Can n-power be safe?



A resounding no is the answer on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and two months after Fukushima.


Project site in Jaitapur










The Maharashtra government has plumbed yet another low by detaining and harassing 200-plus citizens from different parts of India who undertook a yatra (march) from Tarapur, the site of India’s first nuclear reactors, southwards to Jaitapur, in Ratnagiri district, where India’s newest nuclear project is being planned. The yatra began at Tarapur on April 23. It was to reach Pen the next morning, near the Mumbai-Goa Highway junction, and eventually, Jaitapur on April 25. The aim of the yatra, led by eminent citizens such as former Navy Chief Admiral L. Ramdas and former Supreme Court and Bombay High Court Judges P.B. Sawant and B.G. Kolse-Patil, was to express solidarity with the people who have fought the Jaitapur project for five years.

The police decided to break up the yatra and detain the yatris near Tarapur for eight hours without stating the reason. They bullied the drivers of the two hired buses carrying the yatris into abandoning the trip. The yatris arrived at Pen at 6 a.m., bedraggled and starved. Some were arrested and all of them detained for the whole day – under ludicrous sections of the colonial Bombay Police Act. Eventually, the yatra was stopped at Mahad in Raigad district, way short of Jaitapur.

The government’s apologists have defended the shameful episode by arguing that the state was right to guard the “fragile peace” in Jaitapur after the unprovoked firing on April 18 in which one person, Tabrez Sayekar, was killed and at least 15 persons were injured. But the yatra had forsworn violence and its leaders could be expected to exercise restraint. However, the government allowed Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray to stir up things when he visited Sayekar’s family on April 25.

The Maharashtra government has brought ignominy upon itself by abusing power and resorting to intimidation. It has dealt with the entire Jaitapur agitation over five years by harassing peaceful protesters with arbitrary arrests and detention and externment orders, confiscating their land, and threatening them. The area’s sub-divisional officer (SDO) Ajit Pawar has gained notoriety for threatening to break their necks and legs. Even worse, former Chief Minister and currently Industries Minister Narayan Rane, known to prefer strong-arm tactics, accused the agitators of being brainwashed by “outsiders”. The Jaitapur project, planned to be the world’s largest nuclear power station, can only go through with the use of the lathi, the bulldozer and, eventually, the gun. This would mock the very idea of development – officially regarded as something to be imposed upon unwilling populations, not as a process of deepening people’s rights and expanding their freedoms – and democracy itself. The official approach must be condemned by citizens, political parties and public-spirited experts.

So far, the Left parties alone have issued such condemnations while opposing the Jaitapur project and warning against importing untested and potentially hazardous reactors. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat now explicitly opposes not just Jaitapur but also the Haripur nuclear plant proposed for West Bengal. The Right, too, has got into the opposition act. The Shiv Sena, which had zealously supported the United States-India nuclear deal, now opposes its most tangible and visible outcome: Jaitapur. The Shiv Sena has no critique of nuclear power on grounds of safety, environmental sustainability or appropriateness, but opposes the project as a way of winning local support. But the autonomous grass-roots movement remains firmly outside its control.

In the early 1990s, the Shiv Sena had threatened to dump the Enron power project into the Arabian Sea. As soon as it came to power in Maharashtra, it was lobbied by Enron’s Rebecca Mark into tripling the project’s size! Much has been made of the Shiv Sena’s desperation to shore up its base in Ratnagiri. But the Congress, too, is desperate to recover the considerable ground it has lost there. Narayan Rane sees himself as the Konkan region’s unquestioned leader and a potential challenger to any Chief Minister. He foolishly thought the nuclear project would make the Congress popular.

As the government weighs the options of imposing the project or putting it on hold, the public must reflect on the record of nuclear power generation in the quarter-century since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Chernobyl, coming seven years after another core meltdown, at Three Mile Island in the United States, is the world’s worst-ever industrial accident, whose effects have unfolded gradually through radiation-induced cancers and leukaemias. Estimates of additional cancers, based on the conservative methods adopted by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, vary from 34,000 to 140,000, leading to 16,000 to 73,000 fatalities.

This puts Chernobyl in a unique class. The global nuclear industry never fully recovered from its political, psychological and economic effects. In the U.S., which has the world’s highest number of reactors (104, followed by France’s 58 and Japan’s 55), the industry was already down in the dumps, having received no new reactor orders since 1973. Wall Street never embraced nuclear power despite low liability under the Price-Anderson Act. Nuclear power failed the market test. In Western Europe, not a single reactor has been built since Chernobyl.

Even before Fukushima, the global nuclear industry was in a structural crisis – some experts say, on “life support”. U.S. President George W. Bush tried to instigate a “nuclear renaissance” through subsidies. A decade later, this has turned sour. In fact, nuclear reactor start-ups have been in steady decline since the 1980s. Only China bucked the trend. But China, which has frozen all new projects since Fukushima, already has 4.5 times more installed wind power than nuclear capacity. In 2011, China will probably generate more electricity from wind than from nuclear reactors.

World nuclear-generating capacity has stagnated for 20 years. The number of operating reactors this past April 1 was 437 – compared with 444 in April 2002. Nuclear power output has declined annually by 2 per cent over the past four years and now accounts for only about 13 per cent of the world’s electricity generation and 5.5 per cent of commercial primary energy.

These facts have been detailed in the just-released World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011: Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World. In a report preview, at an event in Berlin hosted by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which I attended, Mycle Schneider, its lead author and an independent energy expert, observed: “When the history of the nuclear industry is written, Fukushima is likely to introduce its final chapter.”

Renewable energy is growing rapidly worldwide. Says the report: “Annual renewables capacity additions have been outpacing nuclear start-ups for 15 years. In the U.S., the share of renewables in new capacity additions skyrocketed from 2 per cent in 2004 to 55 per cent in 2009, with no new nuclear coming on line.” In 2010, for the first time, “worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts), small hydropower (80 GW), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 GW prior to the Fukushima disaster”. Total investment in renewable energy is estimated at $243 billion in 2010.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently lists 64 reactors as ‘under construction’ in 14 countries. By comparison, at the peak of the industry’s growth phase in 1979, there were 233 reactors being built concurrently. In 2008, for the first time since the beginning of the Nuclear Age, no new unit was started up, while two were added in 2009, five in 2010, and two in the first three months of 2011. During the same time period, 11 reactors were shut down.”

In the European Union, 143 reactors were officially operational on April 1, down from the 1989 peak of 177. Western Europe’s first reactor under construction since Chernobyl, at Olkiluoto in Finland, is in deep crisis – four years behind schedule, 90 per cent over budget, and caught in bitter litigation and disputes. The reactor is none other than the French government-owned Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) – the design to be installed in Jaitapur.

Meanwhile, Fukushima has dealt a huge blow to the global nuclear industry. As the Swiss investment bank UBS puts it: “At [Fukushima], four reactors have been out of control for weeks – casting doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety.… We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power.”

Fukushima will almost certainly exacerbate the global nuclear industry’s crisis and accelerate its decline. To imagine that nuclear power is the energy source of the future is to indulge in daydreaming. But India’s nuclear czars are doing just that while denying the gravity of the Fukushima crisis. Their rosy assumptions about Jaitapur ignore a cardinal fact: namely, the EPR has become the world’s most controversial reactor. Its capital costs have surged to $5,000 a kilowatt – compared with just over $1,000/kW for coal-based power and under $1,500 for wind in India.


AT A PROTEST by residents of Jaitapur and Madban, in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, against the nuclear power project, on April 9.










Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) officials claim, parrot-like, that the EPR design is safe. But the design has not received approval anywhere, including France. Nuclear regulators in Finland, France, Britain and the U.S. have raised 3,000 queries about it. A French government-appointed expert recommends further design modifications and optimisation. The design is yet to be frozen.

So the DAE’s claim is absurd and irrational. But then, the DAE has never been known for rationality and responsible conduct. Its top officials became the laughing stock of the world scientific community by declaring that the March 12 and 14 hydrogen explosions at Fukushima, at the root of which lay serious fuel damage, were “a purely chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency” (Secretary Srikumar Banerjee). Nuclear Power Corporation Chairman S.K. Jain even described the crisis not as a “nuclear accident or incident” but “a well-planned emergency preparedness programme… to contain the residual heat after… an automatic shutdown”.

Fukushima raises troubling questions about nuclear safety, in particular the important question as to whether nuclear reactors can ever be operated safely. Engineers who have designed, operated and licensed reactors tell us that all existing reactor types are vulnerable to a loss-of-coolant-accident (LOCA), leading to a partial or complete core meltdown and a catastrophic release of radioactivity. A LOCA may be precipitated by any number of causes, including operator error, equipment failure or malfunction, loss of power, or natural disasters. Its consequences are hard to predict and control.

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were not caused by natural disasters. Nor, accurately speaking, was Fukushima. What triggered Fukushima’s three LOCAs was a station blackout caused by the reactor shutdown after the earthquake, followed by a tsunami which knocked out the backup power and cooling system. But a station blackout is not rare and may be triggered by a variety of factors.

Most industry claims about the low likelihood of nuclear accidents are based on probabilistic risk analysis (PRA), a flawed method, as the physicist M.V. Ramana argues in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (April 19). In 1975, a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission study predicted that a meltdown would only occur once in 20,000 reactor-years (number of reactors multiplied by years of operation).

Globally, there have been close to 15,000 reactor-years of operation. But meltdowns have already occurred in five reactors. As Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defence Council said, depending on how core damage is defined, other accidents should also be included. Says Ramana, “The actuarial frequency of severe accidents may be as high as 1 in 1,400 reactor-years.” For the world’s 437 reactors, an accident may occur every 3.2 years.

This is unacceptable. The world simply cannot afford two Chernobyls every seven years. The generic problems of nuclear safety cannot be resolved by installing multiple safety systems with redundancy. They can fail simultaneously – and far more frequently than assumed. At Fukushima, says Ramana, “the same event that knocked out external power also caused the failure of other systems” for core cooling, including loss of oil tanks and replacement fuel for diesel generators, and flooding of the electrical switchyard. The truth is, nuclear power generation is inherently, irredeemably, hazardous. Nuclear reactors are complex internally tightly coupled systems. A minor mishap in one subsystem gets quickly transmitted to others and magnified, putting the entire reactor in crisis.

Accidents are inevitable in nuclear reactors. Their probability may be low, albeit usually – and disastrously – understated by PRA. But their consequences are enormous. Their human, environmental and economic damage is unconscionably high and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to remedy. This is much, much higher than the Nuclear Liability Bill limit of a paltry few hundred millions. The central lesson from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima is this: If you do not want nuclear disasters, do not generate nuclear power. In India, what the country needs is an independent safety review of all its nuclear installations conducted by a team which includes non-DAE experts and civil society representatives. Pending it, there must be a moratorium on further nuclear activities and revocation of recent clearances to nuclear projects.

This means that projects such as Jaitapur, cleared for political, strategic, economic and diplomatic reasons, in violation of sound environmental considerations, must be put on hold. There are compelling reasons for revoking the clearance granted to Jaitapur just six days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s last visit to India. Overwhelming, informed public opposition is not the least of them.

The alternative is to push through the Jaitapur project by crushing peaceful opposition and by riding roughshod over all considerations of political decency, democracy and the fundamental right of people to reject a project they consider wantonly destructive and unsafe.





Courtesy – FRONTLINE –






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