The Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) of India and the French State–owned nuclear engineering firm Areva signed a $22 billion agreement in December, 2010, to build six nuclear reactors – and Areva even started hiring 1,000 people a month!  This agreement had been kept ‘on hold’ by our ‘thoughtful (!)’ government.  Recently, there was a Press Report that the government had given its ‘nod’ for going ahead with the agreement.  

Thereby hangs a tale, and one is tempted to quote the bard:

“I Could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul” — (Hamlet, 1.5) 

Concerned citizens can judge whether this is a sober or an exaggerated assessment!

The Fukushima disaster has raised questions all over the world about what has been touted (esp. 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 programme says Ascender Glaser at Princeton University:

“It will take time to grasp the full impact of the unimaginable human tragedy unfolding after the earth quake and tsunami in Japan – but it is already clear that the proposition of a global nuclear renaissance ended in that day.” 

Across India, movements are growing against old and new nuclear power plants.  Nevertheless, the government with its characteristic indifference to people’s concerns and perceptions is going ahead with setting up of nuclear power plants.  Among these are six nuclear reactors in Madhan village, Ratnagiri district, Maharasthra.  These will be the world’s largest nuclear power plant complex, if it is built.  And, the French nuclear engineering firm Areava, and the NPC signed a $22 billion agreement in December 2010, to build six nuclear reactors.

Jaitapur is a seismically sensitive area and is prone to earthquakes.  There is no plan for the disposal of 300 tonnes of nuclear waste which the plant will generate each year.  The plant will require about 900 hectares of fertile agricultural land spread over five villages, which the government claims are barren.  Jaitapur is one of many nuclear power plants proposed as a thin strip of fertile coast land of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts.  Vandana Shiva points out that the Government of India had wanted this to be declared a world heritage site under the Man and Biosphere programme of UNESCO!  Why this utter indifference to environmental considerations?  Ramachandra Guha provides the answer.  He says that polluted skies, dead rivers, disappearing forests, and displacement of peasants and tribals are what we see around in 40 years after the Chipho movement started.  Says he: “Of all Prime Ministers, past and present, Dr. Manmohan Singh has been the most actively hostile.  This is partly a question of academic background: economists are trained to think that markets can conquer all forms of scarcity, it is partly a matter of ideological belief: both as Finance Minister, and now as P.M., Dr. Singh has argued that economic growth must always take precedence over questions of environmental sustainability”. 

Dr. Surendra Gadekar, a physicist points out that 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.  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 fail – 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 uses of atomic energy.  Among the dangers is the risk of spread of radioactivity 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 the commissioning of the LWRs themselves, and takes as long.

The scheme envisaged by the government is nuclear power production totally 2,08,000 MW by 2052, with a 1,000 MW plant sited every 55 km. along the 7000 kms. long coastline.  Other than any man made or natural disaster striking these plants, no one has apparently thought about the nearly insurmountable security problems these plants will create or about the resulting impossibly high unit cost of the electricity generated.  Dr. Gopala Krishnan, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has pointed out that the switching over from Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), which the country has been operating for years, to a totally different set of imported Light Water Reactors (LWRs) could substantially increase the risk of a major nuclear accident.

Concerned citizens might have become restive by now to know more about the antecedents, experience and performance of the firm Areva with whom NPC has signed the agreement for $22 billion (Rs.1.10 lakh crores) in December, 2010, for six nuclear reactors.  In the post–Fukushima period, says Vaiju Narvane, the French Courts and the Nuclear Safety Authority are now proactive in convicting nuclear operatators who are guilty of negligence, and in demanding immediate corrective measures from giants like EDF, and our government’s pet supplier, Areva.

Construction of the EPR reactor at Flamanville, which began in 2007, is experiencing significant delays, with a large number of accidents taking place, including two fatal ones.  The EPR reactors, of which India plans to buy six, will not be completed before 2016, at the earliest, and its price tag has mounted to an estimated 7 billion euros, per reactor of 1650 MWR.

Not a single EPR is operational, as yet.  Four EPR reactors are currently under construction, one each in France and Finland, and two in China.  The French reactor, the construction of which started in August, 1985, is slated to go on stream in 2013; costs have risen from 3 billion to 7 billion euros.  The Finnish utilities TVO is locked in costly arbitration (2.7 billion Euros), with Areva.

Let us consider briefly what type of nusclear reactor Areva is constructing, its experience and expertise in the field, how many it is building, how effective its management of the complications involved is, whether it is adhering to its delivery schedule and the agreed price under the contact.

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 in the new EPRs.  Socialist leader Segolene Royal described the construction at Flamenville as being dangerous, besides its 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 overruns hitting 2.7 billion Euros, from that country’s nuclear regulator.  What had gone wrong?  In a presentation made to Jairam Mahesh and the visiting Indian delegation in Finland, the Finnish regulator (STUK) put the blame for the crippling delay on Areva, which had taken on the job without the requisite competence, experienced partners, and without completing the design and engineering work before Areva started construction.

A very important point is that, in all of Areva’s earlier projects, the owner and licensee of the French nuclear plant was the architect and engineer who was responsible for the construction management.  The STUK informed Jairam Ramesh, that at the start of the project, many of the experienced nuclear manufacturers who had contributed to the earlier Areva projects had left the business.  Areava had to find new sub–contractors and coach them in nuclear manufacturing.  The STUK added that the original schedule was too ambitious for a nuclear plant which 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.

Opponents of the Jatapur 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 well become the next Enron, producing power that would be financially totally unviable for the country.  Areva has led our (willing?) nuclear scientists and engineers to believe that it is a global player with long experience in the nuclear plant business.  The Finnish regular 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.  In making contracts for actual construction, one should not under estimate 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 of monitoring the performance beyond the main supplier; and suppliers had not been attentive to the required safety culture.  Has our nuclear establishment paid enough attention to this aspect of grave concern, especially 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.

What are the environmental and other problems faced by the people because of Areva’s plant?

On Steptember 30, 2011, Socatri, the subsidiary of Areva, was found guilty of contaminating the underground water table in a 2008 leak of toxic liquid uranium at the Tricastin nuclear facility in southern France.  The Appellate Court in the city of Nimes, fined the company 300,000 Euros for pollution and gross negligence.  The company was asked to pay damages to anti–nuclear association and local residents!  The company was further reprimanded for delays in communicating the leaks to the Nuclear Safety Authorities.  The Court said that Socatri/Areva was guilty of introducing toxic substances into the underground water, bringing about a significant modification of normal underground water flows.  The trial turned the spotlight on the degree of negligence which caused the accident, whereby 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.

We should contrast the above with “our own” government’s attempt to downplay all such vital issues, and to make all attempts to reduce the liability of the nuclear equipment suppliers to trivial sums, if not exempt them altogether, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s judgement that ‘the polluter shall pay’.

An explosion occurred recently at the Marcoule Reprocessing Plant in Southern France, resulting in 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 even more dangerous from the radioactivity point of view, because it uses a mix of uranium and plutonium, is used in the EPR type of reactors which our (reckless) 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 has been found.

Siddarth Varadarajan has, in his analysis stated that a transparent assessment of the cost and risks associated with the ambitious nuclear plan (which the government is rushing through in its characteristic brazen and secretive fashion), must be made before any ground is broken at Jaitapur or elsewhere.  As of today, there is no clarity or transparency on vital issues such as (i) estimating the true cost of nuclear power – which, one should not be surprised, may turn out to be even Rs.40 or Rs.50 per unit (!), if all the costs are taken into account, such as the ballooning cost of the nuclear reactors, cost of their transport and erection, and installation of various facilities, the cost of storage of waste fuel, its transport to the place of its entombment, the cost of construction for the latter (though these costs are very high but are very difficult to estimate with any degree of reasonableness), the cost of decommissioning of the reactor, the liabilities arising out of nuclear accidents, and so on.  Here, the concerned citizens and civil society should insist on a detailed scrutiny of the Project Reports and the Cost Estimates, and the likely cost of power at the consumption point. 

 In spite of this report having become very lengthy, it will not be complete without a brief mention of the hazards posed by the storage of the nuclear waste.

A report dated February 23, 2013 from Los Angeles says that at least six tanks containing radioactive waste in the U.S. State of Washington are leaking.  Washington Governor said that the extent of the tanks at the Hanford site, which first produced fuel for nuclear bombs in World War II and closed down 25 years ago, was ‘disturbing’.  He said that there was no immediate or near–alarm health risk, associated with these newly discovered leaks.  But, this was disturbing news for all Washingtonians, he said.  The outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary told the Governor a week ago that only one tank was leaking but admitted that his department did not adequately analyse the data it had, which would have shown the other tanks which were leaking.  This raised serious questions about the integrity of all 149 single shell tanks with radioactive liquid and sludge at Hanford.

The Hanford nuclear site, 185 miles southwest of Seattle was used to produce Plutonium for the bomb which brought World War II to an end.  The last reactor was closed down in 1987.  Weapon production processes leave solid and liquid wastes which pose a risk to the local environment.

It appears that a rat may have been to blame for a power cut which knocked out cooling system of the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.  Equipment keeping used nuclear fuel at a safe temperature in four different pools was out for up to 39 hours; the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) admitting that their recovery work was sometimes less than perfect.  The incident served as a reminder of the precarious state of the plant two years after the tsunami which sparked melt downs in three reactors, spreading radiation over the land and sea, and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

The Japanese Government has told the Tokyo Electric Power Company to revise by June its roadmap for cleaning up the site which is expected to take 30 to 40 years.  Experts say that it could cost at least $100 billion to close the reactors down.  Plugging leaks in the reactors and removing the water is a sine qua non for removing melted fuel from the three damaged reactors.

From the foregoing it is clear as daylight that erection and operation of nuclear reactors, storage of waste fuel, decommissioning of old nuclear plants are very serious matters and call for the utmost care and vigilance.  Our Tarapur Atomic Plants 1 & 2 reactor, in Maharashtra are older than Fukushima reactors.  The committee on safety audit, says Dr. Gopalakrishnan, should take a well-informed decision whether to continue operating them, as there were many breakdowns and in view of the past safety related accidents.

One really does not know what has impelled the government to do a volte face and remove its hold and give the nod to go ahead with the agreement with Areva for manufacture and supply of nuclear reactors.  Even a divine micracle could noe have changed the state of affairs relating to the ability – rather inability – of Areva to supply these reactors which will be reliable and safe to erect and operate.  Perhaps the visit of the French President for personally intervening to get the order for these reactors thrilled the government circles so much that nothing mattered to them as bowing to the visiting President’s request.  Perhaps this is the manifestation of the syndrome which Sumanta K. Datta Ray has propounded:

“Delhi society lionises the Italian as it does all white and off-white VIPs; 

Indian bungling is matched only by Indian obsequiousness.”

It is now for concerned citizens to ponder over the means to save the country from the nuclear holocaust. 

By C. A. Balasubramanian,
Additional Controller of Accounts (Retd.), Government of India.

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