The NTH Factor

Debarshi Dasgupta, Outlook Magazine

 

Mishaps At Nuclear Plants

  • 1987 Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu Refuelling problem in fast breeder test reactor damages the reactor’s core. Plant shut down for two years.
  • 1989 Tarapur, Maharashtra Radioactive leak from reactor. Repairs take over a year.
  • 1992 Tarapur, Maharashtra A malfunctioning tube causes a leak of 12 curies of radioactivity.
  • 1992 Kota, Rajasthan Fire in 4 pumps threatens cooling system.
  • 1993 Bulandshahar, UP Fire in steam turbine at the Narora Power station damages the heavy water reactor.
  • 1994 Kaiga, Karnataka Dome collapses while under construction
  • 1999 Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu Four tonnes of heavy water leaks, exposing workers to radioactivity
  • 1999 Tarapur, Maharashtra Tube failures result in de-rating of the reactor
  • 2001 Kota, Rajasthan Turbine blade failures, cracks in end shields, leaks in the moderator heat exchanger.
  • 2009 Kaiga, Karnataka 50 workers fall ill after drinking water contaminated by tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

Case Against N-Power
Critics say nuclear power is the most dangerous. The risk of an accident cannot be ruled out.
Storing and treating nuclear waste is tricky
Radioactive material from plants can be used for weapons
N-power plants run on uranium, supplies of which may be limited

And For It…
It is a viable “green”alternative to fossil fuels. It’s also environment-friendly.
With limited energy resources the world needs nuclear energy
Strict safety norms can ensure there are no accidents at plants

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The timing couldn’t have been worse. While top honchos from General Electric Co, an American firm, were meeting in New Delhi seeking ways to corner its share of the fast-growing Indian nuclear energy market, explosions after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan several thousand miles away cracked open three of the four reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Not only did this send out potentially lethal radiation across the region, it also rang alarm bells in countries that have so far enthusiastically and uninhibitedly expatiated on the virtues of nuclear power.

On cue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered an immediate technical review of safety systems at India’s nuclear plants, while mandarins and scientists from the Indian nuclear establishment have scrambled to dispel worries among the public of any likelihood of an emergency. But concerns had been gaining solidity after deals to set up mega N-power plants were finalised with the Americans, the French and the Russians recently. With international collaboration, India aims to boost its present production capacity of nuclear energy from 4,780 megawatts to 63,000 in about two decades. However, many are apprehensive since some of these new individual plants have combined generation capacities of 10,000 MW, compared to the few-hundred-MW ones presently in operation. Worse, the sites chosen for setting them up are often in zones officially designated as earthquake-prone and potentially vulnerable to tsunamis.

What is our safety record vis-a-vis nuclear power plants? There haven’t been major accidents so far, but several small mishaps repeatedly put claims of safety at Indian nuclear plants under scrutiny. In August 2003, leakage at a nuclear reprocessing plant at Kalpakkam exposed six workers to harmful radiation. Likewise, in November 2009, around 50 employees at the Kaiga power plant in Karnataka were exposed to radiation when they drank water from a contaminated cooler. And last May, in a major accident, one scrap dealer died when radioactive material (Cobalt-60) from a Delhi University lab ended up in Mayapuri, a Delhi market for metal scrap. It was a violation of the law that says all radioactive material ought to be disposed of safely under supervision from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

Among the nuclear power plants on the anvil is the one at Jaitapur, coastal Maharashtra. It will house reactors from the French firm Areva and shall have a combined capacity of 10,000 MW. But in 20 years, as many as 92 quakes have been recorded here, with the severest of them in 1993 measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale. The region is officially seismically marked as Zone III—Zone V being the worst category. And despite the elevation of the site on a plateau, concerns about a tsunami refuse to fade. It is perhaps keeping this in mind that Commerzbank, the German bank backing the project, pulled out even before the Japanese crisis, citing the “sustainability and reputational risk” involved.

 

The other controversial site is in Gujarat, in Mithi Virdi on the Saurashtra coast, that will have American reactors from GE and shall have a combined generation capacity of 8,000 MW. Critics wonder why the spot was chosen. Saurashtra falls in the seismic zone III, parts of which experienced the tragic quake in January 2001 that killed thousands. Opposition protests at these two sites and at another 10,000 MW plant in Kovada Matsyalesam, along the Srikakulam coast in Andhra, have gathered strength. That there has been a shroud of secrecy over what is termed as a civilian energy generation programme hasn’t helped. Wilfred D’Costa, one of the coordinators of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, says, “Nuclear power plants in India are not subject to the Environment Protection Act that covers other energy generation plants. The RTI Act doesn’t apply to them; worse, the Official Secrets Act does.”

Even people who have earlier been with the nuclear establishment are raising concerns. P.K. Iyengar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, says Indian nuclear scientists have indeed successfully built and operated pressurised heavy water reactors under the size of 400 MW, but that the new imported ones involve “untested” technologies and are of much larger scales at 1,600 MW. “My advice to the government would be to not jump into 1,600 MW reactors from just 400 MW and place six of these together in one spot that is exposed to possible earthquakes and tsunamis. This raises several safety infrastructure requirements that have to be properly evaluated,” he says.

Recent events in Japan have indeed shaken the faith of many who pray at the altar of nuclear energy. In an article for a business daily, even Shyam Saran, who was India’s top negotiator for the Indo-US nuclear deal, has said the “nuclear renaissance” could be dead if effective corrective measures are not taken up jointly by countries like India, China and Japan, where growth in nuclear energy generation is supposed to be among the highest. “The three countries should take the lead to follow up on their initiatives (promised at a Washington meet in 2010) and establish a collaborative effort to ensure the safe and less risky development of nuclear power in the 21st century.” The fate of nuclear renaissance, as Saran argued, may well now depend upon the success of their efforts.

 

Source: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?270947