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Nuclear Tragedy in Japan and its implication on Indian Nuclear Power Policy, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Power

Nuclear Tragedy in Japan and its implication on Indian Nuclear Power Policy

[R V Shahi's Weekly Column for Infraline, April 13, 2011]

In last couple of weeks, not only the tragedy at Fukushima (Japan) have been widely reported in press and media on a global basis, but also in India our nuclear industry and nuclear plants have come in sharp focus. The Government initiatives to expand nuclear power capacity are being viewed with serious concerns. Clearly among the intellectuals two schools of thought have emerged - one trying to still aggressively pursue the case for massive expansion of nuclear power capacity, defending that Indian Nuclear Power Sector has demonstrated, over the years, very skilful, matured and safe operations of Nuclear Reactors, and, therefore, the global concerns as well as the concerns among various sections of society in India are over exaggerated. This group of Experts would like the Nuclear Power development Programmes to move unhindered. This is not only the approach of a number of Indian nuclear scientists but outside India as well. As reported in the Economist (19th March, 2011) "Nuclear experts say the potential danger to human health from the stricken reactors has so far been blown out of proportion-especially when set against the wider-spread suffering of the tsunami victims."

The second group of intellectuals, including nuclear scientists, have a different take on this issue. In their assessment, the unprecedented tragedy at Fukushima is a powerful signal for nuclear scientists, for the policy makers in the Government and for all concerned that there is a need for a considerable degree of caution, for re-visiting many of our policies, reviewing the enthusiastic and highly optimistic expansion programmes as well as the technology and design of the power plants which are proposed to be imported and installed. We need to take stock of global reactions in this regard. A number of countries have already started revisiting their approach towards nuclear power plants "Even if the nuclear accident is brought under control swiftly, and the release of radiation turns out not to be large enough to damage public health, this accident will have huge impact on nuclear industry, both inside and outside Japan. Germany has already put on hold its politically tricky decision to extend the life of its nuclear plants. America's faltering steps towards new reactors looks sure to be set back............ China has announced a pause in its ambitious plans for nuclear growth. (Economist March 19, 2011)."

According to the World Nuclear Association, a large number of countries had been planning to install a number of reactors. Now much of these expansions looks likely to be curtailed. Even the replacement of reactors may be in question.

Keeping in view the fossil fuel centric power sector profile in India, the long term perspective stipulated much larger nuclear plants at a number of locations in the country. However, the protests at Jaitapur (Maharashtra) may succeed in dampening the enthusiasm of the Government to go ahead with such massive power plants. A number of NGO's connected with environmental issues have got the Japan tragedy quite handy for them to suggest to the Governments, the desirability of going slow with these projects "To a lot of environmentalists, the priority is to get nuclear power out of discussions once and for all. Simply put, you can't trust the stuff. Somewhere, eventually, reactors will get out of control. One did at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. One did at Chernobyl in 1986. Now three have done so again, and an argument that had seemed to be running short of puff (Chernobyl's 25th Anniversary comes up in April) is revived.................. (Economist March 26, 2011)."

The wide spread protests by public at large against the project in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana has almost created a syndrome of "Not-in-my Backyard". The large scale devastations have led to deep rooted scare among the people, more than sufficient to launch strong and sustained protests against Nuclear Power Projects being developed in their areas. With reference to the Jaitapur project, now even the French Multinational, viz. AREVA is apprehensive of the delay. The Hindustan Times of April 05, 2011, reported on the front page "The Fukushima crises may lead to a delay in setting up India's largest nuclear power complex at Jaitapur in coastal Maharashtra, French firm AREVA, that is providing reactors for the project, has concluded in an internal report. In its preliminary assessment of the impact of the radiation leak from the Fukushima plant on the global nuclear power sector, the French Multinational has said, it expects a potential delay linked to the site safety reassessment....... The reassessment will be based not just on the causes of the Fukushima disaster, but on the lessons learnt from the successes and failures in controlling the ongoing crises." In fact, last week, even the Minister of Environment and Forest, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, who is perceived as a Champion of nuclear power, has stated the possibility of revisiting the earlier decision on the clearance for the project, as also on downsizing the ultimate capacity of the plant.

Hindustan Times of April 4, 2011, has carried a very important Article written by Mikhail Gorbachev, Former President of Soviet Union and 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Winner. He has, in his Article, identified four important issues, quoted below, which need to be addressed :

  • Prevention: It is important to prevent any possibility of a repetition of the Chernobyl accident. The true scope of the tragedy still remains beyond comprehension and is a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat. It is also a striking symbol of modern technological risk.

  • Renewable Energy: While the old Soviet nuclear reactor model is no longer in production, we must still be careful while constructing and operating nuclear power plants today. We can't reject nuclear energy as countries depend on it. But it is necessary to realize that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy efficiency or climate change. It cost effectiveness is also exaggerated, as its real cost doesn't account for many hidden expenses. In the US, for example, direct subsidies to nuclear energies amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, with an additional $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar energy combined over the same period totalled only $5.5 billion. To end the vicious cycle of `poverty versus safe environment, we must shift to efficient, safe and renewable energy. We must invest in alternative and sustainable sources of energy and conservation and energy efficiency initiatives to meet both energy demands and conserving our fragile planet.

  • Transparency: The closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry, which had experienced some 150 significant radiation leaks at nuclear stations throughout the world before the Chernobyl fire, contributed to the accident and response difficulties. We need transparency and public oversight and regulation of the nuclear power industry today, along with complete emergency preparedness and response mechanisms,

  • Vulnerability to terrorism and violence: We must carefully consider the vulnerability of reactor fuel, spent fuel pools, dry storage casks, sand related fissile materials and facilities to sabotage, attack and theft. While the Chermobyl disaster was accidental, today disaster can be intentional. We must pay attention to keeping weapons and materials such as high-enriched uranium and plutonium- out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. US President Barack Obama's initiative to secure and eliminate all bomb-grade nuclear material in four years is an important step forward in improving global security. But we must not forget that these fissile materials are often used in nuclear power and research reactors."

In India, the Government Policy on Nuclear Power has been a widely accepted initiative. Though nuclear power does not constitute a large proportion of India's power generation (it is less than 3%), yet, Nuclear Scientists and those operating these plants, through about 20 reactors, located in various nuclear power plants, have a reasonably good track record of safe operation. It is not that India is now entering into nuclear power technology. In fact, power sector entry into nuclear technology is more than fifty years old, though it is also a fact that the pace of growth in the nuclear power plant capacity, over last fifty years, has been very slow. Therefore, while lessons from various major accidents are important, and should guide us, we need not become so scared to decry nuclear power.

India has a total installed capacity of the order of 1,70,000 MW, out of which the nuclear power capacity is less than 4,800 MW. During the period 2005 to 2006, the Government of India appointed Expert Committee (I happened to be a Member on this Committee), evolved an Integrated Energy Policy. This is a strategy document, bringing out long term perspective and covering a period of 25 years from 2007 to 2032. Recognising the compulsions for India to not only accelerate the economic growth rate, but secure an economic growth which is inclusive, the one whose benefits percolate and premade the entire cross section of Indian society, the underlying consideration in evolving the energy policy has been the hard and uneasy reality of more than 37% of Indian population (more than 41% in rural India) remaining below poverty line and being deprived of access to any form of commercial energy.

While formulating this Policy, all possible options were brain stormed and critically evaluated. The inevitable conclusion was that India has no option than to pursue all possible options on energy development. The energy deprivation is so huge and the gaps to be covered are so large that unless it undertakes all possible options, including the new ones, which are yet to be created, it would fail to fulfill the commitment of an inclusive growth. Another compulsion and consideration which went behind formulation of the long term Energy Policy was yet another reality and that is that India's energy development has been excessively fossil fuel centric. Obviously, all such options which attempt to partly substitute the fossil fuel use would be desirable options to pursue on priority. It is precisely for this reason that while in the long term perspectives till 2032 renewables retain their present position of being about 10%, gas based power also almost retains the present proportion of 10%, hydroelectric capacity does not go beyond 25% - in fact, it marginally reduces - even if the entire potential is fully exploited, it is only nuclear power group which has been projected to acquire a larger space in the overall capacity profile of the country. It increases its present proportion of being less than 3% to about 7%. In the overall aggregate capacity of over 800 GW, nuclear was projected to be around 60,000 MW. The thrust and direction of Government Policy, as highlighted in the above perspective plan document, is, therefore, crystal clear. Indian Society and Indian Policy makers do not have any reservation, per se, about embracing, in a significant way, nuclear power into the power sector profile. It is precisely for these beliefs that in the National Electricity Policy (2005), the Nuclear Power has a prominent place. Relevant extracts are given below :

"5.2.19 - Nuclear power is an established source of energy to meet base load demand. Nuclear power plants are being set up at locations away from coal mines. Share of nuclear power in the overall capacity profile will need to be increased significantly. Economics of generation and resultant tariff will be, among others, important considerations. Public sector investments to create nuclear generation capacity will need to be stepped up. Private sector partnership would also be facilitated to see that not only targets are achieved but exceeded."

In spite of these convictions and commitments at the level of Policy Planners in India, and concerned Scientists and Engineers, it would be too simplistic to say that the unimaginable disaster and distress that the whole world has witnessed, the overwhelming and enthusiastic approach to nuclear power expansion programmes would not receive a setback. As mentioned earlier different countries in the world in terms of the response of society as well as of their Governments have reacted to this tragic event in different ways, but there is a common thread and that is a highly cautious approach to this technology. In many countries some of the power plants have been stopped, in many others the entire safety provisions, procedures and infrastructure are being re-visited and critically re-evaluated. In India also special Task Forces have been set up to examine the safety aspects. In many countries the regulatory institutions entrusted with the responsibility of safe operations of nuclear plants are being strengthened. In India not only the Regulatory Board should be strengthened, but also it should be made independent of Department of Atomic Energy.

Fukushima accident caused by Earthquake and Tsunami was followed by intense and involved debates all over the world including in India. Just of couple of days after this tragic event, I had occasion to listen to one such debate on an important TV Channel. A few Scientists were defending what India has been doing and proposes to do by installing a number of nuclear power plants of very large capacities. The plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra is proposed to have an ultimate capacity of 9,900 MW, with six reactors each of 1,650 MW capacity. There would be a few more large projects at various locations. While the Scientists and others were advocating the continuation of the present approach of the Government, the other group was vociferously opposing the present line of thinking. It also appeared that there was considerable gap in the sharing of information not only with intellectual outsiders but also with public at large. One of the Panelists made a very sensible point that if the Nuclear Scientists became a little more transparent in sharing the information, if they could be a little less sensitive to the criticism being made and if they could let people know the proper responses to the concerns that they had, the levels of resistance being witnessed and experienced could be entirely different. I do believe that there is considerable weight in this argument. Secrecy about nuclear plants, and reservations on the part of scientists to share information, is not only an Indian characteristic, but the situation is similar all over the world. While there may be justification, for strategic reasons, not to share a lot of information with the public, but in the changed scenario, when such devastations are causing inevitable fear among the people, it appears reasonable that the approach towards secrecy is kept within limits. It would be relevant to quote an extract from The Economist of March 19, 2011.

"Thus the great nuclear dilemma. For the best nuclear safety you need not just good planning and good engineering. You need the sort of society that can produce accountability and transparency, one that can build institutions that receive and deserve trust. No nuclear nation has done this as well as one might wish, and Japan's failing may well become more evident. But democracies are better at building such institutions. At the same time, however, democracy makes it much easier for a substantial and implacable minority to make sure things don't happen, and that seems likely to be the case with plans for more nuclear power."

If we see the history of development of nuclear power capacity in the world, it peaked during the period 1965 to 1979. Following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the capacity expansions slowed down substantially. While during the period 1970 to 1979, the number of reactors installed annually ranged between 20 to 30, in fact, in 1976 it was more than 40, the number went down to less than 20 during the period 1980 to 1986. After Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the number of reactors installed annually went down further. It was not more than five right upto 2008. It is only in the last two years that the annual number touched at 10 reactors. Thus, it is quite clear that global response after every disaster is likely to be on similar lines and the trend of last two years, which was to increase further, is bound to go down. In the context of India, it will be reasonable to assume that the projected expansion of nuclear power capacity to about 60,000 MW by 2032, as stipulated in the Integrated Energy Policy (2006), may not materialize. The pace will slow down substantially. A good part of this gap will need to be covered by appropriate emphasis on hydroelectric and coal based thermal power projects. Gas availability will continue to be a critical issue. Renewable will increase in terms of MW but not commensurately in terms of million Kwhr.

In conclusion, I would like to summarise as follows:

  • It is obvious that the tragedy at Fukushima has revived the debate on desirability of large scale expansion of nuclear power capacity. The scare is not totally misplaced.

  • Atleast for the next ten years, the pace of nuclear power development capacity on a global basis is bound to slow down, just as it happened after the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 and Chernobyl tragedy of 1986.

  • So far as India is concerned, it is unlikely that the policy direction, which is in favour of enhancing nuclear capacity, may be reversed; it need not be reversed. However, the slow down is inevitable.

  • It would be advisable that very large capacity at one location is avoided. The selection of site will need careful examination and lessons of various major accidents will need to be factored in.

  • Scientists, Engineers and Policy Planners should better recognize the need for involvement of people at large. The present reservation and mindset on sharing of information will need to be revisited. Taking the people in confidence should form an integral part of the strategy.

  • There have been valid criticisms about the new design and also about the likely excessive cost of these installations resulting in higher price of power. It would be essential to clarify to the people these issues.

  • Integrated Energy Policy projected a capacity of the order of 60,000 MW by 2032. Now it looks unlikely that in the face of global concerns and local resistance, India would be able to reach this capacity in this time frame. Obviously, therefore, the projected fuel mix will need to be revisited. This means larger than projected hydro capacity and coal based thermal capacity, besides enhancing renewable.

  • Strengthening of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, both in terms of expertise as also in terms of independence and autonomy would be essential.