Is Nuclear Power safe?

The question may sound rhetorical to few but it is nevertheless a relevant question. The question may have become somewhat redundant in recent times but was brought again into the limelight with the Fukushima, Japan mishap. This article is an attempt to examine the safety of nuclear power and the current use of nuclear energy in generating electricity in the Indian context.

Nuclear Energy production and reactors around the world;

Nuclear power plant across the world-Map

The Atomic Energy Commission of India was set up in 1948, and the Department of Atomic energy (DAE) came into being in 1952. The DAE family comprises of:

Five Research centres:

  1. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) – Mumbai, Maharshtra
  2. Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR)- Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu
  3. Centre for Advanced Technology (CAT)- Indore, MP
  4. Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC)- Kolkatta, WB
  5. Atomic Minerals Directorate for exploration and Research (AMD)- Hyderabad
Four Public Sector Undertakings:

  1. Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL)- Mumbai
  2. Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL)- Jaduguda (Jharkhand)
  3. Indian Rare Earth Limited (IRE)- Mumbai
  4. Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL)- Hyderabad

 

Three industrial organisations:

  1. Heavy Water Board (HWB)- Mumbai
  2. Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC)- Hyderabad
  3. Board of Radiation & Isotope Technology (BRIT) – Mumbai

 

Four Service Organisations:

  1. Directorate of Purchase and Stores (DPS)- Mumbai
  2. Construction, Services and Estate Management Group (CS & EMG)- Mumbai
  3. General Service Organisation (GSO)- Kalpakkam
  4. Atomic Energy Education Society (AEES)- Mumbai

 

However, before India could seriously establish itself as a global power in nuclear energy, the nuclear apartheid era of India began after the Pokhran tests were conducted under the leadership of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and later Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The world reacted in horror at India asserting itself and many nations were unhappy at the development; the US even imposed sanctions while some nations like France congratulated India.

The terms of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are so discriminatory that India has been suggesting disarmament and has therefore refused to sign it. What the NPT and CTBT does, is to perpetuate a system in which only some nations can possess nuclear weapons legitimately. Without adequate fuel supply as India lacks in uranium, the progress whatsoever made in nuclear energy was limited.

CURTAINS FOR CIRUS;

CIRUS (Canada India Reactor Utility Services) shut down permanently on the last day of the year 2010. CIRUS was 50 years old reactor at BHABHA. CIRUS was the symbol of India’s nuclear energy programme. It was done to abide by the commitments made under the civil nuclear agreement with the USA.

A new era was heralded with the signing of the 123 agreement with the US which was apart from its nuclear implications, a historic treaty because it was recognition of India’s brilliant non-proliferation record and the acceptance that India is different, of profound psychological significance for Indians. India has also voluntarily declared a no first use nuclear weapons policy.

So now, at present many nuclear power plants are being set up and because of the assurance of fuel supply, are achieving criticality. India’s next step would be to enter into the Wassenar agreement and the Australian group and ensure ENR (enrichment and nuclear processing) technology too. Before we go into the safety aspect of nuclear technology, let us understand the three components of nuclear energy in India. The Indian nuclear program is in three stages. The first stage will use uranium (imported). Second stage will use enriched uranium and thorium in blanket form in fast breeder reactors and third stage will use fuel of second stage. A fast breeder reactor produces more fuel than it uses. This technology has been researched indigenously and expertise attained by India. A 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) was constructed by BHAVINI (Bhartiya Nabhkiya Vidyut Nigam Limited).

Current status of Nuclear Power Plants in India-

EXISTING

PROPOSED

1)      Narora (Uttar Pradesh)1)      Rawatbhata (Rajasthan)
2)      Rawatbhata (Rajasthan)2)      Kakrapar (Gujarat)
3)      Kakrapar (Gujarat)3)      Jaitapur (Maharashtra)
4)      Tarapur (Maharshtra)4)      Kundalkulam (Tamil Nadu)
5)      Kaiga (Karnataka)
6)      Kalpakkam (Tamil Nadu)
7)      Kundalkulam (Tamil Nadu)

 

The Jaitapur nuclear power plant has courted controversy on account of environmental implications; the project was passed after various checks were put into place and 20 of these conditions have to be met within an year. Another aspect concerned with nuclear technology is that the technology is untested and has not been adequately used before. However, one should not protest against the Jaitapur project solely on account of these reasons as any technology is untested for the first time and this cannot be a rational reason for not backing a technology.

I am more worried about the second stage power plants which are the fast breeder reactors and use liquid sodium as coolant and not heavy water. Liquid sodium is inherently dangerous because it catches fire with anything even air or water. What this means is that in case of a sodium fire, one can’t even use sea water as an extreme measure as the Japanese did in case of Fukushima. Patriotic sentiments must not give way to complacency as Fast Breeder Reactors can use thorium which India possesses and thereby reducing our dependence on uranium. There have been sodium fires in many countries even under normal operations.

Quite often, the environmental risk is sidelined but not so in case of nuclear power because leave aside environment, it poses a greater risk to human life too. Fukushima has taught us an important lesson that nuclear power needs to be handled with great care and caution.

As suggested by Mr. Aiyar in his article (scrutinising the safety of Thorium based power plants), the need of the hour is to have an independent panel of experts comprising nuclear experts, environmentalists, geologists etc. who are completely insulated from official control and they should undertake a comprehensive check of all current and proposed nuclear power plants in India. If they find that a particular nuclear power plant is unsafe or if Thorium based power plants needs stricter checks, then so be it. The government should not even hesitate to shut down a nuclear power plant if it is deemed to be unsafe due to geological risks or otherwise. Fukushima has shown how cruel and unrelenting nuclear power can be. Nuclear energy in India is largely under government control, therefore the verification and monitoring needs to be independent. The same body can never do both.

Germany has become the first nation to give up on nuclear energy and many more could follow. Nuclear energy no doubt is good but only if imposed with a high degree of security and safety.

Reference and further reading- Swaminathans S Anklesaria Aiyyar’s article published under Swaminomics in the Times of India.

 

Article by Mr. Puskar Pande

 

13 thoughts on “Is Nuclear Power safe?

      1. The latest efforts by the EPA is to enforce the 316B Sec. 316. Thermal Discharges.(b) Any standard established pursuant to section 301 or section 306 of this Act and applicable to a point source shall require that the location, design, construction, and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact. There have been estimates of $95 Billion needed for required upgrades. The goal is to protect the fish and waterlife. Indian Point Nuclear Plant is an example who has provided a more than adequate solution to dealing with this. They have screens that prevent the intake of small creatures and redirect them back to their natural habitat and they also replenish the fish population through hatcheries.Any other examples would be welcome.

    1. I think it’s great. A big reason it’s so expensive right now is due to a lack of significant subsidies, as well as ridiculously long gov. permit application times/fees. The U.S. is only going to need more electricity especially 15-20 yrs from now when the vast majority of vehicles will be electric based.To the comment about the amount of resources required to make the plants themselves; I hope you understand how energy intensive and material intensive solar and wind options are.

  1. Hi,
    You can read the detailed document as published in the official gazette. I am just summing up the main points.

    Section 6 (2) says that companies are going to be liable for the material supplied, there is no need for companies to have agreed to this prior.

    Section 17(b) -Operators can also sue the supplier if the accident is due to faulty material supplied.

    Compensation has been increased to Rs. 1500 crore (earlier).

    Section 18 (b)- Increased time period for filing claims from 10 to 20 years.

    Section 16(1)- Claims for damages must be processed within three months of application

    Section 35- Victims can approach the supreme courts and high courts for review of compensation amount.

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