Q&A: nuclear power in India

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Page - March 28, 2011
“While we pursue the three stage development path, we have to remain aware of the rapidly increasing electricity generation needs. For nuclear power to play its due role, its rate of deployment has to be much faster. Only then can we expect to enhance the share of nuclear power.” Anil Kakodkor, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.

This is crux of the problem with India’s civilian nuclear sector. Irrespective of the three stage indigenous programme (see below), India needs a lot of energy sources for its power requirements. That’s where foreign reactors fit in. The government is also selling nuclear as a “clean and benign” energy   which is an answer to both India’s energy security and climate change.

What is the history of nuclear power in India?

India’s nuclear program was set up in 1948, with the introduction of an Atomic Energy Bill in the Constituent Assembly by India’s first prime minister. “If we are to remain abreast of the world…we must develop this atomic energy,” opined Jawaharlal Nehru.

The act gives “exclusive responsibility/rights” over atomic energy to the State, cutting off any possible opposition from Indian people. However it was only in 1969, with the help of US that India was able to start its first reactor in Tarapur.

As a non-signee to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India was excluded from international trading on nuclear commodities for many years.  Its nuclear power plants were therefore built up largely without external help or consultation, and outside of the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  The indigenous three-stage programme (details below) is a particular source of national pride.

In 2008, the international trading ban was lifted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, opening the door for foreign countries that wished to trade nuclear equipment and fuel with India, fenced for civilian (non-weaponry) purposes.  Deals with the US, France and Russia swiftly followed, as well as with Canada, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Namibia, South Korea and the UK.  Foreign nuclear corporations could now build reactors in India. 

Why is nuclear power directly under Prime Minister’s Office?

In 1954, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was set up under direct charge of Prime Minister so that it is not answerable to cabinet or to parliament. This special status still exists and is uncalled for if a country has civilian nukes ambition.  See question below on the need for public debates on nuclear issues.

How many nuclear reactors does India have and how many are under construction?

India has twenty operational nuclear reactors in six states and seven under construction. The operational reactors produce 4780 MW and the ones under construction are 4354 MW (except fast breeder reactors).

What is India’s three stage nuclear programme?

• Stage-I envisages construction of natural uranium, heavy water moderated and cooled pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). Spent fuel from these reactors is reprocessed to obtain plutonium.

• Stage-II : evisages construction of fast breeder reactors (FBRs) fuelled by plutonium produced in Stage-I. These reactors would also breed U-233 from thorium.

• Stage-III would comprise power reactors using U-233 / thorium as fuel.

Isn’t nuclear power a solution to climate change?

The reality is that nuclear power could, on the industry’s best estimates, make only a negligible contribution to CO2 reduction even in case of unprecedented massive growth. The expert committee on an integrated energy policy set up by the planning commission takes a dim view of nuclear power prospects. “Even if a 20-fold increase takes place in India’s nuclear capacity by 2031-32, the contribution of nuclear to the energy mix is at best expected to be 5-6 per cent.” That’s as optimistic as the draft report is willing to go. This tiny contribution would also come too late, given the fact that even in countries with established nuclear programs planning, licensing and connecting to the grid typically takes more than a decade. In contrast, construction time for a large wind turbine has fallen to two weeks, with an associated planning period of between one and two years.

Unfortunately, faced by what the nuclear industry is cleverly selling as a choice between ‘known’ technology (nuclear) and ‘unknown’ technology (a combined approach of renewable energy with energy efficiency), policy makers and investors alike are in grave danger of choosing the former. We invite them to look at the Energy Revolution, an energy roadmap for the future developed by Greenpeace. The in-depth document clearly describes the possibility of providing fast, reliable energy access to India’s population using a combination of renewable energy technology and energy efficiency.

Nuclear power is a dangerous, expensive and time-consuming distraction from the real solution to climate change.

Which utility deals with nuclear power in India?

NPCIL is the only utility that deals with civilian nuclear power in India.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited is a Public Sector Enterprise under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India. The company was registered as a Public Limited Company under the Companies Act of1956 in September 1987, with the objective of operating atomic power stations and implementing atomic power projects for generation of electricity, in pursuance of the schemes and programmes of the Government of India under the Atomic Energy Act.

What about relative cost of nuclear power in India?

•  Homi Bhabha (1958): “[in 10 to 15 years] the costs of [nuclear] power [would] compare with the cost of power from  very favourably conventional sources in many areas”

• M. R. Srinivasan (ex-AEC Chairman)(1985): “[nuclear power] compares quite favourably with coal fired stations, but only if the coal station is located 800 km away from the pithead and in the 1990s would be even cheaper than coal fired stations at pithead”

• Nuclear Power Corporation Study (1999) “Cost of nuclear electricity generation in India  remains competitive with thermal [electricity] for plants located about 1,200 km away from coal pit head, when full credit is given to long term operating cost especially in respect of fuel prices”

Aren’t Indian authorities very strict about adhering to cost estimates and time lines?

Nuclear reactors being built today are more expensive than those built previously. Many countries have seen nuclear construction programmes go considerably over budget. In India, completion costs of the last ten reactors have averaged at least three hundred per cent over budget. 

Does India have long term waste disposal policy?

India does not have a long term waste disposal policy.  When questioned about radioactive waste, Kakodkar (ex-AEC) said that no waste is released from nuclear power plants.  “There is no question of radioactive radiation at the site. Long-lived radioactivity comes only in a reprocessing plant not a power plant. The remaining waste is immobilised and then encapsulated for 30-40 years and we have the technology to do the same. In India we do not bury the waste.”

Is there a need for public debates on issues that affect public health?

In other countries, public hearings are held before finalising the most appropriate site among the different alternatives, for which environmental impact statements are prepared and circulated among people well in advance. Unfortunately the Atomic Energy Commission in India plays an apparently self-contradictory dual role, not only as the promoter of atomic energy, but also as its regulator. There by, it yields to expediency. In a participatory democracy, the people for whose benefit the energy is intended, must have a say in determining which alternate source of energy or which alternate location for a reactor, would be in the best interests of the nation.

What about a citizen’s right to information?

The public has no access to the details of even the routine releases from nuclear power plants. Similarly regarding accidents, while the ministers claim India’s record of safety is ‘very high,’ no detailed information is available to the public so that it can form its own opinion. There is no competent independent agency in the country which can look into the safety records of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and under the secrecy provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, the Government refuses to give the public access to critical information.

How effective are our safety measures?

There have been numerous cases of fires and minor leakages in the reactors during the past years. In Bhaba Atomic Research Centre in Maharashtra, for example, a fountain was discovered in the back garden, due to a leak in the pipe that brought in seawater for cooling the plant. The water was found to be radioactive. It was later found that this three inch thick steel pipe had corroded over the years because of a leak in a different pipe, which had gone unchecked for at least twelve years. The other pipe carried radioactive waste. As result of this unrepaired leak, the soil, trees and land became contaminated with radioactive material.

In the Narora power plant, a large fire broke out in 1994. The apparent cause of the fire was that the blades in the turbines (provided by General Electric to Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited) were faulty. General Electric had reported this fact to BHEL, but the latter did not make the changes suggested by GE, as it would have meant extensive machining of parts. This chalta hai attitude is one of the most serious safety risk factors in India. After the Narora fire, other reactor turbines were checked, and the same fault was also found at Kalpakkam nuclear power plant.

Are we prepared for an emergency?

Most nuclear power plants are situated near the border between two states. In case of an emergency, there are no relevant preparation plans for the neighbouring state. In case of the need for evacuation, the plans cover a total distance of only 16 km. It is important to remember that the effects of radiation do not confine themselves to this distance. At Chernobyl the authorities had to evacuate people in a radius of 30 km from the reactor, and even then there were many ‘hot spots’ hundreds of kilometres distant. In the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, an evacuation zone of 20 km was proposed, and those between 20 and 30 km from the plant told to stay indoors. 

An effective emergency plan should educate the public on what needs to be done in the case of an emergency.  In India, people seeking information are merely shunted between the plant authorities and the District Collector’s office.

India has earthquake zones. How does this fit with the nuclear power programme?

Nuclear facilities should not be constructed close to known seismic faults.  The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred at a nuclear power plant that was designed as both earthquake and tsunami proof, but it was not enough to prevent the escape of radioactive material into the environment, and near nuclear melt-down.

The containment dome of the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Karnataka collapsed while under construction in 1994, casting heavy doubt on the reliability of India’s nuclear power constructions.

The government is now collaborating with French company AREVA to build the world’s largest nuclear park in Jaitapur, Maharashtra.  Under the national seismic classifications, Jaitapur is rated as a zone four of a possible five.  This correlates to a ‘High Damage Risk Zone’.  See our page on Jaitapur power station for more information.

What about nuclear waste?

The radioactive waste from uranium mines near Jadugoda, like at Musabani, is directly dumped into the Suvarnarekha River. Similarly in Rawatbhata, Dr. Gadekar  came across a large number of coffee coloured beads near a stream close to a village. On inquiry, he found that these were organic resins used to absorb radioactive elements. This waste, which should remain confined to the premises of the power plant, is dumped near rainwater streams in April, so that the monsoon would provide a solution to the problem of radioactive waste disposal.

Does Greenpeace think we should just turn off all of the nuclear stations right now?

We would love to but that would not be practical. The Greenpeace Energy Revolution scenario describes a nuclear phase-out, where existing reactors would be closed at the end of their operational lifetime of 35 years.