Human beings are the only species on Earth, that have managed to generate/ convert large amounts of energy – far in excess of their immediate biological needs.  There are five (5) fundamental sources of energy on this earth that we have harnessed till date – (1) Current Solar Energy, (2) Stored Solar energy (that includes Hydro, wind, wave, food, wood & biomass etc), (3) Earth’s internal heat (geo-thermal), (4) Gravity of the Moon & Sun (Tidal),  and (5) Nuclear (Fission & Fusion).   Nuclear Fission energy (largely from the naturally available Uranium 235, but also marginally from Plutonium 239, created artificially by neutron bombardment in reactors) has been released in both controlled (power reactors) & explosive (bomb) manner, whereas the controlled release of nuclear fusion energy is yet to be mastered by our science & technology, even after nearly 40 years of experimentation.

Out of all the methods /processes / technologies that we have devised to release /convert large amounts of energy from natural energy sources, nuclear fission reaction is the only process where we CREATE — (1) elements that almost never existed on the Earth (trans-uranics, like Pu239) in any significant quantity, (2) multiple elements that emit powerful ionising radiation (millions of times more powerful than the controversial microwave radiation from mobile phones & mobile phone towers) that are extremely dangerous to humans (and other animals) even in small doses,  (3) elements that will remain highly radioactive over lakhs of years, for which we have no clear solution as yet – requiring these to be totally isolated from the environment.  Though coal burning (which also has huge environmental & social costs) also releases significant amounts of radioactive material – these are of low level radioactivity, compared to the very high level radioactive material release from nuclear reactors / processing / reprocessing plants.

The many dangers of nuclear (fission) power –

1. Out of all the electricty (power, in common usage) generation processes that we use, only two have the potential for Catastrophic Failure – big-dam based hydro-power, and nuclear fission based power.  No other power generation (to be scientifically correct – we do not generate power, only convert one form of energy to another, more useful form) method has this extreme disaster like danger.  If a big dam fails catastrophically, many down-stream towns & villages might be severely damaged, BUT the reconstruction can start in a day from the disaster. In case of a nuclear reactor catastrophe, the impacts on human fatality, health etc can be far greater, and a large area around this disaster zone will become unusable for us humans – for centuries or even millenia, due to the radioactive contamination. Living (or rather – dead) example is the once-bustling Pipriyat town in today’s Ukraine – which was home to over 50,000 people till April 25-1986, today standing as a ghost town – some 11 KMs from the exploded Chernobyl reactor.

2. Huge Stored Energy within – Nuclear fission reactors have a very risky feature – unlike most other power plants.  The entire fuel /energy source for a large nuclear fission reactor – for upto an entire year, is always present within the small confines of the reactor vessel.  This is again somewhat similar to big-dam based hydro power, but here the potential energy of the stored water at any point of time is comparatively smaller – only enough to generate power for some weeks at most.  So any possible sudden release accident cant be as destructive as in a nuclear fission reactor.   And with today’s reactors getting past the 1000 MWe mark, the amount of stored energy and its destructive potential can hardly be imagined.

Consider the proposed EPRs for the Jiatapur NPP. Each reactor is supposed to be of 1650 MWe, and thus will generate nearly 4,800 MW of heat energy at full power opertion.  To put it into perspective – all of Delhi’s high consuming 1.8 Crore people, their homes, offices, malls, factories, stadia, metro rail, other rails …. consume around 4,500 MW at the peak demand time.  Consider all of Delhi’s peak power electricty consumption being put into enormous heaters and channeled into a small building that is one Jaitapur reactor !  With that kind of energy contained within a small building, catastrophic accidents can’t be ruled out.

3. Active controls of reactor safety systems are always vulnerable – Referring to the recent devastating accidents at Fukushima Daiichi, or even the earlier Chernobyl, it is clear that the claims of “automatic shutdown” is only partly true.  The neutron absorbing (control) rods came down to reduce the fission chain reaction sharply, BUT the huge amounts of radioactive fission products & trans-uranics (also the Uranium present within – by natural radio-active decay) continued to generate huge amounts of heat.  In reality, there is no known & proven wayto turn off this huge heat production within a nuclear fission reactor, even after a reactor shutdown. That is why nuclear fission reactors need to be intensively cooled even long after shut-down.  This cooling, and even the sensors giving various readings about the status of the reactor – all need the supply of energy in a sustained & reliable way. If that fails, all the safety systems are likely to fail – as happenned in Fukushima. Even otherwise, the presence of such huge energy and very high levels of strong ionising radiation has the potential to trigger failure of the electronic sensors at any point of time – though not frequent.

4. Release of powerful radioactive materials in large quantities – At every stage of (a) the nuclear fuel cycle, including the (b) reactor operation,  there are large releases of radio-active materials which cause cancers, birth defects, and other cell damages, not only for humans exposed to this radiation, but also for other animals.   The main nuclear-fuel in most  conventional reactors is Uranium235 (some use Uranium-Plutonium mixed oxide fuel), and the natural decay (through radioactive emission) product is Radon, which is a highly radioactive inert gas. This will be released in large quantities from the tens of thousands of tons of mine-tailings, from fuel fabrication, and even when the nuclear reactor is operating “normally” ie, even without any accident. Even when it is not operating.  Amongst the fission-products , several are highly radioactive gases like Iodine-131, Cesium-134, Cesium-137 etc, with half-lifes of days to 30 years.  In fact, nuclear reactors regularly vent built-up radioactive gases into the atmosphere, and this will cause high radiation exposure to the population in a fairly large surrounding area,  on animals, on plants.  Some will get inhaled and cause stronger cell damage inside the human body, causing cancers, abnormal mutation etc.

5. The problem of long-lasting radioactive waste – A very large part (99% ) of the Uranium used as fuel is the non-fuel Uranium 238, which absorbs neutrons inside the reactor-in-operation to become Plutonium 239.   This is highly radioactive and will remain extremely hazardous for tens of thousands of years (with a ‘half-life’ of ~24,200 years), and thus needs to be fully isolated from the environment  for ~2,42,000 Years, as ten half-lives are considered necessary for any radiaoactive mass to be considered ‘safe’ !!  Human ‘civilisation’ is less than 5,000 years old, and we are already creating large amounts of highly radioactive material for the next quarter million years,  poisoning the future of the next 10,000 generations !! There are other such ‘trans-uranic’ elements,  radioactive themselves, that also needs to be kept isolated.   Apart from this, the mined overburden & tailings – which are dumped around near human habitations – also contains U238, which is also radioactive (though at a lower level), and will remain so for billions of years (with a half life of over 4.5 billion years, about the age of the Earth itself) !  This will also keep generating the radioactive gas radon – again for billions of years, right around us, killing & maiming slowly.

6. The released / leaked radiation finds its way into water sources & food chains, thus getting directly into human & animal bodies, causing very long term radiation damage to these people and animals, including various forms of cancers, genetic damage, abnormal mutations etc. (ionising radiation is infact used in radio-biology labotratories to induce genetic changes / mutations).  Just weeks after the Fukushima disaster, human mother’s milk was found to be contaminated with radioactive Iodine – potentially exposing the suckling infants to thyroid cancer !  The Chernobyl disaster forced the slaughter of thousands of cattle, as their milk & meat was found to contain radioactive materials.

The misleading /false claims of nuclear lobby, that the naturally occurring (cosmic / leaking radon etc) radiation / medical x-ray etc gives greater exposure to human beings – hides the crucial fact that when radioactive material is absorbed inside the body – the effect of these strong radiation occurs directly on our tissues, without the moderating influence of an intervening atmosphere/ air-layer, and are thus – far more damaging.

7. A major nuclear reactor acccident will cause un-imaginable losses to human lives, and total ecology.  The Chernobyl disaster was suppressed by the then Soviet government, with a 3 ½ year ban on radiation damage studies, and strict orders to describe various radiation related diseases & deaths as due to ‘normal’ diseases. Even then, the New York Academy of Sciences’ recently (end 2009) released study on the total death toll all over northern Europe in 22 years since that accident, is mind numbing at nearly a million !  Even Ukrain government studies have shown that total human lives lost in Ukraine, Belarus & Russia – from radiation exposure over a long time, from the Chernobyl reactor acident – is several tens of thousands.  Either of these is far above the lives loss from Bhopal gas disater – accepted as the worst industrial disaster in history !  And Fatehabd, Jaitapur, Haripur, Kovada, Chutkha….. all the chosen sites for large ‘Nuclear Power Parks’ are far more densly populated than Ukraine (where Chernobyl is) areas.

Limited Resource, Expensive Power, Negative Learning Curve


8. The Uranium available within India is very limited, and as per the Indian nuclear lobby’s own estimates – is just sufficient for a 9,500 MWe nuclear power capacity.  Even the worldwide proven reserves of Uranium are very limited – at around 6 million tons at the last count. At around 68,000 tons being consumed per year even by the present-day reactors, we will hit “Peak Uranium” within 35-40 years, even before the life of any new reactors is over.  This do not take into account the projected increase in installed nuclear power – by any of the countries, which will cause an even faster Peak and depletion.  Peak theory has been shown to work for many extracted non-renewable natural resources – like peroleum, and refers to the point when about half of the reserves have been used up – leading to production falling, price spiking etc.

9. Expensive Power – The earlier claims of the nuclear lobby that “nuclear power will be too cheap to meter”, have been shown to be false. Infact, even the Indian nuclear power plants cost about Rs.8-10 Crores per MW installed, compared to Rs.4.5-5 Crores for coal fired power plants, and 4-6 crores for Wind farm based power plants (though wind powers PLF is much lower than coal or nuclear – which are base load power plants).  Many estimates are showng that nuclear fission generated electricity will cost a min of Rs.4/ per KWHr – even without taking any environmental or social costs, and with huge hidden subsidies – roughly the same as from wind, and double that from coal.  The most controversial Areva EPR units will be – going by the troubled Finnsh Olkiluoto plant figures – costing over Rs.20 Crores per MW installed, leading to very costly power. Many Nuclear Enrons in the making ?

With many accidents – big or small – over the last five decades, the cost of nuclear power reactors have gone up sharply, to design & include responsive safety features, which is driving up the cost.  This trend is likely to accentuate after the Fukushima disaster, and future nuclear reactors – if any are built – will be even more expensive. This is called a negative learning curve.

10. The chance of accidents are also going up every year – with over 60% of the worlds 440 odd nuclear reactors (dozens shut down after Fukushima) being older than 25-30 years. The “Bathtub curve” – early on in their lives, reactors have some chance of mishaps, which goes down in the initial years, but then goes up sharply as the recators age – is soon going to be more pronounced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. Insignifican contribution to India’s energy demand at present – Even after 42 years of nuclear power in India, the installed nuclear power capacity in the country is less than 5,000 MW, or less than 3% of the total installed electriciy capacity. The actual generation is even lower at about 2%, largely due to an Uranium shortage. But, the contribution of nuclear power to India’s total commercial energy consumption is less than 1%. We must recall that this meagre contribution has been achieved even after huge annual budgetary support to the Indian nuclear lobby. This years budget gave over Rs.10,000 crores to them, while allocating a little over one-fifth that amount to New & renewable energy. And even with this small budgetary support, the installed wind energy capacity in India is over 13,000 MW now (over 2.5 times the installed nuclear capacity), achieved in a much shorter span of ~ 15 years.

Thus, we in India are well placed to abandon this dirty, dangerous and limited energy source at the present juncture. It wont affect us very badly to forego just 0.8% of our energy source, and try to replace this with non-risky renewables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

12. Not Climate Friendly either – The building of nuclear reactors has enormous embedded energy (energy used in building thiis), requiring very
high amounts of energy-intensive materials like steel, cement etc, and in a world that gets ~ 80% of its total commercial energy from fossil carbon fuels, this means the nuclear reactors have enormous embedded carbon emissions.  This nails the  lie of nuclear power having zero or even low GHG-emission.  In fact there were a couple of studies (one rigorous study – “The CO2 emission of the nuclear life-cycle”, by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, and Phillip Smith), that any conventional nuclear fission power plant needs to generate power for about Seven-years just to equal the CO2-emission saving of gas-powered power plants, with all of the attendant risks of the nuclear  mining, processing and reactor operation & radioactive waste and regular radioactive gas leakage

13. Safer Alternatives Exist in Enough Quantities – The solar energy potential in large parts of western, southern, central & some parts of northern India – is about 25-30 MW per sqKm.  Though large centralised power plants are not the desirable model – for the sake of calculation – consider tens of thousands SqKms of desert land in the west.  No real estate is needed to install many such systems on roof-tops and over built-structures.  The planning commission has estimated, in its Integrated Energy Policy document – that wind energy has a minimum potential of 45,000 MW, even with an incomplete wind mapping, and based on limited range of “useful” wind speeds.  With today’s AT&C (aggregate technical & commercial) losses in India touching 30%, on an installed base of 1,72,000 MW – bringing this down to a reasonable 10% will save over 34,000 MW of power, more than the projected installed nuclear capacity by 2022-25.

 

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This is Soumya Dutta (National Convener – Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha)’s deposition before the People’s Tribunal on Nuclear energy.