day when the Greenpeace India blog ran a piece about 3 Japanese workers with burned feet, nearly a thousand Indian children under 5 will have died from cooking stove smoke. They didn’t get a mention on that day, or any other.

Why is Greenpeace India haunted by this pallid European ghost of an explosion 25 years ago in an obsolete model of reactor in Ukraine? Why is Greenpeace India haunted by the failure of a 40 year old Fukushima reactor without a single fatality? This is a tail wagging not just a dog, but the entire sled team.

Extreme scenarios

It’s time Greenpeace India looked rationally at Indian choices.

Should they perhaps copy the Germans whose 15 year flirtation with solar power hasn’t made the slightest dent in their fossil fuel use? (Note 2) It may simply be that the Germans are technologically incompetent and that things will go better in India. Perhaps the heirs of Ramanujan will succeed where the heirs of Gauss have failed. Alternatively, should India copy the Danes whose wind farms can’t even half power a tiny country of 5.4 million?

India’s current electricity sources. Cooking stoves not included! ‘Renewables’ are predominantly biomass thermal power plants and wind energy, with some solar PV.

India is well aware that she only has a four or five decades of coal left, but seems less aware, like other Governments, that atmospheric CO2 stabilisation must be at 350 ppm together with strict reductions in short lived forcings like black carbon and methane and that these constraints require her, like Australia and everybody else, to leave most of that coal in the ground. But regardless of motivation, India needs both a rebuild and expansion of her energy infrastructure over the next 50 years.

Let’s consider a couple of thumbnail sketches of two very different extreme scenarios that India may consider.

The first scenario is to phase out all India’s coal, oil and gas electricity generation facilities and replace them with nuclear. Currently these fossil fuel facilities generate about 900,000 GWh (giga watt hours) of electricity. Replacing them with 1,000 nuclear reactors at 1.7 GW each will generate about 14 million GWh annually. This is about 15 times the current electricity supply and roughly similar to Victoria’s per capita electricity supply. It’s a fairly modest target because electricity will be required to replace oil and gas in the future. I also haven’t factored in population growth in the hope that energy efficiency gains will compensate for population growth and also with confidence that electrification will reduce population growth. Nevertheless, this amount of electricity should be enough to catapult India into the realms of the developed world.

These reactors should last at least 60 years and the electricity they produce will prevent 256,000 children under 5 dying every year. Over the lifetime of the reactors this is about 15.4 million childhood deaths. But this isn’t so much about specific savings as a total transformation of India which will see life expectancy rise to developed world levels if dangerous climate change impacts can be averted and a stable global food supply is attained.

Build the reactors in groups of 6, as is proposed at Jaitapur, and you will need to find 166 sites of about 1000 hectares. The average density of people in India is about 3 per hectare, so you may need to relocate half a million people (3000 per site). This per-site figure is close to the actual figure for Jaitapur.

There are currently over 400 nuclear reactors operating world wide and there has been one Chernobyl and one Fukushima in 25 years. Nobody would build a Chernobyl style reactor again, but let’s be really silly and presume that over 60 years we had 2 Chernobyls and 2 Fukushimas in India. Over a 60 year period this might cost 20,000 childhood cancers with a 98% successful treatment rate … so about 400 children might die. There may also be a few thousand adult leukemias easily counterbalanced by a vast amount of adult health savings I haven’t considered.

The accidents would also result in 2 exclusion zones of about 30 kilometers in radius. Effectively this is 2 new modestly sized wildlife parks. We know from Chernobyl that wildlife will thrive in the absence of humans. With a 30km radius, the two exclusion zone wildlife parks would occupy 282,743 hectares.

If you are anti-nuclear, this is a worst case scenario. The total transformation of India into a country where children don’t die before their time in vast numbers.

This is a vision for India that Greenpeace India is fighting tooth and nail to avoid.

As our alternative extreme scenario, suppose India opted for concentrating solar thermal power stations similar to the Spanish Andasol system to supply 14 million GWh annually. Each such unit supplies about 180 GWh per year, so you would need at least 78,000 units with a solar collector area of 3.9 million hectares, equivalent to 13 of our hypothesized exclusion zone wildlife parks from the accidents. But, of course, these 3.9 million hectares are not wildlife parks. I say “at least 78,000″ units because the precise amount will depend on matching the demand for power with the availability of sunshine. Renewable sources of energy like wind and solar need overbuilding to make up for variability and unpredictability of wind and cloud cover. The 78,000 Andasol plants each come with 28,000 tonnes of molten salt (a mix of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) at 400 degrees centigrade which acts as a huge battery storing energy when the sun is shining for use when it isn’t. Local conditions will determine how much storage is required. The current global production of ordinary sodium chloride is about 210 million tonnes annually. Producing the 2.1 billion tonnes of special salt required for 78,000 Andasols will be difficult, as will the production of steel and concrete. Compared to the nuclear reactors, you will need about 15 times more concrete and 75 times more steel.

Build the 78,000 Andasols in groups of 78 and you have to find 1000 sites of about 4,000 hectares. Alternatively you could use 200 sites of 20,000 hectares. The average density of people in India is over 3 per hectare, so you may need to relocate perhaps 12 million people. If you were to use Solar photovoltaic in power stations (as opposed to rooftops), then you would need more than double the land (Note 4) and have to relocate even more people.


In a previous post, I cited an estimate of 1 tonne of CO2 per person per year as a sustainable greenhouse gas emissions limit for a global population of 8.9 billion. How do our two scenarios measure up?

A current estimate of full life cycle emissions from nuclear power is 65g/kWh (grams per kilo-watt-hour) of CO2, so 14 million GWh of electricity shared between 1.4 billion Indians is about 0.65 tonnes per person annum, which allows 0.35 tonnes for food and other non-energy greenhouse gas emissions. So not only is it sustainable, it’s in the ball park as a figure we will all have to live within.

The calculations required to check if this amount of electricity is sustainable from either solar thermal or solar PV are too complex to run through here, but neither will be within budget if any additional fossil fuel backup is required. Solar PV currently generates about 100 g/kWh (p.102) under Australian conditions, so barring technical breakthroughs, is unsustainable, unless you are happy not to eat at all. Solar thermal is similar to nuclear in g-CO2/kWh, except that the required overbuilding will probably blow the one tonne budget.

The human cost of construction time

The relative financial costs of the two scenarios could well have a human cost. For example, more money on energy usually means less on ensuring clean water. But this post is already too long. However, one last point needs to be made about construction time. I strongly suspect that while building 1000 nuclear reactors will be a vast undertaking, it is small compared to 78,000 Andasols. Compare the German and French experiences of solar PV and nuclear, or simply think about the sheer number and size of the sites required. The logistics and organisational time could end up dominating the engineering build time. We know from various experiences, including those of France and Germany, that rapid nuclear builds are physically plausible and India has demonstrated this with its own reactor program.

If I’m right and a solar (or other renewable) build is slower than a nuclear build, then the cost in human suffering will easily dwarf anything from any reasonable hypotheses on the number of accidents. Can we put a number on this? If we arbitrarily assume a pro-rata reduction in childhood deaths in proportion to the displacement of biomass cooking with electricity, then we can compare a phase-out over 10 five-year plans with one taking say 11. So at the end of each 5 year plan a chunk of electricity comes on line and the number of cooking smoke deaths drops. At the end of the process the number of deaths from cooking smoke is 0. It’s a decline in a series of 10 large or 11 slightly smaller steps. Plug in the numbers and add up the total over the two time periods and the difference is … 640,000 deaths in children under 5. Construction speed matters.

In conclusion

How do my back-of-an-envelope scenarios compare with India’s stated electricity development goals? According to India’s French partner in the Jaitapur project, Areva, India envisages about half my hypothesized electrical capacity being available by 2030, so a 50 year nuclear build plan isn’t ridiculous provided floods or failed monsoons don’t interfere unduly.

As for the safety issues and my hypothesised accidents, it doesn’t matter much what kind of numbers you plug in as a consequence of the silly assumption of a couple of Chernobyls. They are all well and truly trumped: firstly, by the increase in health for Indian children, secondly by the reforestation and biodiversity gains as biomass cooking declines, thirdly by the reduction in birth rates as people get used to not having their children die, and lastly, by helping us all have a fighting chance of avoiding the worst that climate change might deliver.

It’s time Greenpeace India told its parent organisation to shove off. It’s time Greenpeace India set its own agenda and put the fate of Indian children, the Indian environment and the planet ahead of the ideological prejudices of a parent organisation which has quite simply lost the plot.

Note 1: Nuclear Waste: What about the nuclear waste from a thousand reactors? This is far less dangerous than current levels of biomass cooking smoke and is much more easily managed. India has some of the best nuclear engineers in the business. They are planning thorium breeder reactors which will result in quite small amounts of waste, far smaller and more manageable than the waste from present reactors. Many newer reactor designs can run on waste from the present generation of reactors. These newer reactors are called IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) and details can be found on

Note 2: German Solar PV: Germany installed 17 GW of Solar photo voltaic (PV) power cells between 2000 and 2010 and in 2010 those 17 GW worth of cells delivered 12,000 GWh of energy. If those cells were running in 24×7 sunshine, they would have delivered 17x24x365 = 149 GWh of energy. So their efficiency is about 8 percent (this is usually called their capacity factor. A single 1.7GW nuclear reactor can produce about 1.7x24x365x0.9=13,402 GWh in a year (the 0.9 is a reasonable capacity factor for nuclear … 90 percent). Fossil fuel use for electricity production in Germany hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years with most of the growth in the energy supply being due to the development of nuclear power in Germany during the late 70s and 80s.

Note 3: Giga watts, for non technical readers.: The word billion means different things in different countries, but “giga” always means a thousand million, so a giga watt (GW for short) is a useful unit for large amounts of power. A 100-watt globe takes 100 watts of power to run. Run it for an hour and you have used 100 watt-hours of energy. Similarly, a GWh, is a giga watt of power used for an hour, and this is a useful unit for large amounts of energy. If you want to know all about energy units for a better understanding of BNC discussions, here’s Barry’s primer

Note 4: Area for Solar PV. German company JUWI provides large scale PV systems. Their 2 MW (mega watt system) can supply about 3.1 GWh per year and occupies 2 hectares. To supply a similar amount of energy to Andasol would need 180/3.1=58 units occupying some 116 hectares


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