Monday, April 11, 2011

Nuclear power plans must face Fukushima fallout

On the evening of March 26       lights in Rashtrapati Bhavan and some houses in South Delhi were dimmed between 8.30 and 9.30 pm.  They were observing Earth Hour, an event organised by the World Wildlife Fund which sees millions of households and noted landmarks like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Sydney Opera House and India Gate in New Delhi turning off their lights for an hour. Living as many do, in a privileged enclave of the national capital, they were perhaps unaware of the irony of their action.
Large parts of India, indeed many of its urban centres as well, observe endless “earth hours” every day. Their gesture would probably have been better appreciated if they had taken a pledge to turn off their lights for an hour or two every day, so that they could share the misery of the hundreds of millions in this country who do not know what 24x7 electricity supply means.

Our worries could well increase a great deal more now in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Nuclear power constitutes just about 3 per cent of all the electricity produced in the country today. But it has an important place in the plans for the coming decades. India’s hopes of meeting the huge demand of electricity from 2030 and beyond, with the least possible carbon emissions, rest on its civil nuclear programme.
That India is short of electricity today is hardly a secret, though many living in privileged city areas are often unaware of the extent to which their fellow citizens are deprived. In 2005, India’s electricity consumption per capita was a mere 480.5 kWh as compared to 1780 of China and 2013 of Brazil and 13,635 of the US.
India’s future growth depends on its ability to overcome this problem. Admittedly, we are not doing too well. The latest central electricity authority figures show that in the year 2010-11, we set a target of around 21,441MW, but achieved a little less than half that figure. Not surprisingly, of the three sectors—hydro, thermal and nuclear— the last named was the most disappointing, achieving only 18 per cent of the target set.
The government has undertaken several  reforms to promote higher electricity generation and better distribution. Plans are afoot to give a boost to the moribund coal mining sector and even grander policy measures are in place to enable nuclear energy to be produced. But the recent Fukushima accident has put a crimp on some of the more ambitious aspects of these plans.
A 2006 Planning Commission Report of the Expert Committee on Integrated Energy Policy chaired by Kirit Parikh said that to maintain an 8 per cent rate of growth— as well as a regime of the least possible carbon emissions and a maximisation of all the renewable sources of energy— we would still require a mix where coal and oil are the mainstays in 2031-32. But the other sources like nuclear and hydro would be vital to prevent shortfalls and the requirements of meeting our commitments to the low carbon emission regime.
It is possible to forgo the nuclear component in this mix, but the balance would have to be made up with more oil, natural gas or coal. The Parikh committee’s “coal-dependent” scenario projects the requirement increasing from 406 million tonnes in 2004-5 to 2,555 million tonnes in 2031-2. India has abundant coal, but it is of poor quality and as it is, more than 50 per cent of the traffic on the Indian Railways today is in ferrying coal. Of this one third is nothing but dirt, since Indian coal is not of good quality and most of it is not washed in the collieries. Carrying five times more coal would probably mean handing over our entire railway system for the exclusive carriage of coal.
Actually what it would more likely mean is that we sharply increase our import of coal, thus making us dependent on imports for yet another element of our energy matrix. Then, of course, is the issue of enhancing port capacity as well as transportation links. And, this is for an 8 per cent growth scenario. If we want double digit growth, you would have to rework the math.
It would be difficult, therefore, for India to say goodbye to nuclear power. Beggars, they say, cannot quite be choosers. Even so, given our relatively small nuclear power programme and great ambitions, this is the best time to confront the issues that have been raised by the Fukushima disaster.
Sadly, the debate on the dangers of nuclear energy has been limited. One protagonist, a former member of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has taken the occasion to ride his hobby horse—the criticism of the proposal to import light water reactors. Instead of using his supposed expertise—the safety of Indian nuclear plants—to tell us whether or not the Indian nuclear power reactor operation is safe— and will be so even when the fast breeder reactor comes into stream—he has been inveighing against foreign nuclear technology and giving a clean chit to the existing reactors being run by the Department of Atomic Energy.
He is missing the wood for the trees. Each reactor type imported will have to meet the type certification which will be done by the AERB. So, he should tell us whether or not  the AERB is up to the job, and if not, how the government could strengthen the regulatory system so that it can be so.
The Prime Minister has ordered a review of the systems, but the Department of Atomic Energy has, unfortunately, a poor record on the subject. It has used its “holy cow” status to deny information on nuclear “events” that ought to have been available for the asking. Post-Fukushima, there is need for the government to come up with a far more credible regulatory regime than the one that exists.
There is need here for systems and structures which are transparent and rigorous.  There should be nothing secret about the working of a power reactor. Everything about its operation, the status of spent fuel, the levels of radiation in key areas around the plant etc. should be in the public domain, preferably on a real time basis.
In addition to the review of the regulatory mechanism, there is need to revisit the “holy” three-stage nuclear programme of the DAE as well. The country has been told how much the DAE has achieved and how great its fast-breeder technology is, but no one has told us about its potential hazards, which are possibly greater than those of the existing power reactors, to go by the experience of Japan and France. Danger by itself need not deter us, provided we have a clear idea as to what they are, and what the nuclear establishment plans to do about them.
This is a good time, too, to look at the alternatives to fast breeder reactors. As the Parikh report has suggested, the import of light water reactors was seen as a hedge against the failure or delays in the fast breeder and thorium reactor programmes. There is, for example, the pebble bed reactor, a programme which the Germans and South Africans developed, and which the Chinese have adopted in a big way, which can utilise our abundant thorium resources without the dangers associated with fast-breeder reactors.
Fukushima has made it clear that we do need to have far better reassurance on the safety of Indian power plants—firstly of those functioning right now, as well as those that will come in the future.  This is not something we should take at one or the other person’s words. What is needed is a strong institutional response, not the high decibel opinion of one individual. 
Mail Today April 7, 2011

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