Sunday, 25 September 2011

Nuclear Hype and Reality of Uranium Mining

First the Hype.

"During the complete fission of 1 Kg U-235, 19 billion kilo calories are released, i.e. 1 Kg uranium-235 corresponds to 2.7 million Kg coal equivalent" .

Unsurprisingly, most of this propaganda originates from the beneficiaries of nuclear industry and their government sponsors.

Now, lets work out the real numbers - simply.

Method 1:
Lets work out what it takes to get this 1 Kg of uranium-235. In nature the component of this isotope of U-235 to total Uranium is 0.7%. Thus one has to mine 1/0.7% or (1000/7) Kg of total Uranium to get  Kg of U-235. Now the typical ore richness (i.e amount of Uranium to total material mined) is 1/2000; thus the total amount of mined material is 2000x1000/7 i.e. a million/3.5 more or about 300,000 Kg of mining. Thus a rough 'nuclear' advantage is about a factor of 10, rather than the about 3 million implied.

Method 2:

Each nuclear fission reaction produces 200 MeV of energy. In comparison, a thermal reaction for example, coal burning to carbon dioxide produces about 4 eV of energy. Thus each nuclear reaction releases 50 million times more energy compared to a chemical reaction. If we were to compare burning a tonne of coal, and fuel extracted from a tonne of Uranium ore( i.e a 3.5/million tonne), we again get nuclear to thermal advantage as

(3.5/million)x(12/235)x(50 million) = about 10!

Here the second term is the ratio of the atomic weights of carbon to Uranium and is a measure of atoms present per kilo of each material that will participate in thermal or nuclear reaction. Last term is the extra energy released in a nuclear fission compared to carbon burning.

Down Sides of Uranium Mining and the factor of ten nuclear advantage?

First of all, mining Uranium is unlike any other mining known to man.  An ore with 0.05% U is radioactive; even after  Uranium extraction, the remnant ore is still substantially radioactive. Although the uranium ore in geologic structures is usually stable, the mining processes release radioactive materials.  Particularly harmful are the acids or alkalies used to extract the mineral (via leaching) at the site itself, since these react with the ore material producing highly hazardous substances that infiltrate the aquatic ecosystems, causing irreparable environmental damage. Further, Uranium production is highly energy and water intensive.

Before considering any uranium mining, it is also necessary to consider the more obvious down sides of any nuclear power program, during operation, waste disposal, and the enormous,  unforgivable risk posed to life in case of an event or accident.

Current Affairs:

Recently, there has been a great deal of excitement and furor over the discovery of "Massive Deposits of Uranium in Andhra Pradesh with up to 150,000 tonnes of Uranium Ore deposits. This ore is of poor quality, and insufficient to meet the needs of our nuclear program. Yet with a typically pompous arrogance, our government is marching ahead, acquiring agricultural lands for conversions to cess-pools of toxic and radio- active waste, impervious to large public protests or outcry - all to combat Nation's 'future energy threat'.

It is high time we took over our Future, our Energy, and understood the real Threat to our Security.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Responding to UID

On Sept. 15, 2011, RS Sharma, Director General and Mission Director of UIDAI published an op-Ed in The Hindu. The following is my response to his article:

Need for identification to provide social welfare need not involve the rigors, expense and hazards of relying on technologically challenging, physically intrusive de-duplication scheme that is promised to us by UIDAI. 

While there  is no penal consequence to being Aadhar-less, it is increasingly becoming a requisite in many places; Maharashtra requires its employees to have UIDAI number to draw their salaries. The situation is much worse for the poor. The enrollment process is arbitrary and necessarily incomplete for the urban destitutes, migratory work force, vast population of the internally displaced persons, and also for the needy in remote and far flung areas. How the UIDAI aims to be an 'aadhar' for the unreachable, non-addressed, mobile sections of the society, who are also its most needy, is unclear. Further, tying up social welfare programs like NREGA and BPL provisions with UIDAI is not only unfair, but also cruel under these circumstances.

US and UK provide ample ID and benefits without requiring full(fool-)proof techno interventions against fraud or duplication. 
These examples cannot be ignored since such biometrically reliant UID systems were considered unfeasible (on account of margins of errors, amongst other reasons) even in these more technologically advanced nations, which are dealing with far smaller populations.
The poor in India, the labor class, old and malnourished have severe problems in biometrics measurements and this is well documented and also acknowledged by the authority. Rigorous and scientific feasibility studies to assess the margins of errors in biometrics have however not been conducted and the 'exception handling mechanism' in case of failures is yet to be disclosed. SSN scheme as in US, or a ration-card number in India might be sufficient if the primary interest is in providing social benefits. 

That the middle class of India is increasingly technologically proficient cannot be used to mandate UIDAI with ill defined, unregulated and enormous authority to access, appropriate and utilise highly private, personalised, complex data sets of our entire population (as defined by them). That this data system is also highly complex and susceptible to errors, human and technological, qualifies the program for substantial worry and minute scrutiny.

Additional concerns about UIDAI stem from its lack of legal sanction or sanction of law;  undisclosed, large and apparently elastic budget funded by taxpayers; its ties to Natgrid; safety, utilisation, and restrictions about sharing the data set. An idea that has recently taken hold of some of our imaginations, in reaction to elaborate UIDAI scheme, is to universalise basic rights to all citizens of this nation including food, water, shelter, education, health and security as a fundamental right garunteed by the constitution - and without getting an iris scan.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Seditious on Wheels

It was around 9am in the morning. I was in a second class compartment on Jaipur express, headed back towards home i.e. Bangalore. The train hurtled at a heady speed with loud clangs over rhythmic roar; kaleidoscopic greens and browns rushed past the open windows. It was monsoon time. And, I was full of excitement and hidden laughter at what I was about to do.

Gowru and I were returning from a national meet of People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), held in Jaipur. Recently PUCL had launched a nationwide campaign of collecting a million signatures from across the country to support of its petition of repealing the Sedition Law to be presented in the winter session of the Parliament. Gowru and I had decided to inform, educate and seek support for this signature campaign on this train.  We had some empty sheets of paper, a long lined notebook, a couple of pamphlets with additional information,a few copies of the petition itself, a few pens etc. We intended to be seditious - that is, proclaim disaffection towards a law of this land, which criminalizes verbal or vocal expression of disaffection towards the State. Our stand was simple - we were free and would not allow ourselves to be subjugated by a defunct old relic of the British Raj - the law of Sedition, IPC 124(a).

The results first - we had an incredible success! Over the next day and a half, we collected more than a thousand signatures - from a variety of people, rich, poor, young, old, men, women, educated to those with absolutely no skills in reading or writings, from migratory labor to IT professionals. We roamed the entire length of the train and got signatures from ticket collectors (TTs), staff of the pantry car, security officials. With each and every adult on this train we sat down, made eye contact, smiled, spoke in great earnestness and sincerity on issues of freedom, right to expression, issues of democracy and its challenges, and the ideals of a truly free society. We spoke up against fears, collective good, the struggle and satisfaction of a righteous act. We touched on subjects of development, and its sacrifices - and those who bear the burden of this development. We spoke and people listened, interacted, expressed, communicated - showed anger, laughed, pondered and invariably signed. Many wanted to support the campaign on internet (, some others also wanted to become PUCL members or start their own new PUCL chapters.

The exercise had turned out to be far more than just an act of collecting signatures. It was a lesson for me in the high value of human relations, and in the power of expressing rational free thought. We were uniformly received with courtesy, openness and warmth. Many thanked us well for our efforts, some even insisted on feeding us. I learnt that I would never again write off the people of this nation as less intelligent, apathetic, subservient, self-serving or lacking imagination. I glimpsed the enormous possibility for change and saw first hand the scope of hope. In open engagement with hundreds of people, I found myself lacking to not have known them better before - to have not bothered to really know Us.

On State of Our Affairs

दम की बात

मुझे शर्म है कि
यह दशा है अपने देश की-

दबी सांसो से दबी आवाज़ 
में गरज़ने का दम नहीं

दबे सच को आकाश 
चीरने का दम नहीं

नहीं बारिश की जोश में
दीवालों को पिघलाने का दम

कायरो की बस्ती में 
नूर को बसने का भी दम नहीं

आज कल रातो में तारो
को चमकने का भी दम नहीं