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Power games at Kudankulam

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This government is solidly behind nuclear power. So it is worth asking some simple questions. First, how much power the government plans to generate through nuclear means. Second, whether it is likely to be safe. Finally, whether it will be cost effective.

In a democracy one must also ask that the government be open about answering genuine questions like these, and not answer by attacking the motives of the questioner. One would also hope that media give some importance to technical questions, not just the political ones.

Do nuclear plants add significant capacity?

The government works on the assumption that India needs about 5 Kilowatts of power per person. That is enough to run industries and households to support a population which is middle class by today’s economic standards. How does Kudankulam measure up?

According to this item from TOI, Kudankulam will support about 2 lakhs people at that level, or about 2 million people at 10% of that level:

The controversy-hit Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu is set to be operationalized, with its first 1,000mw unit to be opened soon as the project’s safety audits have been completed and local resistance now reduced to a few hundred protesters.

ET reported:

“India plans to have a total installed nuclear capacity of 63,000 MWe (megawatt electric) by the year 2032 both by indigenous technology and the imported reactors as additionalities,” [power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde] said while addressing a seminar at India International Nuclear Symposium.

This would entail about 60 reactors around the country. If these are evenly distributed geographically, then there will be a reactor around 200 km from you in 20 years. In other words, there is a reactor in everyone’s backyard. You will get a little more than 30 watts of electrical power from them, enough to run two or three CFLs. This is far below the development goals. So why is the government pursuing nuclear power?

Is nuclear power safe, in general?

Accidents around the world have made people wary of nuclear power. There have also been grave suspicions that India’s nuclear power is not safe. Part of this is due to the extreme secrecy with which this is treated. Perhaps the story is not as grim as that people believe, but there is no way to check this.

John Daly wrote in Oilprice.com:

After being in denial for years, last month the selfsame Department of Atomic Energy for the first time admitted that the deaths of its employees and their dependents at the Kalpakkam nuclear site were caused by multiple myeloma, a rare form of bone marrow cancer linked to nuclear radiation.

Not that the DAE willingly divulged the information – it came to light in response to a Right to Information (RTI) inquiry from October 2011, with the DAE acknowledging that nine people, including three employees working at the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam, 44 miles from Chennai, died of multiple myeloma and bone cancer between 1995 and 2011. The DAE had previously stonewalled all previous requests for information.

The report paints a troubling picture of the policies at the DAE, which sends out high-ranking officials with bland assurances for the public about the nation’s NPPs while privately compiling reports about their health effects, concerns that can only grow as New Delhi presses forward with its nuclear program. Furthermore, the statements that Indian NPPs can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis, made in a country vulnerable to both, smacks of more than a little hubris, as Tokyo Electric and Power Co. made similar pronouncements before the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed its Fukushima Daichi nuclear power complex.

Is this a dispassionate assessment or is it coloured by the oil industry? Is there a US-Russia political angle, to do with the fact that the US energy industry has not yet landed a contract in India to build a nuclear reactor, whereas Russia is on the verge of completing Kudankulam? Who is John Daly? Some answers were attempted by a blog on Rediff, which however went on to say:

Interestingly, could it be that — as Daly hinted — there are skeletons in the DAE cupboard regarding ‘nuclear accidents’ and so on — which the Americans would know but the Indian public wouldn’t? Daly stops just short of suggesting that there could be incriminating materials about the functioning of the Indian nuclear establishment in the possession of the Americans.

It is clear that the nuclear establishment has to improve its public outreach.

Is the Kudankulam plant safe?

There is little that one knows of from open sources about the design of the Kudankulam plant except that it is a pressurised water reactor. Now BS reports:

The reactors, [Russian NGO] EcoDefence’s Slivyak claimed, belong to VVER-1000 design. It was developed around half a century ago and cannot meet the highest level of modern safety requirements. Moreover, Russia never experienced big earthquakes and tsunami, so its technology may be poorly adapted to such types of natural disasters.

“This is an effort by Russian nuclear industry to sell outdated and dangerous technology to India while this technology is deeply opposed inside our country,” he had said earlier.

The VVER 1000 reactors will supply power for about 35 years but will need refurbishment after that. Committees have reported that the design is safe from seismic and other points of view. However, the public perception is that committees are not independent enough, so suspicion remains.

There is no way, in the short term, that this perception can be overcome. Statements that the plan is absolutely safe do not help; even an electric toaster is not absolutely safe. The nuclear establishment does some excellent work, but needs to improve its public outreach.

What is the economics of nuclear power?

There is absolutely no public data on this.

IE reports:

The impasse over the Koodankulam nuclear power project is costing the country dear. With the near-complete project being blocked by activists and protestors, latest estimates show an escalation of Rs 2,653 crore in the cost of completion.

The estimated project cost was originally pegged at Rs 13,171 crore. “The cost is now expected to be Rs 15,824 crore. The project is expected to be completed in the course of the next fiscal, though the dates are still uncertain,” said an official involved in the exercise.

Given an operational lifetime of 35 years, the break-even cost of one unit of energy (KWh) turns out to be around Rs. 0.52. This assumes that the plant is running 24 hours a day every day for 35 years at peak capacity. We can easily imagine that the true cost will be double this. So the break-even cost is roughly comparable to the cost of energy from other sources. Unknown costs of long-term storage of nuclear waste must be added to this.

Political dimensions

This prime minister is very bristly about nuclear power, which is not a good thing to see in the country’s top politician. In an interview to Science he said:

M.S.: You know, for example, what's happening in Kudankulam [in southern India, where local NGO-led protests have stalled commissioning of two 1000-megawatt nuclear reactors]. The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.

Q:After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, do you still think that nuclear energy has a role in India?

M.S.:Yes, where India is concerned, yes. The thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy.

That last statement is pretty arrogant! So much so that it treads the line of foolhardiness. This interview was followed by steps which seem vindictive and indicative of a closed mind. The Hindu reports:

In a blow to the voluntary sector, the Union government has ordered registration of cases against four non-governmental organisations (NGOs), whom it suspects to be behind the growing agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power project.

“While the Central Bureau of Investigation has registered cases against two NGOs, the State [Tamil Nadu] police have filed cases against two others for violation of provisions of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA),” Union Home Secretary R.K. Singh told journalists here on Tuesday.

Later in the night, the CBI confirmed that it had received a reference from the Home Ministry for investigation into the two NGOs of Tamil Nadu for the alleged FCRA violations.

Its spokesperson said the agency was writing to the State government for its consent for beginning the probe. Incidentally, the Ministry’s reference has not made any connection of the two NGOs with the anti-nuclear agitation at Kudankulam.

Manmohan Singh suffers from a strange inability to communicate. That is a terrible quality in a prime minister. Communication is the key to solving complex problems. Unfortunately neither the nuclear community nor the prime minister seems to realize this.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 29, 2012 at 5:25 am

One Response

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  1. […] Singh’s personal opinion, not shared by all his governments, is that large amounts of nuclear power generation is the key. One should perhaps credit him with developmental vision. Most ministers in this and all the […]

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