A Viable Alternative at Koodankulam

Anuj Wankhede

Anuj is a Masters in Management Studies, an avid environmentalist who believes that bigger the problem, bigger the opportunity.

He can be reached at benchmark.anuj (at)gmail.com and 9757475875

The Koodankulam nuclear power project (KNPP) has become the face of the anti nuclear movement of not only India but of the whole world.

The operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) has steadfastly refused to budge from its stand and continued to withhold vital site, safety and environmental details which lead many to believe that the government is trying to hide critical and embarrassing dangerous information especially related to reactor design which is believed to have compromised due to last minute changes.

Be that as it may, the NPCIL (government owned, funded and controlled) has set up the plant under almost military style security. It claims that all safety drills have been completed (disputed and proven incorrect) and is ready to load fuel rods to commence operation within months – if not weeks.

In the face of such advanced preparations for the first reactor to commence, the government excuse is that thousands of crores have already been invested in the project and not commissioning the reactor will mean a national waste. That argument in itself is quite absurd when one compares the figures for the alleged 2G or Coal scams which run into several hundred thousand crores.

But this money need not be considered a waste or be written off. It would be extremely interesting to see what can be done for resolving the issue amicably and with minimum waste.

The KNPP is not the first instance of nuclear projects stalled because of resentment from the local populace. The US has witnessed this in the famous Shoreham reactor which was run for ONE DAY before closing down. The William H. Zimmer nuclear powerplant in Ohio was converted to fuel combustion when it was 97% completed. The Midland Cogeneration Facility at Michigan and at Seabrooke, New Hampshire which were abandoned at very advanced stages of over 85% completion for reasons varying from delays, cost over runs, technical and anti nuclear sentiments – sometimes a combination of all these ensured the not one unit of nuclear power was produced.

In fact, of the 253 nuclear power reactors originally ordered in the United States from 1953 to 2008, 48 percent were
canceled while 11 percent were prematurely shut down! That is a startling statistic in a country which invented the technology in the first place.

One could argue the US being a rich, developed country can afford this luxury of sunk cost, so let us turn to a country similar to India – Philippines.

Bataan Nuclear Power Station (BNPP), Philippines was built and ready before it was abandoned following a change of political leadership followed by  the Chernobyl nuclear disaster besides stiff opposition to the project from the citizens. Over $2 billion had been spent on the project, nuclear fuel had been transported to the site when it was abandoned.
Today, it has been made into a tourist attraction primarily to recover the cost of  $40 million needed to maintain the idled reactor and the complex.

Some of the canceled nuclear projects in the US were attempted to be run on alternative fuel  – with mixed results. It is important to bear in mind that most of these attempts happened during the 1970’s and 80’s and this includes the Philippines reactor.

The BNPP revival plans included the option to convert it into a thermal power plant run either on coal or natural gas. Detailed studies were carried out on both  the plans but were shelved as unviable.

What made it unviable? And in such a situation, how can KNPP be honorably salvaged?

The option of converting BNPP into a coal fired plant was discarded primarily because of non availability of quality coal and environmental pollution. In case of KNPP, the adverse environmental impact of coal based plants means that it cannot be considered viable although Tamil Nadu has good coal reserves especially at Nyvellg from where coal is transported over a thousand kilometres to run thermal power plants in North India.

Thermax Gas powered power plant India

The natural gas fired power plant is therefore the default choice and was examined in detail at BNPP. The two reasons attributed for non viability  were that firstly, the upgradation cost was prohibitive and secondly, the amount of natural gas available in Philippines is very limited. In case of KNPP, the technology used is quite contemporary – unlike BNPP which was built in the late 70’s and evaluated for upgrade in the late 1990’s. KNPP retrofitting costs are not likely to be very high or require massive engineering modifications.

Coming to the next question of natural gas, it is agreed that even in India, there is a shortage of gas and hence many private gas power plants are affected.However, state owned Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL) is successfully operating gas based projects in western India. One reason Philippines abandoned the idea was because it did not have adequate transportation infrastructure to make gas available to BNPP.

However, the scenario in India is quite different. There is an extensive network of gas pipeline and which can be extended to feed the KNPP. GAIL and other companies are building additional pipeline network in South India and  these are progressing rapidly. The presence of significant amount of gas on the East coast presents a significant advantage. The Cauvery and Krishna Godavari (KG) basins are already operational and many other explorations are currently in progress. Neighbouring Kerala has significant gas reserves and which are operational.

Even if gas needs to be imported, the location of KNPP offers an advantage being on the seashore. It would not be impossible to conceive a full fledged port for importing LNG. There are other ports in the region which have world class LNG terminals – Kochi, Chennai, Ennore for example are not too far and pipelines can be
extended to the project.

Imported LNG can be brought to these ports plus, regrassification facilities at these landing ports.
The cost of imported LNG for running a gas based plant at Koodankulam would be lower than that of many other private operators situated inland. Additionally, there is abundant gas supply to the East in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan. India already imports LNG from Australia which comes in to the Kochi terminal.

It should be noted that nuclear power plants involve a very substantial subsidy from the government. Right from the building of the power plant (Cost of Work in Progress – CWIC) to the actual running of the plant involves subsidies running into thousands of crores of rupees. This money incidentally comes from the Indian tax payers and starts right from the time the project starts – in case of KNPP, Indians have already been paying for this since over twenty years and will continue to pay for at least the next 30-40 years, probably more.

A large number of gas based ultra mega power plants (UMPP) set up by the private sector are in doldrums because of the highcost of gas. The government can definitely avoid the huge nuclear subsidy and instead offer part of it for KNPP gas. The hidden cost of decommissioning a nuclear reactor is not considered by most people. This cost is 70-100% of the cost of setting up the reactors. One reason BNPP was made into a tourist attraction was the huge cost involved in taking down the plant.

From a purely financial point of view, the gas conversion of KNPP makes a lot of sense. If we look at the available inventory, it makes even more practical sense. The land and building along with support facilities are ready. The turbines can be used to run on gas instead of nuclear fuel with modifications.

The switchgear would be in place as would be the control and monitoring system. Given that NPCIL is talking of commissioning the plant soon, it can be assumed that grid connectivity is also in place. With all this infrastructure existing, it would take a mere 2 years to operationalise a gas fired project. The modifications can largely be carried out by Indian companies which have enough engineering expertise in setting up gas based UMPP’s.

At a plant load factor of 80%, the project can deliver electricity at the same cost as nuclear power and if it operates at 100% (TATA Power manages even 102% in Maharashtra) the cost of the gas based plant power can be lower than that of nuclear power without the attendant risks of meltdown, danger to thousands of lives,  radioactive contamination and possibilities of rendering huge tracts of fertile land barren and displacement of significant number of people. The marginal pollution caused by a gas power project are far more tolerable when compared to the ridiculous “acceptable” risk of a nuclear accident.

Another factor which can work in favor of KNPP  is that  there exists a sterile or exclusion zone about 3km around the plant. Since this land is already acquired, it can be used for setting up a solar farm using concentrated solar cells and generating substantial power. Apart from solar, wind farms can be considered in this zone. Tamil Nadu is known for its wind farms and  has a number of commercially operating farms.The location of the plant gives the opportunity to explore near-shore wind potential which give better output compared to inshore farms. Being grid connected means these projects can be set up in no time, probably as soon as three months!

The government has been lucky that all the advantages are stacked in its favor and canceling the nuclear part of the project is only a minor hurdle. In the case of BNPP, Philippines challenged the payments due to its American suppliers but lost the case in court and eventually paid up. Add to this the idling cost of $40 million per annum for about 30 years shows that if the government is keen and willing to listen to its citizens, no cost is too high.

NPCIL will obviously throw a fit and put many spanners in the work. That is to be expected. However, as human beings first, the NPCIL should look at this as a testimony that they have built the framework on which a new plant rests. There is no question of any job losses, only the loss of control over the project for the NPCIL brass. Even here, it is not unconceivable that NPCIL take up equity in the new venture and profit from it.

It is now up to the government to be pragmatic and not allow this to become an ego issue.  It is honorable to accept the peoples mandate (which the government talks about at every election) than to have blood on its hands in case of any eventuality.

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