Gamblers with other people’s lives: A Rejoinder to Dr. M R Srinivasan

Dr.  Surendra Gadekar’s  point-by-point refutation of “Koodankulam is safe bet” by Dr M R Srinivasan, Former Chairman and current member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Dr. Gadekar’s responses are given below in bold type-font with specific paragraphs of Dr. Srinivasan’s article:

The desk editor who chose this headline for Dr Srinivasan’s article needs to be congratulated for a very appropriate title. For a bet, however safe, is still a bet. There might be good chances for the desired outcome, but the chances of the undesired outcome are not zero. This is very similar to nuclear power plants themselves.

Dr. Surendra Gadekar

A well-known Indian anti-nuclear activist and physicist, Gadekar lives in the remote tribal village of Vedchhi near the Kakrapar atomic power plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There, with his wife, a physician, he runs a Gandhian school for young activists and monitors the Indian nuclear industry, conducting surveys of power plants, uranium mines, and nuclear-testing facilities to determine the effect on the public’s health.

In 1987, he founded Anumukti, a journal devoted to establishing a non-nuclear India.


Recently a number of people observed a fast near the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Station. This power station consists of two reactor units, each with a generating capacity of 1,000 megawatts. The first unit is ready for fuel loading and can start up in the next three months or so. However the agitation has interrupted the start up activities. After the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, three reactors suffered serious damage and radioactivity spread to the neighbourhood. Japanese authorities evacuated people living in a 20 kilometre radius from the reactors.

The Fukushima accident has alerted all organisations concerned with nuclear energy development. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promptly ordered a review of the safety status of all nuclear power units, both in operation and construction. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), set up a number of task forces to review the safety features of the reactors, risks posed by earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding due to any reason, disconnection of the nuclear unit from the electrical grid system, and such other unusual situations. These reviews have shown that the kind of situation that developed in Japan is not likely to occur in our installations due to adoption of conservative design features and above all absence of the severe intensity earthquake that shook Japan.

The interim report of the review committees is available on the NPCIL website and everyone can go there and see for themselves what a shoddy and self congratulatory piece of work it is, otherwise wait for a few days and read my review of their efforts. All these task forces have not tried to use the Fukushima catastrophe as a learning experience but as an exercise in allaying public fears.

However since the underlying assumption in all such attempts is a great contempt for the public as a hysterical set of fearful fools, not much is achieved since the public discounts these PR exercises as so much claptrap.

As a result of the reviews carried out by NPCIL and AERB, certain additional design features are being implemented in our installations. One of them is providing adequate capacity portable air-cooled diesel generator sets to supply power to essential services, without fail. Another is ensuring that adequate amount of fresh water is available for ensuring cooling of the nuclear fuel.

Actually, the NPCIL (who cares what the toothless AERB thinks? Certainly not NPCIL or Dr Srinivasan himself) have a far more extensive wish-list, but all such lists makes one realize that nuclear power plants have been and are presently being run without these “essential” safety features. So now we do know for certain that “adequate amount of fresh water and air cooled diesel power was not available for ensuring cooling of nuclear fuel at Indian nuclear power stations at least till March 11, 2011. Some other new accident and the NPCIL will want a few more new gadgets. While all such ‘latest’ safety devices, may or may not actually make the plant safer, they do make it costlier and even more uneconomic.

The Koodankulam nuclear power units belong to the third generation of design evolution, of cooling nuclear fuel, when the reactor is shut down, there are four independent systems each with its own diesel generator (of 8 MW), its own pumps and heat exchangers. Normally one such system is adequate. Providing four systems ensures that even if there is a malfunction in one or two systems, the other is available. The level of the diesel generator, its switch gear and controls are several metres higher than the highest tsunami or flood level expected at Koodankulam.

By this method of reckoning, the Tarapur units belong to the zeroeth generation of design evolution, since they are older than the ones at Fukushima, and since by implication Dr Srinivasan seems to suggest that higher the generation, the safer it is, he should at the same time have suggested the richly deserved retirement of these old reactors after long years of service.

Nucleocrats love to point out the large number of “independent” redundant safety systems they employ to ensure safety. However, all reactors have these redundant safety systems that unfortunately turn out to be not so independent at crucial times. Did Fukushima reactors not have them? Yet all three out of three working reactors failed, besides the spent fuel part of reactor 4 which was not even operating when the earthquake struck. Similarly, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactors had no dearth of redundant safety systems that all comprehensively failed when needed.

What all nucleocrats badly need is a compulsory reading of Charles Perrot’s wonderful book, “Normal Accidents”, where he shows that greater redundancy does not necessarily lead to greater safety and can sometimes be the cause of lesser overall safety.

The higher one physically sets the safety system, the greater the chances that it would be affected by the earthquake and the lower one keeps it the greater the chances that the tsunami will get it. Since following Fukushima, attention is concentrated on tsunami as the main cause, higher physical elevation is in the vogue. Old generals too have this habit of fighting the last war. Unfortunately, nuclear technology is an unforgiving technology and a wrong guess is likely to prove fatal to local occupants. Armchair analysts are safe either way.

A special feature of the Koodankulam design is the provision of a Passive Cooling System for the nuclear reactor core. The water cooling the reactor transfers its heat to the water in the steam generators. Normally, steam is produced in the steam generators which then drives the turbine generator and produces electricity. After doing work in the turbine, steam condenses into water in the condenser and is pumped back to the steam generator. In an abnormal situation when no power is available to drive these pumps, the hot water in the steam generator flows up to an air-cooled heat exchanger located at a high level on the outside of the reactor building. Due to the height difference the hot water rises up and cold water flows down to the steam generator. This is called the thermo siphon effect and does not need a pump. This feature was incorporated in the Koodankulam design at the specific instance of India. Koodankulam reactors are the first such reactors to have this passive cooling feature.

The word ‘thermo-siphon’ came into nucleocrat’s dictionary following the fire at Narora in 1993. An alert and characteristically unrecognized shift supervisor used the first fire brigades that came to put out that fire, to instead cool the reactors. The station did not have any electrical power for 17 hours although it too had, as usual, many redundant safety systems, they all had their electrical wiring in one place and that got burnt first leaving all these various diesel operated safety systems like spectators at a cricket match mourning from the boundary. However, since then, Indian nucleocrats have been crowing about the thermo-siphon effect. This may indeed be a good feature, but I wonder why one does not hear about the Russians incorporating this wonderful feature in their other reactors at home and abroad.

A further feature in the Koodankulam design is called a ‘core catcher’. In the event of an accident and the molten nuclear fuel were to breach the reactor pressure vessel, it falls on to a matrix containing a large amount of neutron absorbing substances (such as boron). On mixing with this material, the nuclear fuel is rendered incapable of starting a nuclear chain reaction. Only the latest design provide for this safety back up system.

Just to remind ourselves: according to nuclear authorities themselves, the Fukushima reactors had shut down automatically following the earthquake long before the tsunami arrived to cause such havoc. Even after this safe shutdown, the reactors exploded and continue to spew radioactive poisons even seven months after the event. The core catcher feature that Dr Srinivasan extols is a feature to ‘hopefully’ prevent a “China Syndrome” or dare I call it the “America syndrome” of our own. To put it crudely, this feature will perhaps save, other parts of Tamilnadu and Kerala and Sri Lanka when we have already kissed goodbye to Kanyakumari, Tirunelvelli, and Tiruchendur districts.

In May, A E Mutthunayagan, former secretary, Department of Ocean Development and I visited the Koodankulam site and reviewed the safety of the installation from the point of view of tsunamis and flood hazards. We went over the levels adopted for various plant equipment and were satisfied that they were well above the level of any possible tsunami or flood anticipated. We also noted that Koodankulam is well connected to the southern grid which is fed by a number of thermal and hydroelectric power stations in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We were impressed with many of the other safety features of the design.

Why don’t these venerable, old, retired, top-shots enjoy a spot of retirement and listen to classical music or play with their grandchildren or something. Why do they need to scurry about in the Sun inspecting grid connections. They are too exhausted to see the obvious. I say this especially because Koodankulam is in the midst of a vast wind energy farm that only a person blinded with nucleophilia can miss. On top of this they write about their observations as if the Japanese grid was not well connected to a number of thermal and hydroelectric power stations and much good did it do them.

India has 20 nuclear reactors in operation and has trained a large number of competent personnel for operations and maintenance. While many of our units are 220 MW in size, units 3 and 4 at Tarapur are 540 MW in size. The two Tarapur units have been operating well in the last 2 years. Koodankulam units are of 1000 MW capacity and hence scale up from Tarapur units is not expected to present any difficulties.

Everyone knows that Koodankulam reactors are a totally different design than the usual CANDU type reactors that make up most of India’s nuclear capacity and trained manpower. India has very little trained manpower for maintenance of Koodankulam type reactors. Even Russia doesn’t have, since these are according to Dr Srinivasan 3rd Generation latest technology type. To imply that operating them will not present any new difficulties, is just plain wrong. Of course, nucleocrats have a whole lexicon of words when difficulties arise, the most common being “teething troubles.”

Some weeks prior to the September agitation, a rumour had spread in the neighbouring villages that the Department of Atomic Energy was likely to evacuate people living there and acquire their lands. The DAE has no plans to acquire any land beyond what it already possesses and has adequate land for even additional units that may come up.

This is one statement that is definitely correct. All projects in India (supposedly for the public good), grab so much land right in the beginning itself that they actually have no need to grab any more for future expansion. If the proposed bill amending the land acquisition act, were to incorporate a clause that any land not used say after twenty years, would necessarily have to be returned to the rightful previous owners with a rent that would have to be paid personally by the officers responsible for devising the project, I am sure that land requirement for a number of such development projects would suddenly plummet.

Many of the people living around Koodankulam are engaged in fishing activities. There are fears that the reactor might affect their means of livelihood but fishing activities at Kalpakkam and Tarapur are going on normally without any hindrance. In fact quality of life and standard of living has improved in these areas.

People like Dr Srinivasan, realize that they achieve a certain level of trust and credibility merely due to the high positions they hold and promptly act to abuse that trust. I don’t know about Kalpakkam myself (but I would invite people in the know to comment) but regarding Tarapur, the number of fishing boats belonging to the villages in the vicinity has drastically fallen, since the commencement of nuclear operations. While most villages had boats in double digits before 1969, nowadays most have either no boats at all or very few at best. To say that, “fishing activities at Tarapur are going on normally without any hindrance” is a lie, to say the least. Similarly, it would have been better for the statement regarding the quality of life and the standard of living to have been made by a local resident who could have narrated something from personal experience rather than by a biased nucleocrat.

Some who oppose nuclear energy on principle say ‘let us use solar and wind energy’. At present solar energy costs about Rs 20/kWh, wind energy may cost Rs 10/kWh and is available only for about 20 or 25 per cent of the time when wind blows. Our nuclear power stations are selling energy at Rs 1/ kWh at Tarapur, Rs 3/kWh at Kaiga and the newer units. Power from Koodankulam will be well below Rs 3/kWh. We all know how Tamil Nadu and the other southern states are struggling with power shortages. The two units of Koodankulam will supply about 1000 MW to Tamil Nadu, without the hassle of getting coal from Orissa or overseas. It is therefore in the interest of the people of Tamil Nadu to let the Koodankulam units to be put into operation at the earliest. The safety record of the NPCIL and the Department of Atomic Energy is very good and they can be trusted not to sacrifice the safety of the people living in and around Koodankulam.

It is in this last paragraph that we see Dr Srinivasan at his most fraudulent best. He completely omits to mention the huge subsidies paid to the nuclear power plants in the form of heavy water subsidy, the fuel fabrication subsidy, the insurance and liability subsidy, the security subsidy, the research subsidy, the waste management subsidy, and many other hidden and unknown subsidies. Nuclear power has proven itself as the costliest form of boiling water wherever governments have been foolish enough to try it. That is why despite billions in subsidies, no country where private capital has to put up even some portion of the money out from its own pocket, has anyone been willing to build a new nuclear plant.

While getting coal from Orissa is a hassle, getting enriched uranium (India has no capacity for enrichment) from Russia, is a soothing balm or the warm haze of vodka and caviar.

The people of the southern districts of Tamilnadu and Kerala are well aware that they themselves are the only guardians of their health and security. That is why they refuse to get sacrificed for their leaders’ development and are willing to fast day after day and come out in their thousands, hoping for some sense to dawn. It is a difficult struggle and the Department of Atomic Energy and its ex-chairmen are of no help.




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