<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Open+Sans%3A400italic%2C700italic%2C400%2C700">Environmental impact of nuclear power Archives « Aam JanataSkip to content

When news like Fukushima hits, people start thinking of nuclear radiation leaks. Then, mistakenly, they imagine that risk from radiation is a very rare thing. While accidents on such a scale are rare, radiation leaks in themselves are not. For one, every running nuclear plant is already venting "acceptable amounts" of radiation into the environment on a daily basis.

Now, there are doctors who swear that there is no way to determine an amount which has no health risks. However, this post is about actual leaks, not releases. News from the last one year from my bookmarks and a few simple searches. Some of the news may be developments on long term contamination on radiation leaks, others may be new radiation leaks.

No particular reason for this beyond some reactions to the leak at RAPS a few days ago, that seemed to see this as a rare and acceptable thing.

  1. Fukushima, of course continues to leak radiation into the environment. The description of this is beyond an entry in a list.
  2. Chernobyl too continues to leak radiation through its crumbling sarcophagus, though on a lesser scale than Fukushima.
  3. Kansas State University - 29th June 2011: Radiation leaked at 149 times the Derived Air Concentration (DAC) limit for Iodine during a trial run of its reactor. Though four different systems caught the excessive radiation levels, operators reported their belief that this was due to the proximity of a radioactive sample near the monitors.  They did not disclose what kind of sample nor why it was near four different monitors, if that’s even possible. Plus, the sample they discuss showed Cesium, not Iodine.
  4. North Carolina State University - 7th July 2011: Officials said Thursday that there is a low-level water leak in the liner that surrounds the campus nuclear reactor, but that it poses no danger to the public.
  5. Submarine, off northeast China - 29th July 2011:  A rumor began spreading on the Chinese Internet sites that there was a radiation leak on a submarine stationed near Dalian in northeast China. As the story went, the accident occurred while technicians were installing new electronic gear on a Type 94 SSBN ( nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). Not verified, but detailed. China denies, but no one believes denial.
  6. Kakrapar Atomic Power Station, Gujarat - 1st August 2011:  An incident from 30th May 2011 came to light where four temporary workers were exposed to 90mSv from spent fuel due to operator error. Health concerns were dismissed citing absence of immediate symptoms of radiation poisoning (usually with fatal doses). As per AERB, the dose limit for workers at a nuclear plant is 20mSv, which was deliberately ignored by station director P K Dutta when he made the following quote "A radiation of 90 mSv does not cause any harm. If we get our whole body CT scanned, we would be exposed to a nuclear radiation of 60 mSv,'' who also mentioned contract workers demanding regularization because of this incident as "taking advantage of it". Temporary workers being exposed to radiation and abandoned without adequate health support or information is an ongoing problem with nuclear plants.
  7. Dounreay Nuclear Plant, Scotland21st September 2011, Guardian: Scottish nuclear fuel leak 'will never be completely cleaned up' - Tens of thousands of radioactive fuel fragments escaped from the Dounreay plant between 1963 and 1984, polluting local beaches, the coastline and the seabed. Fishing has been banned within a two-kilometre radius of the plant since 1997. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has decided to give up on its aim of returning the seabed near the plant to a "pristine condition". Staff from here has been consulting at Fukushima to share experience.
  8. San Onofre Nuclear plant, California had trouble with premature wear in the cooling tubes leading to leaks of water and gas last summer. First one, then both reactors were shut down for investigation earlier, but this seems to now be a permanent shutdown currently. The exact amount of leakage is unknown, but officials say that it shouldn't be harmful. Only harmful enough to shut down a nuclear plant, I suppose, not health.
  9. Dounreay Nuclear Plant, Scotland - 8th October 2011: Radioactive liquid effluent is understood to have leaked inside a treatment facility. It did not exit the building. Dounreay was constructed in the 1950s as an experimental nuclear power complex, but has not generated electricity since 1994 and is currently being decommissioned by Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) who got a top safety award for their work in May 2011.
  10. Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), Pakistan - 30th October 2011: heavy water leaked from a feeder pipe to the reactor leading to a seven hour emergency till it was contained. The plant was already shut down for maintenance.
  11. Point Lepreau, Canada - second half of November 2011: 23 barrels of water laced with the toxic chemical hydrazine was released into the Bay of Fundy.
  12. Point Lepreau, Canada - December 13th 2011: Almost 6 litres of heavy water splashed to the floor, requiring an immediate evacuation of the building. Point Lepreau had been shutdown for refurbishment since 2008, and the leaks happened during the preparations to restart it. Currently, it is stopped till further investigation.
  13. Orchid Island, Taiwan - 30th December 2011: Tao Aborigines from Orchid Island protested on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, saying radioactive material was leaking from a nuclear waste dump on the island. They demanded that the storage facility be removed. Although residents of Orchid Island have long suspected that a radioactive leak has occurred, it was first officially confirmed when Academia Sinica research fellow Huh Chih-an detected radioactivity on the island after being commissioned by Taipower in November.
  14. Prarie Island Nuclear Power Plant - 5th January 2012: Leak found. Alert declared.
  15. Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Station, Ogle County, about 100 miles west of Chicago, near Rockford - 30th January 2012: The supply of power from off-site (needed to maintain backup for safety systems) went down, forcing Exelon to take Unit No. 2 offline. Steam containing tritium had to be vented from the reactor triggering panic.
  16. North Anna, Virginia, US - 17th February 2012: water taken from an on-site groundwater sampling point contained an unusually high level of tritium — more than twice the EPA's standard for drinking water.
  17. Bruce power, Lake Huron, 240km northwest of Toronto, Canada - 17th March 2012: Leaks were discovered as the reactors were being powered up after an earlier shutdown.
  18. EDF Nuclear Power Plant at Penly, Normandy, France - 5th April 2012:  A faulty joint on a pump leaked lubricant from the pump used to cool the reactor, which caused two small fires and a low level leak inside the reactor building.
  19. Point Lepreau, Canada - 21st May 2012: A third leak. 300 litres of tritiated heavy water spilled on May 21 when a valve opened too soon during pressure testing at the plant. Poor training has been cited as one of the causes for the accident.
  20. Rawatbhata Atomic Power Plant (RAPP), Rajasthan, India - some time near 25th May 2012 - 38 workers working on heavy water and tritium supply channels were exposed to tritium leaks (unspecified quantity), 3 of them in doses exceeding allowed dose.
  21. Davis-Besse nuclear station in Ohio - 6th June 2012: Small amount of radioactive water sprayed through a minor leak and no radiation escaped the plant.
  22. Dounreay, Scotland - 7th June2012: A steady decline in urine levels for uranium and plutonium has been reported for workers here.
  23. Prarie Islands Spent Nuclear Fuel pools - 8th June 2012: A U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the NRC violated a federal act by neglecting to run in-depth studies on how storing radioactive waste at nuclear power plants impacts health and the environment. Read document. 1,500 tons of high-level irradiated waste is stored in heavy steel and concrete casks on a tarmac a few hundred feet from the Hudson River. The Westchester-based plant produces about 30 tons of radioactive waste every 18 months, which is then crammed into two overcrowded, 40-foot deep spent fuel pools. Each pool holds about 1,000 tons of radioactive waste and has been leaking into the ground and river for years.
  24. Pallisades Nuclear Plant, Michigan, US  - 12th June 2012: The plant was shut down and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation has been started over a year long leak of approximately 31.8 gallons of borated water per day (not heavily radioactive - used to stop fission) from a cooling tank into the reactor's control room. The operator believes there may be several leaks involved, but the leaks have not been found yet, so repairs are pending. Pallisades had five unplanned shutdowns in 2011. NRC has downgraded the safety rating for the plant.
  25. Susquehanna Nuclear Plant - 20th june 2012: PPL Corp. shut down the Unit 1 reactor at its Susquehanna nuclear power plant near Berwick on Tuesday to investigate what it called a minor water leak inside the container structure surrounding the reactor. Unit 1 had been online only 11 days since a 69-day shutdown starting March 31, during which the company repaired cracks in Unit 1 turbine blades.

And there are more. I have gone through about half the tabs I opened. Bored now. This list is nowhere near comprehensive. An astonishing 75% of all US nuclear reactors were found to be leaking tritium last year.

The simple point I am trying to make is that claims of safety by the pro-nuclear lobby are highly exaggerated.

s I was going through the flood of news on Fukushima, there was a conspiracy theory that the mysterious and highly radioactive black substance being found in many places was actually a decontamination experiment. It was a wild theory, but it caught people’s imagination, because of the discovery of radiotropic fungi at Chernobyl being discussed earlier. These fungi have been found to use melanin to absorb radiation and use it for energy! So in an experiment, when they upped the radiation to 500 times normal, they thrived! Not much is known about their mechanisms, but it is indeed a discovery that is memorable for being astonishing.

Then Fukushima Diary reported that the black substance (likely Cyanophyceae according to them) got generated on a road after rain and noted that its earlier manifestation had happened after snow. So one of the people had posted that this black stuff might be Cyanophyceae and might be an experiment to collect metals for easier disposal (or washing away with rain – as another commenter suggested). The commenter quoted the project description:

“Development of high affinity biosorbents by surface display of metal binding proteins”

“The project is to develop profit oriented economically feasible to implement by all metal handling industries including DAE establishments for the treatment of low and medium level metal containing effluents and nuclear wastes using enhanced whole-cell biosorption technology. It is aimed at to proceed from the proof-of concept to “field testing stage.” The development of such an efficient and affordable technology for nuclear waste treatment is essential. In this project we will develop a technology for the display of metal binding proteins at the cell surface of “cyanobacteria.” The strains will be tested for immobilization for the development of bioreactor to remove the radioactive and non-radioactive metal from industrial effluents. The process parameters will be optimized for scaling up. The proposed project may provide a cost effective, quick and more metal binding capacity and it will find an essential alternative method for online treatment in DAE and metal handling industries for safe discharge of wastewater.”

http://www.bits-pilani.ac.in/pilani/biologicalScience/ongoingProjects

Cyanobacteria; This is Blue/Green Algae. Also Known As The Black Stuff.

Curious, I clicked on the link to arrive at the website of BITS Pilani!

The above information was in the sixth or so title (can’t link individually – they expand), but the very first one said:

Low and medium level waste generated by the nuclear industry contain large number of radioactive isotopes of different metals. The volume of this waste coupled with surfactants and interfering radicals creates problem for conventional cleanup operations using synthetic resins. In our recently concluded project funded by Department of Atomic Energy, Govt of India, we have demonstrated that a non-conventional Biosorption Techniques could be employed for the effective removal of radioisotope from nuclear waste even in the presence of EDTA or nitrate. This technique require the generation/ selection of suitable biomass using molecular biology techniques which may be packed in glass or ss column for continuous operation.

No mention of the Cynobacteria in this one, but very, very intriguing.

The astonishing part is that this hasn’t hit news AT ALL. It is not a state secret. It has been announced openly on their website as research. In the context of world events, and concerns over nuclear and other metal contamination (think Punjab), etc I would think this would be a good idea to appreciate very useful research like this, no?

I think it is sad that we appreciate and share research news from the US but not India. In India, it has to either involve someone/thing famous/flashy “Kalam and kid designed anti-molestation device” or robotics and other gadgetry (like UAV projects), or has to be patronizingly surprising of the “illiterate villager designs electric pump” or “man designs cheap sanitary napkins” type. It is rare to be excited about research by Indians – as in, extending the boundaries of knowledge, even though there is no shiny object yet. Sad. We need to appreciate knowledge more without needing dazzle attached to it. Actually, now that I think of it, do we have a “science beat” at all in a country hoping for better literacy, industry, professionals and employment?

14

After getting the nth explanation of how I was scaremongering and that Fukushima was well under control and there was no reason to worry and the people will soon be returning to the exclusion zone, I don’t know whether to weep with pity for the ignorance our government and media have reduced people to, or be angry for ignoring obvious facts.

Choosing to do neither. Look at the information below. Decide what you like. It isn’t like Japan will listen to you and direct actions… or me.

The levels of radioactivity at reactors 2 and 3 have gone too high to allow workers to work there, and future work will have to be carried out by robots. This is not a mindless attention seeker like me talking. This is TEPCO’s statement to the press on camera.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/2LPRkjgCVgY

To the uninitiated, you have to understand that this is an ongoing leak of radiation that has suddenly *spiked*. In other words, “contained” isn’t even a distant relative yet. In still more words, for the radioactivity to decrease, it has to stop being released first.

Or how about this? This is perfectly excellent milk being discarded? Try radioactive milk. You don’t want to have your beauty bath in this. And if you do…? Fukushima has tons of supply going waste. You seriously think farmers throw away all their milk because of scare mongering?

On the other hand, instead of me being a scare mongerer, you may want to consider that you’re blindly swallowing propaganda pills that “make it all go away”. Very fuzzy pink of you. If this was unintentional, here is the antidote.

Most of the time, the government lacks the resources to monitor radiation in all the foodstuff, and people are eating a lot of contaminated food slipping through the cracks. This includes school children.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/Aq4JG9ULVNE

While you are at it, look carefully at time 1:42. While this lawyer is describing a concerning situation with forcing children to drink contaminated milk, and children who refuse being treated like traitors, Osamu Fujimura (Chief Cabinet Secretary) on the left, and Yukio Edano (Economy, Trade and Industry Minister) are laughing. What was it you were saying? That the responsible actions of the Japanese Government successfully prevented disaster?

Here’s a look at the scene with tested food stuff. Remember, this is outside the exclusion zone you are eager to send people back to. PBS is making some excellent documentaries these days.

A radiation fallout forecast also shows minor quantities coming our way.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/8Okb4u5zvYE

This is what is happening in Fukushima

http://player.vimeo.com/video/T_QDihrKkGs

Though of course, this is not a problem, since we don’t measure, so if there is no data, then there is no contamination, right? That is how our minds work.

So, I leave you with this thought for people who should have been protected by international regulation from a nuclear plant in their armpit. More than one million people live within 30km of Koodankulam. This is not a location Atomic Energy Regulatory Board approves of. There should be less people, or the plant should be elsewhere. But that doesn’t matter to out government, long given to self-delusion. They see no reason why they can’t simply misinform people and get results they want. But many people know why.

http://player.vimeo.com/video/du7vDeCpbkw

PS: When someone can send you nice videos to watch at the drop of a hat – new ones each time, at least I am not ignorant, no?

12

"Uraniam found in 241 water samples" the headline could have screamed, but it didn't. It made modest appearance and slid into obscurity, unheralded on the news site's social networks. This was Times of India reporting on drinking water samples from Punjab as reported by chief engineer, department of water supply and sanitation in the High Court in response to a PIL in front of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Mahesh Grover.

It says "The petitioner, Mohali-resident Brijender Singh Loomba, had sought directions for adequate relief to affected people and kids due to discharge of uranium in water and soil of Bathinda, Faridkot and Ludhiana districts of Punjab. The petition had also sought directions for investigation to find out sources of leakage of radioactive material and uranium in drinking water and steps required to check its spread." among other things.

It said nothing that the people of Malda district didn't know already since investigative tests on the hair of about 88% of their higher numbers of disabled children didn't turn up stuff like arsenic as anticipated, but URANIUM in 2009.There have been vague reports on and off in local (read non-corporate) media about Uranium contamination in Punjab since 1995, which is inexplicable since there is no source of Uranium nearby.

But understand this. If there is radioactive contamination in the soil, NOTHING except not eating food grown in it at all will prevent you ingesting it. Cleaning the drinking water will not prevent radioactive isotopes from grain, for example from entering your body. That's right. "Granary of India" has areas with radioactive contamination in an era of increasing inflation and food insecurity.

Indian Express did cover it, but it covered it up as a story on the allegations of discrimination in the installing of the ROS - Reverse Osmosis plants that BARC recommended to clean the water. Adding as an afterthought "The affidavit states that the failed samples from the 49 villages include Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Barnala and Fatehgarh Sahib. The state has submitted that ROS plants are being installed in 118 villages, of which 74 villages fall in Barnala."

Anyway, the whole High Court and PIL and shocking testimony at least got it to mainstream newspapers, if not to fame and glory.

In other news - I really mean - In other news.... DNA published an investigative report about increased incidences of cancer among the employees and their families at the nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam. No! Wasn't this supposed to be crap raised by activists to prevent India's progress? Apparently not, because the report uses data from an RTI filed for the second time (The first time, the information was not provided).

The DNA claims that it is in possession of a DAE funded study by Dr. Manjula Dutta and the report categorically confirms increased cancer risk near reactors "The report states that cancer cases in villages close to Kalpakkam are seven times higher (210 per 1 lakh people) compared to just (30 per 1 lakh people) in distant villages. Morbidity levels in areas near the nuclear reactor are 2-3 times higher than normal. The study covered 22 proximate villages (within 8km radius) and three distant villages (50km from the reactor site)."

However, let it not be said that mainstream media never reports nuclear news. It does report extensively about the NPCIL's efforts to allay fears about radiation safety and there is warm and fuzzy reassurances by the BARC that it is all safe and nuclear power is our future. But then, both earlier stories also contain reassurances by BARC that the levels of radiation are safe and that the illnesses are no more than among the normal population.

BARC is like the Japanese government in India. No matter what the radiation levels, they will be declared safe. No problemo. But BARC is boosting its monitoring capacities on an urgent basis. To prove safety, I suppose. It was a Parliamentary committee that looked into the radiation monitoring of Punjab, West Bengal is examining and checking use of radioactive materials, and it is BARC declaring safe everything I have mentioned or linked here.

These are stories breaking in a country where more nuclear plants are planned amid massive controversy. Where the idea of a "nuclear park" is not some haunting nightmare scene from a Chernobyl film, but an unbelievable concept of a cluster of nuclear reactors made to sound like a health spa.

I have been following events unfolding at Fukushima closely. There is incredible amount of information from local media and bloggers in particular. While some of it is alarmist and unsubstantiated, there is enough carefully documented, including citizen volunteers monitoring data, photographs and footage of details of damage and work, information released from scientific studies, information on spread of radiation, environmental impact, inexplicable heart attacks (which I think are linked to what I mention in Radioactive People), status of reactors and more.

Fukushima is one big reason to re-evaluate the feasibility of having too many reactors too close - at this point, if one of them goes out of control, the area will have to be evacuated, and we will have six of them out of control. Does a thought like this have any implications to the idea of a nuclear park?

Yet there is silence in our media. Corporation owned media worldwide is largely silent, but they do report significant concerns raised, at least. Our news media doesn't seem to see this as an ongoing crisis at all. There is little interest on either a political front or in the media. Two headlines about America's low rating for safety of nuclear materials in India - "India scores low on nuclear security: US Study" and "India rejects nuclear safety rating by American think-tank"

It is a game of table tennis. Rather than see the security implications, we choose to fixate on the political maneuvering and preempt it - which is such a problem, that we can't accept any feedback ever - check news. This of course is about our super-size ego and Australian Uranium we import which could be influenced. There is little introspection, evaluation or consideration of risks. NO changes will happen, because accepting them will mean that we weren't safe and that will not do. How long will it be before we start paying an even greater price?

We don't hear, think or question these things, because our media carefully filters triggers to such debates. From being the first country in the world to set up a Ministry for renewable energy to being one that doesn't question harmful ways energy is procured - be it fly ash from thermal power, radioactive contamination from nuclear power, or exploitation of Kashmiris for power - it has been a long way. There is pathetic little interest in sustainable energy or the environment in our media.

We want nuclear reactors and are following the ideals of a country that has paid a monumental price for its nuclear ambitions and yet has not built a single new reactor in decades. The great fantasy of clean, safe, cheap.

We dismiss reports of workers at Fukushima dying of heart failure after handling radioactive debris. We ignore that heart failure is the most common way for those exposed to radiation to die and call it an "existing condition". We ignore reports of milk in San Francisco having levels of cesium beyond allowed standards. We don't question dubious "cold shutdowns" that have nothing to do with stopping reactors and everything to do with shrugging responsibility for liquidating the damage. We ignore radioactive landfulls and almost a year of daily and massive contamination of the oceans. We turn a blind eye to reports of increasing cancers in the West Coast of USA.

It isn't so much about what we believe. We are smart people. We arrive at conclusions based on information available to us. Which is why it becomes a serious question about intent and freedom of information that the Indian masses are not informed by their media on such things. If the information available can be rigged to make certain conclusions seem reasonable, then they are "the choice of the masses".

This has become so ridiculously extreme, that when people look at archives to find Indian reporting of the largest nuclear disaster in the history of man (hopefully it will still be the largest then), they are going to find a big, fat zero - like Pakistan's text books on Indian history and common roots.

This is also where the usual arguments like "metro media" not having access or wanting to go to far flung areas falls flat. There is an abundance of news to be found without leaving the desk - the largest nuclear or industrial disaster in the world. This leaves me with only one explanation of this radioactive silence. They don't want to.

It isn't like they went to the Andaman to cover the recent shocking news of the treatment of the Jarawa women at the hands of the police. They picked it up from the Guardian and ran with it.

So what is the difference in these fleeting news that seem to catch their eyes and an almost year long crisis involving millions of people, multiple crises with four reactors, unmeasurable environmental damage and abundant news items available freely that slides through every hole in attention and invents a few too?

Why this voluntary censorship?

I suspect the answer is less about the news than the subject of the news and the influence it may have on their interests. I suspect the answer may involve things like corporate owned priorities and investment opportunities.

 

20

How much energy does a nuclear power plant generate? According to Wikipedia, in India, we have 20 nuclear reactors in 6 nuclear power plants generating 4,780MW. 5 more plants under construction are expected to add another 2,720 while we have an ambitious target of about 64,000MW by 2032. That is a lot of energy. In the wake of the Fukushima crisis, discussing the merits and demerits of India's nuclear programme is urgent. An earthquake has sent shocks through the nuclear landscape of the world. We must not ignore that it is also an opportunity to take pause, consider carefully, introspect and then move forward with purpose.

How does nuclear power work?

Nuclear power works by using the energy from nuclear fission or fusion to generate heat. At the moment, nuclear fusion is still a subject of intense research and not usd in production which is a pity. Nuclear fission is basically what is happening in a reactor. Radioactive elements have unstable nucleii and they are constantly going through random fission to shed neutrons and become different elements. It is this breaking of the nucleus that releases the energy that we use. Once the heat is generated, the rest of the nuclear plant works pretty much the same as say the typical coal power plant. The danger with nuclear fission is its difficult to control nature and radiation.

To understand nuclear fission, one important thing to understand is that you can't switch it off. Atoms are fissioning in radioactive material all the time. Randomly. Individually. Relatively harmlessly. When they collide against other atoms, they trigger fission in them as well. Things that encourage these collisions are called moderators. Moderators block the escape of the atoms in such a way that they rebound back into the material, rapidly increasing the chances of fission. When a lot of atoms are fissioning, the whole thing takes on a life of its own. Triggering itself constantly, so to think. This is called a chain reaction and it releases huge amounts of heat. This is what the reactors do, in order to produce the heat. To stop the chain reaction, control rods are inserted between the radioactive material. These rods slow down the fissions by absorbing neutrons. The nuclear fission energy source never completely stops. It keeps slowing down till finally it reaches its regular random fission patterns. This process takes a long, long time.

Risks of nuclear power

The tremendous amounts of heat are a hazard because they have the capacity to simply melt anything that gets in their way. And a chain reaction without control rods/other material only keeps accelerating till it dies out. Even with control rods in place, the fact that fission cannot be "Switched off" will always be a danger because it makes for clumsy emergency responses. Essentially, all the functions for cooling the reactor have to continue for weeks in decreasing intensity till finally the material is safe to put away wet. To store dry will be cooling for another couple of YEARS. As we see in Japan, in an emergency, this can turn into a nightmare.

Radioactive material is a health hazard. It literally burns on a microscopic scale. So contamination is a huge issue, as it causes cancers and other health problems - to what extent and what quantities of radiation is still less known, but the corelation is quite certain. If external radiation is bad, internal is worse, because material once ingested becomes a part of the body  and is impossible to remove. Which is why the contaminated milk, vegetables and possibly fish will be a matter of concern in Japan for a long time.

India doesn't have adequate quantities of uranium, so it makes us dependent on importing it. This makes us dependent on foreign providers.

Another huge problem is the nuclear waste disposal. Like I described earlier, the fuel never really becomes safe. NEVER. So, in essence, when we develop nuclear energy, we are committing ourselves to managing the left over fuel and anything else that gets contaminated for infinity. Sure, the earth is very big, and nice, remote places can be found to bury the material deeply - kind of born from the earth and returned to it, but the problem is, most places don't want to house these dumps because they will be eternal hazards. If governments find it difficult to get locals to agree to reactors, they find it near impossible to get them to agree to house nuclear waste. Probably will not matter so much in India, where the people don't know half the things the government is up to, but definitely people should know. If we must choose nuclear power, we must know facts, have plans for the less desirable actions in the future.

An area contaminated by radiation essentially becomes inhabitable for humans till radiation levels drop. When they will drop depends on the source of radiation. Some isotopes of iodine for example have a half life so short that by the time you organize evacuation, the area will be clear. Others, not so much. Plutonium for example is feared so much because of its lasting effects. The isotope of Plutonium we are most worried about has a half life of 24,000 years. It is likely to outlive not just you and me, but possibly our entire species and maybe life on our planet. There is no way to "fix" this so far. Isolation is the only remedy, but that is not possible in case of widespread contamination. Chernobyl for example resulted in people abandoning the area completely. So, in essence one risk factor of nuclear power is the shrinking of livable land for humans.

Long term effects of radiation for the world are yet unknown. There is some possibility that we will suffer horribly, there is some possibility that we may adapt and build tolerances. We don't know. Post Hiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors suffered horribly. Burns, disease, cancers, isolation because of radiation contamination... but that was a bomb. From Chernobyl, there are a lot of cases of cancers, but opinions are divided as to how much higher above normal they are. People settling illegally in the exclusion zone are dwindling, dying out, but that could also be because its mostly the old people who returned. Many of them are leading completely normal lives too - eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water. Is it that they adapted to the radiation? Is it that tolerable levels may be high enough to allow these people to live safely in less contaminated areas once the active contamination had stopped? We don't know. It could also be the denial of the settlers in order to continue living there. It could be lack of appropriate documentation. There were spikes in cancer reported in several places in Wales and other parts of Europe, which were very likely related to the radiation exposure.

Some pro-nuclear debaters talk about renewable energy as though it were an individual domain only. Experts ask how factories and industries and development will run on solar power. Why not? In fact, India's solar energy produces far more electricity than nuclear power plants. In fact, given time, solar power could well be the Indian alternative to nuclear power. Plus, once installed, its totally fuel-free and thus, astoundingly cheap once investment is recovered. India has set aside vast areas to create solar generation facilities (can they be called solar power plants, or is that word only for active turbine based generation, while solar energy just sits in one place...) in a decade or two, we will be measuring our solar power output in giga watts. We have wind power generation too as another source of renewable energy, in lesser quantities. So that claim that makes renewable energy sound like the domain of cottage industries is either bull shit or lack of research.

An important consideration is establishment of protocols. Nuclear energy has become very safe subject to precautions and equipment. If that is not followed, then the whole "safety" falls. How prepared is India (not mentally, but capable) to follow these rules with impeccable precision? The few accidents we do have are often related with carelessness or ignorance or inadequate or inappropriate equipment. Take for example Tehelka's story on Kalpakam where Kunal talks about an engineer, Raju who handled a sample without precautions for a long time due to the absence of alarms for radiation and then when one did flash, it was visual only. Or the lack of following of established standards leading to rash of cancers and risks to life. This kind of carelessness borders on murder.

Yet, we are living in a country where scams are common, rules are bent and worse, problems are denied, so they can't even be fixed. We see what is happening to Japan mere weeks after them admitting that rules were bent and safety precautions were not taken seriously. The cooling pumps failing right now had not been examined for years, but the reactor was allowed an extension despite protests. India has an inherent "chalta hai" attitude. We don't face challenges till they slap our faces. Radiation is never going to be seen as it plays its destructive dance. People aren't going to "feel" any reason to stop or raise an alarm unless they are trained to function without judgment and true to protocol. Will we be doing this?

The other thing is the continuing contamination. Total isolation of land is impossible. While humans can be prohibited from entering or living, animals often cross over, breed, etc widening the spread. Disturbances that raise dust can result in radiation fall out all over again. Rivers flowing through get contaminated.

So, while the chances of a disaster are minute, and the chances of an uncontrolled disaster are even more remote, the stakes are beyond human comprehension too. So, it is a very difficult equation for our mind to compute. Along the lines of infinity divided by infinity.... the two sides of the debate are thus quite polarized depending on which of the infinities they are studying with greater belief.

Advantages of nuclear power

The heat that is generated by coal in a coal power plant is generated by nuclear fission in a nuclear power plant. Other than that, the process is the same. The heat is passed on to water, which turns into steam. This steam is used to push turbines and generate electricity. In a hydroelectric plant, the force of water drives the turbines. At the end of the day, it is rotating turbines that produce electricity for consumption on a national scale for the most part except for solar energy.

The biggest  nuclear power advantages are that it is relatively cheap (unless you count the bills from disasters) and very powerful too. Nuclear power is India's fourth largest producer of electricity. The greatest producer is thermal energy. If we compare nuclear energy to thermal energy, nuclear energy actually is vastly safer on issues like pollution and safety.

As for safety, studies show that nuclear power is safer than most other sources of energy - solar power included. It doesn't get safer than that. 100% isn't a real life scenario.

While nuclear accidents are dangerous, they are few and not an exclusive hazard to the planet. We have massive coal fires raging for decades in a place called Jharia in Jharkhand. We lose money with every year passed. Smoke from the fire is a health hazard. We had Bhopal. In other words, if we do little to ensure security, then many things are hazards.

Since we don't have enough uranium, we are also actively experimenting with thorium. What the results and risks of that are is unknown.

We do need energy. Most of our country doesn't have enough electricity. We are not at a stage where we can afford to create a fuss over an industry which so far hasn't resulted in a single fatalty in our country and has an overall fatalty rate less than others. The more electricity we can generate, the more we can save our perishable  sources of energy. This means a lot in a country where our petrol price is almost 4 times that in Pakistan. It can mean the difference between life and death to many.

Nuclear radiation is not that horribly alien either. Your chest X-Ray gives you plenty. There is ambient radiation all around.

Nuclear energy also saves lives by contributing to the vital functions of the country. Submarines and large ships are increasingly powered by nuclear energy. This allows them to become virtually fuel independent in operations.

Hydroelectric dams and such like have been proven to cause ecological damage. Species of fish have gone extinct, people have suffered large scale displacement. Mass movements have opposed dams making subsequent projects more forbidding. Plus they are expensive in comparison with both nuclear and other renewable sources.

While solar power is proving really good for us, there is still a space for nuclear energy, as we still need far more electricity than we create. Plus, if we were to phase out the burning of so much coal and replace the output with nuclear energy, it would be a far more dramatic decrease in risks from what we have. It is not likely that we will be able to develop our renewable resources alone to cover the entire country's needs. At least not in the near future. Oh, and BTW, hydroelectric dams are also a problem because of ecological damage, displacement of people, storage of ambient heat, etc.

However, considering the Indian penchant for mismanagement and political opportunism trumping scientific approaches, combined with the veil of secrecy on all things nuclear, the risk of nuclear catastrophe is also greater here.

There is a need to think up the entire energy strategy.

Other possibilities or considerations on Nuclear energy

Nuclear fusion promises to be a far more effective means of generation of electricity..... if we are able to figure it out. Research has been on for decades. Some sample reactors have been created. However, unlike a nuclear fusion bomb or the hydrogen bomb (pretty much the only thing we have succeeded in fusioning - is that a word?) which is an uncontrolled explosion, a controlled nuclear fusion that yields more power than it needs to trigger is yet a concept not translated to reality. Pushing more resources in this direction could be good, as the two big horrors of nuclear fission are not relevant here.

  • Radiation, if any is minimal - to begin with. Containing that would be child's play for brains that can figure out how to achieve controlled fusion.
  • Power released in fusion is much greater than in fission
  • None of these radioactive nightmares of uranium, plutonium, etc needed.
  • BIGGEST ONE. The fusion reaction will have to be sustained, without which it will not happen. Thus, in an emergency or otherwise, there should be no need to babysit the reactor to safe cooling. This can be switched off. OFF. Done. In fact, even if all emergency systems fail, disruption of the facility sustaining fusion will automatically kill the reaction.

... like I said, we are a long way from achieving this in a safe and usable manner. Keeping fingers crossed.

The Future of Nuclear energy in India: Some suggestions

Frankly, I don't think we can afford to not pursue nuclear energy in India. Not with our energy situation as it is. However, i have some suggestions that we MUST incorporate before going any further down this path:

  1. There should be free discussions around the matter involving all perspectives and stakeholders before the decision is made (if at all it comes into question, I guess)
  2. A policy of impeccable transparency must be followed. Information on risks must not be hidden, nor must any problems. That is the only way we can ensure safety - by knowing what to prepare for.
  3. Local bodies for each plant must be formed, and they should have/be provided sufficient knowhow for monitoring radiation and other risks. They should also have the power to call for investigations. They are the ones who will pay the most for errors. They should have the right to demand safety.
  4. Robust risk assessment must be carried out to include data from existing mishaps and operating errors. The people carrying out these assessment must be independent scientists and other experts not associated with political or business interests related with the project. The one political figure who inspired only admiration in India, ex-president A P J Abdul Kalam has supported a review in light of incidents at Fukushima too.
  5. Radiation monitoring equipment must be provided abundantly and certainly installed in all areas of the facility itself.
  6. Contingency planning must include the areas around the plant for a radius determined by experts. These areas should be educated on safety measures and contingency plans, including plans for efficient evacuations or precautions and safety in a radiation emergency situation.
  7. The use of plutonium must be reconsidered and evaluated. Is it necessary?
  8. Plans for the safe disposal of spent fuel must be made.
  9. Not too sure about the participation of non-Indian entities in something this high risk. We should not be accepting untested technology, or stake in the running of the plant. They simply don't have as much to lose as someone living down the lane. Everyone regrets an accident, but from what I read in newspapers, the West in general has far different concepts of safety for itself and others. As others, this is quite a bit risk to court. .... on no one intends harm, but this is about valuing the place and people and knowing you have nowhere to go if you screw up. Remember Dow (Union Carbide, Bhopal... poisonous gas killing tens of thousands, irreparable harm to even more for generations)? We shouldn't be doing deals with the US at all without their compliance on DOW. That should  be a good measure of intent toward Indian safety in the partnership. Our masters or not, the safety of the "colony" comes first.
  10. Plants technology which will be implemented should have minimum 5 years of Demonstrable Installation in Any part of the world. (Contributed by reader Raam Das)
  11. Plants Employees need to be trained on the new Plant operations & Technology at Running Plant before Start of Construction of the NEW Plant. (Contributed by reader Raam Das)

Yeah, that's it. I'm talked out, I think. Your turn. What did I miss?