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:
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Radiation monitoring equipment must be provided abundantly and certainly installed in all areas of the facility itself.
- 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.
- The use of plutonium must be reconsidered and evaluated. Is it necessary?
- Plans for the safe disposal of spent fuel must be made.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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?