The Fukushima disaster has raised questions all over the world about what has been touted (especially by the vested interests) as the “nuclear renaissance” as the answer to the energy and climate crises. Following the Fukushima disaster, China, Germany, Switzerland, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are reviewing their nuclear power programs. Says Alexander Glaser, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University: “It will take time to grasp the full impact of the unimaginable human tragedy unfolding after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan-but it is already clear that the proposition of a global nuclear renaissance ended on that day”.
Across India, movements are growing against old and new power plants. The government is going ahead with setting up of nuclear power plants, consisting of six nuclear reactors in Madhan village, Rathanagiri district, Maharashtra, which will be the world’s largest nuclear power plant complex, if it is built. The French state-owned nuclear engineering firm Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) of India signed a $ 22 billion agreement in December 2010 to build six nuclear reactors-and Areva even started hiring 1000 people a month! .
Jaitapur is a seismically sensitive area and is therefore prone to earthquakes- there is no plan for the disposal of 300 tones of nuclear waste which the plant will generate each year. The plant will require about 908 hectares of fertile agricultural land spread over five villages, which the government claims are barren. Jaitapur is one of many nuclear power plants proposed on a thin strip of fertile coast land of Raigad, Rathanagiri and Sindhudurg districts. The combined power generation is estimated at 33000 MW. Vandana Shiva points out the Govt. of India had wanted this to be declared a world heritage site under the Man and Biosphere program of UNESCO! Villagers of the Konkan region have been protesting against the nuclear plant.
The focus on fossil fuels, CO2 emissions and climate change suddenly allow nuclear energy to be offered as “Clean and Safe”; and the Govt. of India seems to have swallowed that argument in toto. The government would like us to believe that in addition, nuclear energy is a cheap method of producing electricity.
We shall examine the ground reality in regard to these assumptions. On the question of nuclear energy being clean and safe, Vandana Shiva refers to what Dr.Surendra Gadekar, a physicist and anti – nuclear activist has this to say; nuclear power is based on a technology for boiling water, which however produces large quantities of poisons which have to be insulated from the environment for prolonged durations of time. Plutonium produced as nuclear waste has a half life of 240 thousand years while the average life of nuclear reactors is 21 years. There is no proven safe system for nuclear waste disposal. Spent nuclear fuel has to be constantly cooled; when cooling systems failed – and no one can guarantee that this will never happen – nuclear disaster may result. This is what happened at nuclear reactor 4 at Fukushima.
The environmental dangers posed by nuclear reactors were not foreseen when there were high expectations from the peaceful users of atomic energy. Among the dangers is the risk of spread of radio activity from the storage of vast amounts of spent low enriched uranium fuel generated by innumerable LWRs (Light Water Reactors) as in Fukushima, points out Bharat Karnad. Dangers are also posed by the problems associated with the decommissioning of these LWRs, by vitrification or entombment in cement, which is as expensive a business as commissioning of the LWRs and takes as long. The scheme envisaged by the government is nuclear power production totaling 208000 MW by 2052, with a 1000 MW plant sited every 55Kms along the 7000 Kms long coast line! Other than any man made or natural disaster striking these plants, no one apparently thought about the nearly insurmountable security problems these plants will create, or about the resulting impossibly high unit cost of electricity.
The sentiment has been echoed by A.Gopalakrishnan, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), who has pointed out that the switching over from Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), which the country has been operating for years now, to a totally different set of imported Light Water Reactors (LWRs) could substantially increase the risk of a major nuclear accident. He says that a false nuclear power policy has been created to justify the import of 40000 MW of LWRs, costing Rs.8.40 Lks Crs, between 2012 and 2020. referring to the plans under the current policy to have about 653000 MW nuclear power by 2050 through a string of 109 nuclear power packs, each such pack being sited every 55 Kms along the country’s cost, Dr.Gopalakrishnan described the policy as being nothing short of a ‘mad policy’ from the point of view of public safety and displacement of people.
I should turn to the other most important issue; about the antecedents and performance of Areva with whom the NPC has signed a $22 billion (Rs.1.10 Lk Crs.) agreement in December 2010, for building 6 nuclear reactors. Vaiju Narvane observes that, for a country as given to debate and arguments as France, there were a deafening silence surrounding the choice of nuclear as the prime source of energy (there being 59 nuclear reactors in France for a population of 62 million). In the post-Fukushima period, that tacit silence is been broken in France by anti-nuclear associations, candidates for elections, the French Courts and the Nuclear Safety Authority. The last two institutions are now proactive in convicting nuclear operators who are guilty of negligence, and in demanding immediate corrective measures from giants like EDF, and our government’s darling, Areva.
On September 30, 2011, Socatri, the subsidiary of Areva was found guilty of contaminating underground water table in a 2008 leak of toxic liquid uranium at the Tricastin nuclear facility in southern France. The Appellate Court in the French city of Nimes, handing down the sentence of the court fined the company 300000 euros for pollution and gross negligence. The company was asked to pay damages to anti nuclear associations and local residents. More seriously, the company was reprimanded for delays in communicating the leaks to the Nuclear Safety Authority. The court said that Socatri/Areva was guilty of introducing toxic substances in to the under ground water, bringing about a significant modification of normal underground water flows. Apparently the Fukushima events have led the country to take the risks involved in nuclear power more seriously. The trail turned the spot light on the degree of negligence which caused the accident, where by 30 cubic meters of effluents containing uranium contaminated the river waters. The anti nuclear Collective is asking the population and the workers at Tricastin to call for the shutting down of the 4 reactors located at the facility. Can we ever imagine the guilty suppliers of the nuclear equipment being called to account in this manner in India? In fact the government itself will be defending the suppliers (as it happened in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy)
Construction of the EPR reactor at Flamanville which began at 2007 is experiencing significant delays, with a large number of accidents taking place, including 2 fatalities. The EPR reactors, of which India plans to buy 6, will not be completed before 2016 at the earliest, and its price tag has climbed to an estimated 7 billon euros per reactor of 1650 MW capacity; not a single EPR is operational, as yet.
Four EPR reactors are currently under construction- one each in France and Finland, two in China. The French reactor, the construction of which started in August 1985, is slated to go on stream in 2013, but costs have risen from 3 billion to over 7 billion euros. The Finnish utility TVO is locked in costly arbitration (2.7 billion Euros) with Areva.
Indian nuclear scientists promoting the purchase of the EPR say that the country will profit from the experience gained and lessons learnt from the two Chinese European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs) (Taishan 1 and 2), which are reportedly on schedule, as if our scientists are superhuman descended from the heavens and that the Chinese are waiting with bated breath to share knowledge with India on nuclear issues. A report by the French nuclear safety authority (ASN) has highlighted a series of gaps and weaknesses in work being carried out at the Flamenville site on the new EPRs. Socialist leader Segolene Royal who lost to Nicolas Sarkozy in the Presidential Election, and hoped to be her party’s candidate once again said she would close down the EPR under construction at Flamenville and abandon in toto the EPR technology which is being pushed by Areva. She described the construction at Flamenville as being dangerous besides it being financially a bottomless pit that would cost the exchequer very dear.
The columnist Priscilla Debraj writes that after getting an earful on the proposed nuclear reactor from disgruntled farmers in Jaitapur, Jairam Ramesh, the then Union Environment Minister brought a sobering assessment of Areva’s Finnish reactor project – which was running 4 years behind schedule with cost over runs hitting 2.7 billion euros, from that country’s nuclear regulator. In a presentation made to Jairam Ramesh and the visiting Indian delegation in Finland, the Finnish regulator STUK put the blame on the crippling delay on Areva which had taken on the job without the requisite competencies, experienced partners and without completing the design and engineering work before it started construction. In all of Areva’s earlier projects, the owner and licensee of the French nuclear plant was the architect engineer and was responsible for the construction management. The STUK told Jairam Ramesh that at the start of the project it was found that many of the experienced nuclear manufacturers who had contributed to the earlier Areva projects had left the business. Areva had to find new subcontractors and coach them in nuclear manufacturing! The STUK added that the original schedule was too ambitious for a nuclear plant that was the first of its kind, was larger than any previous project and was being built after a long gap in nuclear plant construction in Europe. The presentation prepared by the STUK could have lessons for nuclear regulators and operators in India. Opponents of the Jaitapur plant have pointed to the Finnish experience, and argued that Areva cannot be trusted to deliver within schedule and budget, and that the project could become the next Enron, producing power that would be financially unviable for the country. Areva has led our nuclear scientists and engineers to believe that it is a global player with long experience in the nuclear plant business. The Finnish regulator makes it clear that since the French company was dependent on a partner who was no longer available for actual construction, much of Areva’s vaunted experience could now become irrelevant; and, in making contracts for construction one should not underestimate the importance of proven experience in management of large projects. The French regulator says that only after Areva’s initial poor performance did they realize that Areva had never taken direct responsibility for construction in its earlier projects. Areva had not always been successful in managing the supply chain or monitoring the performance beyond its main supplier; and suppliers had not been attentive to the required safety culture. This aspect should cause concern to our nuclear establishment if the French company plans to use local suppliers for the Jaitapur project. With regard to safety, the STUK found that Areva did not fully understand the safety requirement regulatory guides.
An explosion occurred recently at the Marcoule nuclear reprocessing plant in southern France, resulting in atleast one person being killed and three being injured, the site is partly used by Areva who produce mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which recycles plutonium obtained from nuclear weapons. This kind of fuel (which is considered more dangerous from the radioactivity point of view, because it uses a mix of uranium and plutonium) if used in the EPR type of reactors which our government is planning to purchase from France. Opponents of nuclear power have always highlighted the dangers linked to the safe disposal of nuclear waste, for which, however, no satisfactory solution exists.
Sylvie Goular, member of the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs commission, told The Hindu “the future of nuclear energy looks less radiant with each passing day, and we would do well do ponder Germany’s decision not to extend the life of its aging nuclear reactors and to invest massively in alternative energies”. Siddharth Varadarajan has in his analysis stated that a transparent assessment of the cost and risks associated with the ambitious nuclear plant (which the government is rushing through in its characteristic secretive fashion), must be made before any ground is broken at Jaitapur or elsewhere. As of today, despite the government’s ambitious plan for the construction of 20 or more nuclear reactors across the country, there is little or no clarity or transparency on vital issues such as 1) estimating the true cost of nuclear power; 2) assigning of liability in the event of a nuclear accident in a way that is both equitable and efficient; and 3) ensuring the highest possible standards of safety and regulation. He rightly suggests that in the changed circumstances the Planning Commission should go back to the drawing board and ask itself whether it makes financial sense to produce electricity at any given location through large and expensive imported reactors when there may be cheaper options available. It is possible that nuclear energy makes economic sense, but it is vital that the decisions are based on a realistic assessment or actual and probabilistic costs over the entire life cycle of a nuclear plant. Rational liability laws are essential for ensuring that the nuclear vendor pays adequate attention to safety in coming up with his design. Optimum safety can only be built in if the vendor is forced to internalize the cost of an accident. Varadarajan asks: will the skies fall upon us if Jaitapur and other projects are put on hold for a fraction of the time which the radioactive pollution in the `low probability’ event of an accident, causes contamination – having a half life of hundreds of years, in order that the citizens at large as well as the concerned local community can be convinced through argument and debate that putting up of nuclear plant in their backyard is a safe and economical way of generating electricity. It is the right of the citizens to be so convinced and to ask questions, and it is the duty of the government to convince them.
In December 2010 Areva signed a framework agreement with India to build the first of 6 EPR reactors at Jaitapur, with an option of 4 more reactors to follow. The EPR plant under construction at Flamenville has seen interminable delays and a massive cost hike. EDF, the most experienced constructor in the world had admitted that it has not mastered the engineering technique demanded by the hugely complex and complicated design of the massive (1650 MW) pressurized water reactor. There is not a single EPR plant operating to date and the Olikiluodo plant in Finland has seen massive cost overruns and long delays. The Finns and Areva are locked in a protracted legal battle. EDF, despite being the most experienced builder and operator of nuclear reactors in the world being unable to get it right in Flamenville, fears have been expressed that the Indian side may not be able to ensure proper construction and safety.
On September 15, 2011 France’s major nuclear operators including Areva and EDF handed in their self-evaluation report on 80 installations to the nuclear safety agency, the ASN. Nuclear watchdog agencies such as Sortir du nucleaire, the nuclear observatory and several ecologist groups have criticized the method of self-evaluation adopted by the ASN and the French Government “No credibility can be accorded to this type of self-evaluation by commercial enterprises, who do not wish to see their operations halted, for further verification of the safety factors and mechanisms. In addition, there remains the totally unresolved question of nuclear waste, as well as the de-commissioning of the old reactors.”
“Tests are all fluff”, said a nuclear scientist Jean-Marie Brom. We are not in any way better prepared to prevent nuclear accidents.
The writer humbly hopes that the concerned citizens have been convinced that this government has taken the country practically to the brink of disaster and catastrophe. As if by divine intervention, public interest litigation (PIL) has been filed in the Supreme Court, just in time, challenging the Constitutional validity of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, which indemnifies nuclear manufactures/suppliers and caps the financial liability of operators. The petitioner – Common Cause, Centre for Public Interest Litigation, the former Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswamy and several University professors have filed the petition, which highlights that under the pressure of foreign countries and the multi-billion nuclear industry, the government has been pushing forward an expensive, unviable and dangerous nuclear power programme, without proper assessment or a thorough comparative cost benefit analysis vis a vis other sources of energy, especially renewable sources. The petitioners have stated “most of the nuclear reactor and equipment import for which orders are being placed are of extremely dubious quality and do not meet safety standards”. They want cost and risk factors to be thoroughly factored in and the highest level of safety to be ensured before a plant is cleared for commissioning.
The points brought in by the petitioners are vital and fundamental. There is reason to suspect that the scenario projected by the petitioners, the government must have made a most perfunctory cost benefit analysis, if at all, buckling under the pressure of foreign countries and the multi-billion dollar nuclear industry. There is an urgent need of a “preempting” audit, rather than a post audit, of the cost benefit analysis made by the government before embarking on the above dangerous mission, by the CAG so that the facts may be placed before Parliament and may come to the public domain.
By C. A. Balasubramanian,
Additional Controller of Accounts (Retd.), Government of India.