Is it time for India to Quit Nuclear Power?
Once, US stunned the world with the power of nuclear bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, and a messy war abruptly ended. Then, atomic energy could also be used for peaceful purposes! India was a newborn country with little more than a reputation for crippling poverty and a colonial self-image we were clawing out of. But we had a lot of people, and a lot of smart people too. Pursuit of nuclear power was a goal as important for military might as for a certain technological status. I don’t think it was ever about electricity for electricity’s sake.
The world has changed. Nuclear energy no longer has the fiction of “near free” attached to it. In fact, it is so expensive, that nuclear energy in any country is not feasible without government subsidies and government responsibility in the event of an accident. For all the claims of “safe” and “cheap” no insurance company insures a nuclear plant. The world at large seems to be moving away from nuclear energy. A quick look at the age of reactors worldwide:
A more telling way to look at this is the Nuclear Capacity Installed by year chart – all official IAEA PRIS:
There have been very few reactors commissioned since Chernobyl which happened in 1986. The chart hits a peak for two years before that. But slowly, in recent years, there were construction charts, which peaked in 2010 and crashed after 2011 – Fukushima.
An analysis by the WorldWatch Institute mentions still smaller numbers (IAEA has a generous view of nuclear energy – to put it mildly*). It says:
Although construction on 16 new reactors began in 2010—the highest number in over two decades—that number fell to just two in 2011, with India and Pakistan each starting construction on a plant. In addition to this dramatically slowed rate of construction, the first 10 months of 2011 saw the closing of 13 nuclear reactors, reducing the total number of reactors in operation around the world from 441 at the beginning of the year to 433.
India, however is still stubbornly plodding along in its commitment to an obsession for nuclear energy in the face of all logic. Government and media collude to minimize perceptions of costs – financial or human as well as viable alternatives.
In December, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh dismissed the idea of letting the Koodankulam plant stay idle anymore, because 14 thousand crore rupees had been invested in it. Forget junking the plant, it can’t even remain idle any further because it is expensive. Not that the people of Koodankulam had asked for a single rupee to be invested there. Nor had anyone asked the construction to proceed without the appropriate assessments made with a genuine interest in safety rather than pushing papers through because the plant had to be made. The investment bulldozered over all resistance and now is the reason to bulldoze over any further resistance. One can understand the point being made by the Prime Minister. That plant costs one million dollars per day to sit idle, according to some.That would be rupees 5 crore, give or take. Per day.
This is the money for Atomic Energy and Renewable energy in the budgets from 1999 to our current one for 2013
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Here’s an easy graph.
There are other costs involved
India does not have large uranium reserves, and we depend on imports for our fuel. If in the future, India did something that displeased the other nations (or its allies – or US – which is like Godfather), disallowing uranium exports to India would be a massive pressure to bend the country into conformity.
And it is already happening in the form of unnecessary purchases of reactors in order to have access to uranium. A scathing article by A Gopalkrishnan in the DNA outlines many of the opaque and irregular ways of nuclear power in India. I think you will find the foreign hand our Prime Minister was talking about, except that it is not the activists. And why should you pay attention to what this A. Gopalkrishnan says? Because he is a former chairman of the AERB – our supposed watchdog that is firmly caged in by our nuclear mafia. Thus, apart from the cost of importing fuel, there is a hefty political and economic toll we pay. And the threat is not insignificant. Our nuclear power production dropped 12.83% from 2006 to 2008 before we signed all the flurries of agreements and what-nots. More reactors only means greater potential for such drops because more reactors run out of fuel.
We have plenty of Thorium, but our tech for it isn’t capable of producing electricity at the moment. Our normal “indigenous” method of importing almost everything that can be imported will not work here, since there are no functioning thorium reactors in the world. This will need more money to develop, and for all thorium’s much publicized advantages, a big challenge is fabrication. Thorium fuel is considerably more difficult to fabricate and will also require us to develop the capacity to fabricate it in complete isolation and remote operation – apart from the difficulties of the so far unprecedented technology itself. Do not believe stories about reactors in Kalpakkam running on thorium. They don’t. They use a uranium-plutonium mix – easy to verify for yourself. They will *eventually* use thorium, but seeing as how we have achieved about half the nuclear power capability we had predicted for ourselves for 1987, don’t hold your breath and wait for the electricity.
Other costs include devastating potential for human damage, environmental contamination, health problems and more. This article is long, so running through this very briefly. The potential for accident is not as small as you imagine. Guardian lists 32 serious nuclear accidents with radioactive releases since 1952. It is now 2012. It works out to slightly more than one accident every two years as a general trend. Considering that there are only 436 reactors in operation, even considering 5 that were decommissioned (though newer ones counted came up after them) we come to 441 – and 32 serious accidents resulting in release of radioactivity in the environment and requiring decontamination. The three biggies – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daichii – required considerably more than that. They have put entire areas of our planet out of bounds for people. And this list does not include serious accidents that did not result in radioactive releases, like the Naroda fire, which was an INES 3 and the plant was closed for over 2 years for repairs.
A superb investigative story by Kunal Majumder in the Tehelka: Accident Sites – radiation, cancer, blindness, tardiness, cover-ups. The lessons from the Kalpakkam nuclear facility. An NGO called ASPIRE was commissioned by the DEA itself to conduct studies on the health consequences on people near nuclear plants. Accordingly, they did a study of 22 villages within 8 km of the plant and three villages at 50km. The report stated a morbidity 2-3 times higher, an activist who examined it closely says it shows a 350% higher morbidity. Read the report, it also mentions earlier research linking nuclear plants with health risks. And then there is DNA Investigations: Deaths Confirm Cancer risks near Nuclear Plants:
In response to a Right to Information (RTI) query in October last year, the DAE said nine people, including three employees working at the Kalpakkam atomic reactor, about 70km from Chennai, died of multiple myeloma and bone cancer between 1995 and 2011. The department had earlier refused to divulge information despite an RTI query in 2010.
There are actually plenty of these and I will do a separate article on health risks. To get buried in an avalanche of very accurate reports from the ground around nuclear plants, mines and other facilities, do a search for “nuclear plant”, or “radiation”, etc on the Tehelka website. They have been doing an amazing job. Get overwhelmed.
Depending on whether you are concerned about India’s horrible sex ratio, or whether you are fine with us having fewer and fewer girls or perhaps would like the reduced chances of girl children without feeling guilty, this news story in National Geographic may hold importance for you. Scientists studied data from 1975 to 2007 and found links between the birth of more boys than girls and events with large releases of radiation. Tellingly, it is titled Millions Fewer Girls Born Due to Nuclear Radiation? Read this. Seriously. Is it possible that India’s failure to control its sex ratio may have causes beyond actions of people that should be investigated?
Here is an environmental dose analysis from background radiation in the environmental gamma monitoring stations at Kalpakkam in the Indian Journal of Environmental Protection – it measures radiation from routine 41Ar radioactive releases from the plant – these are deliberate and routine releases and part of how nuclear reactors work, not leaks. The annual dose from the plume for various stations has been tabulated. This kind of material should be public on the sites of DEA, but it isn’t. In this opaque landscape of information, Dr. Sangamitra Gadekar is an oasis of numbers. His measurements at our Jadugoda Uranium mine were reported in the Times of India in 2001:
A vent from the underground mines was as high as 5,851.68 millirem a year, which is 58 times more than permitted limit… The radiation is high everywhere. The reading in the mechua village football field where radioactive tailings lie scattered around was 1,296.48 millirem a year. The readings in the area of the first tailing pond were as high as 5,291.04 millirem a year. Readings on the road (constructed by ucil using tailings) were as high as 5,256 millirem a year.
You know the beauty of quoting radiation readings from an article in 2001? They are unlikely to have vanished – naturally, or as a coverup. They can only be more. Radiaoactive contamination is persistent. Just like the governments affidavit admitting radioactive contamination of water and marine life in the Thane Creek by the BARC (yes MUMBAI) can be verified and taken further whenever activists are able to break through the mafia, because it is going nowhere.
The same article quotes prof N K Upadhyay of the centre for applied ecology, Jamshedpur, who conducted a study on the radiation-related problems at jadogoda.
The radiation affects bone marrow cells, intestines, skin, immune responsive cells, entire stem cell population and also the lymphocytes. It wrecks the hormonal system and even causes mutation. But worst of all, it affects the sperm cells, altering the genetic characteristics of their DNA and RNA. The children of these miners are born mentally retarded, and deformed.
And again Dr. Sanghamitra:
Cses of thalasemia, leukemia (blood cancer), severe anemia, physical deformities such as missing limbs, mental retardation, and even cases of external stomachs due to the absence of the abdominal wall are commonly found in the children of the area. In my opinion, this has been caused by the extremely high radiation levels.
The world at large seems to be moving away from nuclear energy, and most developed countries are decommissioning reactors faster than they are building them.
Much of the cost is unclear. To put it in the blunt words of Ramchandra Guha – a historian:
No ordinary citizen can get anywhere near an atomic installation, and even the most well-connected historian cannot get anywhere near the records of the AEC or its associated bodies.
But this is not all, there are no independent investigations of radiation leaked to the environment. There are no police or CBI investigations into reports of criminal scams – like allegations in the 70s-80s of irradiating diamonds in the Apsara reactor at BARC (this link has massive information) to produce fake black diamonds that got sold in the market for a higher price and worn by people and were dangerously radioactive, leading to the DTC to directly ask the government to ask this practice to be stopped. No police or CBI investigation happened. There are reports of laborers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while working who are simply replaced without any continuing assistance, compensation or even information on risks to their health. Many of these don’t even make it to the records as having been employed at all. Let me simply repeat – there is no body that can make our nuclear machinery do anything. AERB reports to and gets funds from the AEC which includes heads of NPCIL and DEA. That is like your employee vouching for your lack of corruption.
While the government was busy reassuring everyone that the Koodankulam plant is safe, CNN IBN released information on 25 intrusions in BARC in 2 years. This is slightly more than one intrusion a month. Intrusion means perimeter breached – as in not detected and stopped at boundary, get it? Last year, two ships grounded at Juhu beach within months of each other. Citizens raised alarm in both cases. Including Amitabh Bachchan getting all excited on Twitter. The Coast Guard then paid attention. Considering how the 26/11 attackers entered India, and how the water near Mumbai is a fairly small area to patrol, this was already incredible.
Turns out BARC got similar intrusions. This is a super high security area in MUMBAI. What kind of security can the plant at Koodankulam expect from such intrusions? Will plant security be able to defend reactors from 26/11 type attacks where elite commandos took three days to control? Does a terrorist need to break reinforced concrete to create a radioactive accident, or will blowing cooling and power systems do the trick? Note that these two reactors are the biggest in India. For that matter, why does an enemy need nuclear missiles, if 100s of times that nuclear material is sitting in reactors? Better targetted missiles should do the trick, no?
Many compare the security risk to a nuclear plant with that for say, a dam or bridge. But beyond the immediate damage, neither the dam nor bridge will cause lasting damage in the future. Do we or do we not have a responsibility to leave our children a healthy world?
Tarapur, for example has a stockpile of 40 years worth spent fuel. We don’t yet have long term storage for nuclear waste. Whatever it turns out to be, it will have to be secure from any kind of threat – human or natural – or errors resulting in breaches for thousands of years. Anyone consider the cost of that? The Indian sub-continent is steadily moving up – remember the rising height of the Himalaya? Who knows what the earthquake risks will be for *any* place fifty years in the future? Or do we add costs for more storage construction and then the safe transfer from the highly radioactive environment to another place?
All this is a cost, because these are the undesirable things going hand in hand with our nuclear power.
What are we getting for this cost?
Now here is our power production as a country. The green bit in the lower right is your nuclear energy production. Beats only diesel generators (thin yellow next to it) when it comes to sources – after all this time, money, risks, corruption, suppression of people, international political boot licking, security risk, secrecy and what not.
Coal (105437.38MW), Gas (18093.85MW), Diesel (1199.75MW) Together as Thermal Energy (124730.98MW) are the largest chunk. Followed by Hydroelectric Energy (38848.40MW), then Renewable Energy (22233.17MW) and finally Nuclear Energy (4780.00MW) = Total 190592.55MW
As you can see, after all this investment, nuclear power does not provide any kind of major source of electricity. Nowhere near the savior it is supposed to be. In half the time invested in atomic energy and 1/7.7th of the budget investment, we are getting 22233MW from renewable energy.
And how good are we at doing this?
Here are figures from the IAEA PRIS for unplanned capability loss for up to 2010 – which is the latest available so far. For your convenience, I have kept this a sortable table. Feel free to click around and compare situations with countries. The only country to have an unplanned capability loss that is worse than ours is Pakistan. But Pakistan has only 2 reactors.
For the record, when it comes to IAEA, “unplanned” is not subject to interpretation. Unplanned Capability Loss is described explicitly as:
Unplanned energy loss is energy that was not produced during the period because of unplanned shutdowns, outage extensions, or unplanned load reductions due to causes under plant management control. Energy loss is considered to be unplanned if it is not scheduled at least four weeks in advance.
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A quick look at how our electricity capacity is growing. I have again used an IAEA table, even though it is woefully out of date, because it is official. To expand the data to current statistics yourself, you can find the numbers in the “Annual reports of the CEA” at the Central Electricity Authority Website reports page:
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But by now you know the pattern. The pampered kid is usually the laziest, no? Growing at this rate, nuclear power is only going to get more and more irrelevant and cost more and more in investments in reactors, fuel, security and what not.
* About the mention of IAEA as a pro-nuclear entity, the IAEA describes itself as “The IAEA is the world’s center of cooperation in the nuclear field. It was set up in 1957 as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization within the United Nations family. The Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies.” It is unknown if the IAEA has actually drawn the line anywhere. Its actions consistently take the most accommodating view of any nuclear situation – be it Chernobyl toll or the dubious Fukushima cold shutdown. The matter of fact is that the world doesn’t actually have a safety watch dog for nuclear power or nuclear anything.
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