Nuclear Power - An Ongoing Debate
@ THE HINDU
The Hindu Op-Ed / 27 September 2012
Desirability of nuclear power is the real question
A few days ago, The Hindu carried an article titled “The real questions from Kudankulam” (editorial page, Sept. 14, 2012). Incidentally, it was published a few days after the brutal crackdown by the Tamil Nadu police on the protesting fisherfolk who have been opposing the siting of a nuclear power plant in their midst for over two decades now. The author of the article, a physicist with a reputed scientific research institution, questioned the agency of the protesting fisherfolk by bracketing them as “victims only of unfounded scaremongering” who were purportedly being misled by “educated purveyors.” The article claimed that the debate around Kudankulam has not been a “genuine” one and has been in abstraction, mostly around the “desirability of nuclear power” rather than “mechanisms” to make it safe. The claim being modern technology, maintenance and safety standards will make it “safe.” Notwithstanding of course the ideal scientifically “controlled” conditions vs ground realities. If one looks at the dubious track record of nuclear power plants across the world and its horrendous reputation of regularly exposing its workers and residents to dangerous levels of ionising radiations, the disconnect is pretty obvious.
In 1957, a fault in the cooling system in Kyshtym nuclear complex in Russia led to a chemical explosion and the release of 70-80 tonnes of radioactive material into the air, exposing thousands of people and leading to the evacuation of thousands more. Major accidents, which have killed, maimed and exposed large populations of worker and local residents, have been reported from various other nuclear facilities — Windscale nuclear reactor, U.K. (1957); Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, U.S. (1961); Three Mile Island power plant, U.S. (1979); Chernobyl power plant, Russia (1986); Seversk, Russia (1993); the Tokai-Mura nuclear fuel processing facility, Japan (1989); Mihama power plant, Japan (2004); Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Japan (2011) and the Marcoule nuclear site, France (2011). All these incidents and many more unreported ones including from India have obviously raised questions about the desirability of nuclear energy and any real possibility of it being “safe.” While environmental and health risks of radiation are now scientifically known, the magnitude of the impact of accidents such as a Fukushima or Chernobyl takes a long time to play out in a real world situation. The fact that in each of these places people have not been able to return to their homes, that their lives have never been normal again, and that they constantly live under the shadow of diseases and death makes nuclear energy patently dangerous.
And on top of it, the obtuseness of governments to disclose information related to nuclear, civilian or military, makes it even worse. Take for instance the confession by the Japanese government in June 2012 that it had withheld from the public important radiation maps provided by the U.S. Energy Department post-Fukushima. The information revealed that residents in an area northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were being exposed to their annual permissible dose of radiation within eight hours. This meant that these residents were not evacuated by the government to a safer place, an act that can be termed criminal.
In France, over 20,000-30,000 workers dubbed as “nuclear nomads” are subcontracted annually in the 58 nuclear reactors operated by Électricité de France S.A. (EDF) located in 20 sites which contribute 78 per cent of the electricity produced in the country. EDF subcontracts over 1,000 companies, who employ the “nuclear nomads,” sometimes of foreign origin, to do the dangerous maintenance, repair and clean-up work in these plants, exposing them to ionising radiations. In her book “Nuclear Servitude: Subcontracting and Health in the French Civil Nuclear Industry,” French social scientist Annie Thébaud-Mony has highlighted this division of labour and “risk” by subcontracting dangerous work in the French nuclear power industry. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, over 18,000 workers were hired to clean-up the power plant, who were all subcontracted to do dangerous radioactive clean-up work. These men, hailed as “national heroes” by many, were actually local residents rendered unemployed by the disaster or were daily wagers from city slums. Since the 1970s, Japan has had a dubious track record of subcontracting maintenance work of reactors to outside companies which hire workers on a short-term basis who remain employed till they reach their radiation exposure limit (Nuclear Nomads: A look at the Sub-contracted Heroes by Gabrielle Hecht in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 9, 2012).
In the case of Kudankulam, the fisherfolk have been raising similar questions. They have been asking to see the disaster management plan which, till date, remains a secret, even under the Right to Information Act. Given the inherent uncertainties of natural disasters, questions about preparedness to mitigate impact of calamities such as tsunami waves of higher magnitude are being asked. An inadequate reserve of fresh water for cooling as well as a lack of back up electricity are concerns that have been raised by people and their expert committee many times but consistently dodged by the government and officials of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. Secrecy shrouds the fate of the radioactive spent fuel, its reprocessing and transportation. All these questions and more remain unanswered. Are all these issues a debate in abstraction? Is questioning the “desirability” of nuclear power not a valid one given the above track record? If this is not concrete, what is?
(Madhumita Dutta is with the Vettiver Collective in Chennai and a volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Kudankulam Struggle.)
@ TIMES OF INDIA
28 Sept 2012 / Times of India
Will Nuclear Power turnout to be a liability and a curse to the country?
Until a fortnight ago, I was an illiterate as far as nuclear energy was concerned. The Government’s propaganda machinery, the so called intellectuals and the nuclear experts made me believe that nuclear energy is the panacea for achieving nuclear self-sufficiency leading to India’s growth. It is a chance meeting with a group of friends a fortnight ago that opened my eyes and made me study the subject in depth. A large number of people including the educated I am sure are as uninformed as I was. What I foresee now is a story of horror and economic catastrophe if we were to adopt the nuclear path. I therefore felt it necessary to share my concerns. I will limit my discussion to a few important areas due to space constraints.
The energy requirement of a developing country like India for its growth is indisputable. With all the good intentions that the Government may have, it cannot thrust upon its people a solution which is exorbitantly expensive with long term adverse implications for the environment and health of its citizenry.
What are the areas of concern?
One of the claims of the proponents of nuclear power is that it will provide energy security to the nation. The equipment for power generation is imported at a very high cost. In the absence of any authoritative information, it is only natural to assume that we may have to depend on the foreign suppliers for spares and maintenance.
India has very little uranium. Regular supply of nuclear fuel will have to be through imports. Uncertainties in fuel supply are a major concern. By going in for nuclear energy we will be pledging the country’s energy interests in the hands of the greedy business interests of the foreign suppliers. If cornered, the costs of getting out of the trap may be prohibitive.
Where then is the energy security that we are talking about?
Strategic connection to nuclear weapons
The nuclear power projects being a civil program cannot in any way support our weapons program and these were not intended to. The plutonium that was used in Pokhran-I (1974) and Pokhran-II (1998) nuclear tests was derived not from nuclear power reactors but from Research Reactors. The belief that any roll back of the nuclear power program will affect the country’s weapons program is absurd.
Areas of concern
Besides the commissioning costs and regular import of fuel, a number of related issues will add to the cost of running and maintaining a nuclear plant. Land costs and costs of rehabilitation of the displaced, both for safety reasons and in the event of an accident would be enormous. Environmental protection and cleaning up of polluted mediums will be expensive. The present model of calling the Army to handle all disaster situations without any training or safety and operation related equipment will not work. There will be a need to maintain dedicated disaster management forces with the necessary equipment and their regular training ensured. In the case of Kundankulam, the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 would not apply and the government will have to meet the liability costs. As in the foreign countries, insurance companies are unlikely to cover the risks of a nuclear accident.
The decommissioning cost of a nuclear reactor is more than the cost of construction and commissioning. Technologically and cost wise, disposal of spent nuclear fuel will be a major bugbear. Spent fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years with its attendant risks. In Fukushima it has been estimated that it will cost over 75,000 crores and 30 years to decommission the failed nuclear plants. Reports indicate that US spent an amount of $ 115 billion in direct subsidy and $ 145 billion in indirect subsidy between 1947 and 1999 for the nuclear energy sector. By masking the true picture of the financial implications, the country will end up subsidizing nuclear power ruining the country’s economy. Are we prepared to meet the financial burden? If not where do we intend compromising? Obviously it will be in the area of public safety and environmental safeguards.
The nuclear power projects therefore are unlikely to be financially viable and the cost of power generated very high. . Why hasn’t the Government come out with the estimated cost of electricity to a consumer till now? Is the Tamil Nadu Government willing make a commitment to buy the entire power generated at Kundankulam at breakeven cost since it has been clamoring for the same for quite some time?
Health and safety issues
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), established to monitor nuclear safety is dependent on the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for funds, manpower, technical expertise and material resources. Hence its ability to enforce safety norms in an establishment working directly under DAE is questionable. It is another CBI in the hands of the Government.
Government’s effort to hide facts affecting health and environmental safeguards is yet another cause for concern. A study by Dr Manjula Datta conducted on behalf of DAE shows that a number of people in the proximity to Kalpakkam nuclear plant are suffering from cancer. The report states that cancer cases in villages close to Kalpakkam are seven times higher (210 per 1 lakh people) compared to those living in distant villages (30 per 1 lakh people). The report has not been made public classifying it as an internal study of DAE. In an affidavit submitted to the Mumbai High Court, DAE and BARC have admitted that there is radiation in the fish and marine organisms in Thane Creek but declined to disclose the levels of radiation citing public interest!! USA and Japan have compensatory laws for employees as well as people living around the nuclear plants. India has none. The question is, are people in and around these power establishments safe? How is the Government proposing to compensate these people for the risks and their associated costs?
Chernobyl has resulted in about 77,000 square miles of territory in Europe and the former Soviet Union being contaminated. Billions of dollars have been spent to contain and clean up the effect of radioactive fallout. On the other hand, India’s record of handling disaster situations in terms of response, rehabilitation of the affected and managing liability issues is pathetic as witnessed post Bhopal Gas tragedy. Our disaster management structures are not designed to manage major disasters involving nuclear radiation. Does anyone in the country have any confidence in the Government handling such situations efficiently with the aim of saving lives and the environment at least in the future? Government hospitals bear testimony to the Government’s commitment to the sick and the poor. Are we prepared to take the risk?
Till date no realistic assessment of the country’s demand for energy or a comprehensive plan for power generation to meet the country’s energy demand has been spelt out. As of today, with twenty nuclear power stations the nuclear energy generating capacity stands at 4780 MW constituting 2.77 % of the total electricity generating capacity of the country. In the early 2000s, the DAE projected that nuclear power would constitute 275 GW by 2052; 20 percent of India’s total projected electricity generation capacity. The latter has been increased to 470 GW following the US-India nuclear deal. Considering the costs and DAE’s past record, the estimate appears far – fetched.
Thirty countries in the world are reported to be producing nuclear power. Of this league, US and UK were producing 101409 MW and 9703 MW of nuclear power constituting 19.3 and 15.7 percent of their respective nuclear electricity producing capacity. France is the highest producer with a capacity of 63130 MW representing 77.1 % of its total capacity. All this was before the Fukushima disaster. As of Jun 2011, Australia, Austria, Denmark,Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal,Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway remain opposed to nuclear power. Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out nuclear power altogether. US has not approved any nuclear power project in the last three decades despite proposals for coal based power plants not being approved due to opposition from the environmentalist groups.
Have these technologically advanced countries rejected nuclear energy without any logic or proper evaluation? Excepting for the fact that our country is large and its energy requirement are high, is there any other logic why we need or cannot live without this monster? Can we look at other options? It is estimated that demand side management, improved technology and prevention of transmission losses alone can save more than 20 % of electricity in the country.
Country’s economic growth is important but that cannot be at the cost of the health and the lives of the very people whose interests the economic growth professes to pursue. In this context the Supreme Court’s assertion during the hearing of a PIL that it would not hesitate to stop the project if it posed a threat to the lives of the people is very appropriate and commendable. Country’s interest cannot be different from people’s interest in a democracy. It is time the Government came out with a white paper covering all aspects of concern pertaining to nuclear power generation so as to take the people into confidence and pursue the project only if it is in interest of the country.
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