There are recurring slippages in the timescales of setting up nuclear power plants, particularly imported ones. Inevitably, there are cost over-runs too.

Nuclear power is often referred to as a ‘clean’, safe, economically cost-effective and environmentally benign source of electric power. This is incorrect. It is not ‘clean’ because it generates large quantities of highly radioactive solid and liquid wastes. The liquid wastes can be treated to bring them to set levels and then discharged into the environment. However, even after extensive multi-level treatment, the solid wastes leave a considerable amount of residues of long-life nuclear isotopes.

These have first to be loaded into thick walled lead containers, the containers hermetically sealed by a special technique, ‘vitrified’ and then buried deep in hard rock cavities in shafts of disused metaliferous or coal mines, making sure that the shafts are free of water ingress. Such storage has to be for several decades. This whole process is technically demanding and expensive but has to be done to ensure human and ecological safety. Popular accounts of nuclear reactors seldom bring out these issues.

But such waste disposal applies not only to nuclear electrocuting reactors but also the “tailings” from uranium mines and mills which produce the basic material for making the fresh uranium fuel rods that feed the reactors but also in the process of reprocessing the used or ‘spent’ fuel coming out of the reactors and containing the deadliest and most dangerous plutonium. Human ingestion of even one billionth of a gram of plutonium leads to death. So, all reprocessing plants are almost totally robotised.

Then there is the elaborate process and equipment involved in continuously cooling the ‘core’ of the reactor while the reactor is in operation. When an accident occurs, affecting the cooling system, as happened in two reactors of the Fukushima nuclear power in Japan in March, the core becomes so hot (2,000 degrees C) that the highly radioactive core melts and the molten core falls to the bottom of the reactor, punctures the heavy steel containment vessel and seeps into the reactor’s foundation and then into the ground beneath, contaminating any ground water present. All this is not a gory hypothetical scenario. It actually happened at Fukushima.

To steeply reduce the probability of such events, modern nuclear reactors have ‘traps’ at the base of the containment vessel, to prevent the kind of puncturing described above. Whether such ‘traps’ will be near-100 per cent effective, only time will tell.

It is well-known that because of the technology involved, nuclear power reactors are intrinsically highly capital-intensive. When one adds the protective technology and equipment, as well as the waste treatment technology and equipment described above, the capital costs go through the roof. Thus the capital cost of the ‘latest’ European Power Reactor (EPR) which the French firm Areva is to set up at Jaitapur in Maharashtra is around Rs 20 crore per Mw, compared to Rs 15 crore for solar power and Rs 6-7 crore per Mw for wind power. Such capital cost levels, in turn, take the cost of nuclear power to Rs 7-8 per KWh (or unit of power generated), making the reactors totally uneconomic.

Then there is the problem of recurring slippages in the time scales of setting up nuclear power plants, particularly imported ones. For example, the two 1,000 Mw Russian reactors coming up at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu are already four years behind schedule, provided they are actually commissioned in 2011 and 2012, as the Nuclear Power Corporation claims they will be. The four Areva 1,650 Mw EPRs — one each in France and Finland, and two in China — are also four years behind schedule, with no firm commissioning dates indicated by Areva as of now.

As a result, the plant in Finland came close to being cancelled by the Finnish government about two years ago. This is despite all four, like the Kudankulam plant, being set up on a turnkey basis by the foreign suppliers involved. These time over-runs, which have for example taken the Kudankulam plants to a total construction time of 11 and 12 years, inevitably lead to huge cost over-runs as well.

Areva is now promising that the first two EPRs at Jaitapur will be commissioned in 2017-18. But what credence can we put on such promises, given Areva’s past record? This in turn makes NPCIL’s claim that it will have 20,000 Mw of nuclear power — 14,000 Mw indigenous and 6,000 Mw imported — by 2020, look like a pipe dream. As for its repeatedly announced plan of achieving 63,000 Mw by 2030, it is a laugh! To put these numbers in perspective, the current installed nuclear power generating capacity is around 5,000 Mw.

Contrast this state of affairs with that in renewable energy. In wind power we have an operating capacity of 16,000 Mw, the fourth largest in the world. Suzlon, our largest wind turbine manufacturer and project developer, added 4000 Mw last year. It is a Rs 22,000 crore company with subsidiaries in Europe and a production plant in China. As for solar energy, the 20,000 Mw by 2022 Nehru Solar Energy Plan is progressing well, with many foreign and local companies having committed to establish large grid-connected solar power plants of 100 Mw to 500 Mw capacity.


Ashok Parthasarathi

The author is a former Secretary to the Government of India