Safety of nuclear technology (Latest article on the recent Kudankulam accident)

 Some basic questions about the safety of Nuclear Technology: Do we need nuclear energy at all?

 

                                                             E.A.S.Sarma

 

 

The severe quake that hit Japan earlier this month and the devastating tsunami that followed it

were unfortunate. The people of Japan are still going through the immense trauma of the calamity. We, in India, offer our earnest sympahy to them at this difficult hour.

 

The quake and the tsunami triggered a series of explosions at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, leading to a meltdown of Reactor No.1 and severe damage to the other reactors. As more and more details are unfolding, the horror of the nuclear tragedy at Fukushima is becoming evident to the world..

 

The response in this context of Dept. of Atomic Energy (DAE) in India has been unnecessarily defensive about the safety of the nuclear facilities in the country. DAE has tried to assure the nation that everything is alright with its existing plants and there is no need for any fears in the case of the proposed nuclear complexes at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Kovvada in andhra Pradesh and other locations. DAE's assurances are based on the following considerations.

 

  1. A safety audit had recently been conducted at the existing plants of Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) should assure us about their safety.

  2. NPCIL competently managed the after effects of the tsunami that hit the East coast a few years ago. The Corporation is therefore capable of handling any emergency in the future.

 

Are these assurances sufficient?

 

The following facts need to be considered in this context.

 

  1. While it is true that the quake and the tsunami triggered the explosions at Fukushima, even in the absence of such triggers, Fukushima had the highest accident rate in the past among the nuclear plants operated by the concerned company in Japan, on the basis of the data available for 2005-09. Fukushima had a troubled history of problems arising in its operation (Wall Street Journal of 21st March, 2011)

     

  2. There have been quite a few accidents at several Japanese nuclear facilities over the last few

    decades. For example, an accident at Tokaimura nuclear fuel processing plant in Japan in

    September, 1999 resulted in an uncontrolled chain reaction that led to serious radioactive exposure to 439 persons in the neighbourhood. At Mihama nuclear power plant, in 2004, extreme heat caused a pipe burst that killed four persons and injured another seven. There were many such major and minor accidents in Japan and the other countries in the past. It shows that nuclear technology has many inherent risks. Even a human error or a failure of the control systems can cause havoc similar to the one being presently witnessed in Japan. Such failures can occur any time in India, despite all the well intentioned safeguards in place. Unlike in the case of other technologies, the consequences in the case of nuclear technology can be extensive with intergenerational impacts.

     

  3. It is commonplace in Japan and in the case of reactors elsewhere to create spent fuel pools

    in the immediate vicinity of each nuclear power plant. These spent fuel pools are known to cause accidents and radiation leakages. Some of Fukushima's problems have something to do with this. In fact, no nation has been able to develop a fool-proof way to deal with the large stockpiles of used fuel that comes out of the nuclear power plants.

     

  4. Generally, as a result of the secrecy involved in the case of nuclear technology that started

    first with its military application, in most nations, the regulators have not been allowed to be

    independent as they should be and the laws dealing with nuclear facilities not allowed to

    encourage transparency. For example, in the case of India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is subordinate to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) which it is supposed to oversee. The Atomic Energy Act has many non-disclosure clauses that preclude 100% public transparency. Unless AERB's autonomy is ensured and the Act itself made compatible with the Right to Information Act, the fears and apprehensions about nuclear energy will remain.

     

  5. In reality, there is no need for the large nuclear power capacity additions that DAE is presently contemplating, as nuclear power is base load power that cannot economically fit into grid operation. Beyond a point. It is an expensive source of electricity. A more basic question that should be asked is whether we can sustain an electricity development strategy that is more supply-oriented than demand-centric. The emphasis in electricity planning should necessarily shift to demand planning from an endless addition to generation capacity. There is no choice in this matter.

     

  6. In the case of nuclear power plants, as a result of Chernobyl experience, a zoning system around each project site has been adopted internationally. The exclusion zone (1.5km around the site) prohibits any habitation. Within 5km, no development activity is permitted and no population increase is encouraged. People living within 16km from the site are subject to monitoring for radioactivity and can be asked to evacuate in the event of an accident. Depending on the wind direction and intensity, evacuation could extend even beyond this limit. The Japanese experience may enlarge these limits further. What worries me is that the people living around the new project sites are not fully taken into confidence on this. Perhaps, NPCIL wishes to push through its projects with least public awareness and resistance. Lack of transparency should not be viewed as an answer to pushing through nuclear power development. The local communities in particular and the people at large are entitled to know how the Department of Atomic Energy and NPCIL function and how decision making is done. Technology should not drive public policy. Public policy cannot be subject to promotion of the business interests of the western multinationals. Instead, it should subserve the public interest.

     

  7. There is not much of information in the public domain on the so called "safety audits" conducted by NPCIL. What were the findings of these audits in the past and what was the action taken? Despite a public assurance given by the Prime Minister's Office in April, 2011, DAE has not divulged the safety audit reports and the action taken on them. Unless DAE places this information before the Parliament and the people, the public will continue to entertain serious doubts about the safety of nuclear power, especially after the vivid and distressing pictures they saw on the TV channels during the last few days on Japan.

  8. Many existing nuclear power plants are located dangerously close to either the western or the eastern tectonic faultline where seismic events can occur anytime. Even the new project at Jaitapur is close to the Western faultline. Keeping in view the enormous damage and havoc that an accident can cause, DAE should desist from underplaying the risks of seismic events. “Black swans” or statistical “outliers” should be anticipated and the country should be prepared to address the consequences.

  9. The nuclear regulators all over the world seem to be basking in self-assurance about safety based on many questionable assumptions about the 100% infallibility of the reactor containment structures, the likely hazards of stored radioactive wastes etc. These assumptions are slowly proving to be false. A thorough review of these assumptions by an independent set of eminent persons is necessary. The independence of the regulatory institutions should be ensured.

     

  10. Out of 104 nuclear power plants in USA, at least 27 have been found to be causing radioactive tritium contamination of ground water. Should we not worry about such risks in our own case?

     

  11. After initial hesitation, the Japanese Prime Minister has announced a total embargo on nuclear power and a clear shift towards demand management, efficiency improvements and greater dependence on renewables. Germany's Chancellor has similarly declared an “exit” from nuclear power. Globally, there is a rethink about the future of nuclear power.. On the other hand, India has dithered on the need for such a review. In the case of Jaitapur, the Prime Minister's Office has even gone to the extent of announcing its firm resolve to go aheadwith the project despite the unresolved safety concerns.

     

  12. I believe that India should come out of its shell of obstinacy in the case of nuclear power and announce a total embargo on all new nuclear power complexes, including Jaitapur, Kovvada and other projects. The 660MWe European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs) to be supplied by Areva of France for Jaitapur are yet to come into regular operation anywhere in the world. In the case of Kovvada, the supplier is likely to be GE, the same company that supplied the reactors for Fukushima in Japan. The fact that most of these reactor suppliers are reluctant to come to India without the government having to impose a ridiculously low cap on the liabilities on account of accidents shows that the liabilities can be very large. India has in fact enacted a law to cap the liability on these lines, introducing an element of moral hazard that will encourage the reactor suppliers to cut the corners in relation to safety.

     

  13. When Konkan Bachao Samithi and the people in and around Jaitapur opposed the Jaitapur project on genuine grounds, the State used its heavy coercive arm to discourage their dissent. As a result, one innocent person has lost his life. Energy development plans cannot and should not be forced on the people against their wishes.The true meaning of development is what the people choose for themselves, not what the rulers impose on them.

     

  14. Shri Jairam Ramesh, Minister (MOEF) announced environment clearance for Jaitapur in a

    great hurry, as a prelude to the French President's visit to India last December, 2010. The clearance had around 35 conditions attached to it, demonstrating how dubious are the grounds for such a clearance. However, the safety of the French reactors (referred earlier) figured nowhere among these conditions, nor any mention whatsoever of the method and location of radioactive waste storage. Do such clearances mean anything to those that live in the vicinity of Jaitapur? What is the meaning of safeguarding the environment when the safety of the human beings is ignored? MOEF seems to have redefined the meaning of “the safety of environment”.

     

  15. A time has come when India should go all out to enhance efficiencies down the line from electricity generation to end-use of electricity, to avoid continuing reliance on new megawatts. We can no longer afford to push through new projects that are risky, people unfriendly and polluting. These issues need to be debated widely. I am raising these issues here in the hope that the civil society will discuss and debate these issues as widely as possible to influence the public policy on nuclear technology.

 

The Prime Minister, as a result of intense civil society pressure, has at last given an assurance that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board will be given greater autonomy. It is to be seen whether DAE will permit this assurance being translated into action! Unless Atomic Energy Act is also suitably amended to impart greater transparency to DAE's working, such an assurance will not lead to the desired outcomes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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