Nothing green about

Nothing green about nuclear power

Prashun Bhaumik |

The government says 25 per cent of the energy will be nuclear power by 2050. But how safe or transparent is such a programme.

By Papri Sri Raman

Opponents of India’s nuclear policy are often accused of being anti-development. Nuclear power is projected as “clean” power and the nuclear programme as “peaceful” and “responsible.” Nuclear weapons are “deterrence.” But how safe is it and how transparent are questions rarely asked. It is the Bhopal example which has at last allowed civil society in India to voice questions about safety and liability. But transparency is still not an issue.

The milling of uranium is not a clean process, unsafe in India from stage one to the last as Anand Patwardhan’s film War and Peace and the Gadekars (Dr Sanghamitra and Dr Surendra) have documented in Jaduguda, Meghalaya and elsewhere. The cobalt 60 gamma rod leakage from Delhi University’s chemistry lab in April this year further demonstrated the country’s inability to protect people from radiation sources, howsoever tiny it may be.  Large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the yellow cake refining process and in building reactors. The cost of power production is high, time-taking and the nuclear waste is indisposable. One of the reasons reactors are close to the sea is that the radioactive spent water is dumped back to the sea often and goes undetected, as there is rarely a civil society watchdog at the point of release of the used water in case of  PHWR reactors.

Dr Helen Caldicott leads an international campaign to educate the public on the health hazards of nuclearization. She says, “The nuclear fuel cycle uses large quantities of fossil fuel at all stages…nuclear power is, therefore, not green.” India says, it is ready with thorium technology. How much of fossil fuel will be needed to get this thorium to an enriched stage where it can give nuclear power, the government has not said. A major tragedy was averted at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station 4 (TAPS 4- Maharashtra) on July 5 this year when scientists were able to put a ‘spent fuel bundle’, made up of multiple radioactive materials, back into the reactor. This “technical” snag occurred on June 28 and for a week five densely-inhabited villages were on tenterhooks. The leakage from the ‘bundle’ could have affected thousands.  Spent fuel contains radio-active isotopes which can be recovered and used. This is how bombs are made.

This is not the first time that Tarapur has caused concern. According to media reports last week, in 1973, Indira Gandhi wanted to shut down the reactor at Tarapur. “The malfunctioning of pumps, valves and fuel bundles at TAPS (Tarapur Atomic Power Station) led to the radioactive levels rising far greater than those laid down by the International Commission for Radiation Protection,” the magazine The Week reported. The Department of Atomic Energy has denied this. Gandhi’s science secretary Ashok Parthasarathi has been quoted as saying that senior scientists like Raja Ramanna and Homi Sethna convinced Gandhi to continue with the country’s nuclear programme. Surendra Gadekar has raised several questions of “safety” following the radiation leak at the Kaiga plant in November 2009, which made 55 workers ill. “Dr Kakokdkar’s (Anil Kakokdkar) explanations have not been very clear as to how tritium contaminated a drinking water cooler,” Gadekar writes. “The ill effects of tritium have always been underestimated,” he adds, and “tritium is a dangerous toxin because it is chemically identical to hydrogen, and can replace the hydrogen in body water…human body is 70 per cent water.” He recalls an incident at the Rawatbhata plant, when outside contract labour whitewashed a room with casually-stored heavy water in July 1991. The reprocessing plant leak in 2003 at Kalpakkam is well chronicled.

The DAE conducts a safety exercise around reactors every now and then and the National Disaster Management Authority has set guidelines for management of nuclear disasters. However, a reality check on July 23  by a party of a dozen journalists, including those from government media and media students, at sea-side villages like Sadraspattinam, victims of the 2004 tsunami and next to the  Kalpakkam reactor park, exposed the lack of peoples’ awareness and involvement in safety exercises.  “Disaster preparedness” for the people here mean two things. If there is a tsunami warning, “run far away.” If an N-emergency, “don’t know anything.” The local hospital did not have radiation diagnosis facility.

“The DAE has a long history of making extravagant projections, none of which have been fulfilled despite extravagant budgets. The trend started in 1954 when Homi Bhaba announced there would be 8,000 megawatts of N-power in the country by 1980,” points out MV Ramana, associate research scholar in the programme on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. The reality is that installed capacity was only of 600MW in 1980 and 2,800 MW by 2000. Economist Aravinda Panagarya, Jagadish Bhagwati chair of Indian political economy at Columbia University, delivering the Sage-Madras Schools of Economics annual lecture in Chennai a few weeks ago, said, no matter how much India talks of clean energy… wind power, nuclear power…“India will have to heavily depend on fossil fuel for the next hundred years” and that is a fact. Physicist T Jayaraman, heading the Science and Society department at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, speaking at a remembrance meeting in Chennai on August 6, Hiroshima Day, pointed out, “If you know how to split the atom for peaceful purpose, you will have the technology also for weaponisation.”

“Technology takes place in a social, political and economic context,” Jayaraman explained, condemning the “deterrence theory” as a “fraudulent, bogus theory. It is like playing dice with the lives of millions of people…it is a guessing game.”  Both Pakistan and India are said to hold more than 60 N-bombs in their arsenals. How were they made? If India was subject to sanctions, following Pokhran I (1974 tests), where did the enriched fuel come from? It came from the power reactors.

India has agreed that of 22 existing reactors only 14 will be open to IAEA inspection, 8 will not. India also plans, what is called a series of “nuclear parks,” hubs that will contain a cluster of reactors. Scientists are ambiguous about these N-Parks. India needs power for growth and the government says 25% of the energy will be nuclear power by 2050.

The target today is 63,000 MWe of N-power by 2032, ie in the next two decade production will see a leap. India needs at least a100 new reactors to produce even half this target. And enrichment facilities for the huge spent fuel, which it is unlikely to get, given that it is enriched spent fuel that provides weapons-grade isotopes. The only way is if India declares it will not make bombs. The way forward, as NPCIL, the state Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited would have us accept, is creation of N-parks, where three or more reactors can be housed in one campus along with reprocessing facilities. So far 15 nuclear park sites have been identified by the government. Under new agreements, foreign reactors will have to be open to international inspection. This is the only way, argue supporters, given, land is not easily available in India to spread out reactors. The government has decided to allow private players into nuclear power generation. The Indian players are Reliance power, GVK Power, and GMR Energy. The international players are from USA, France, UK, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Korea and Australia.

“The limited amount of nuclear capacity built by DAE has been expensive compared to the staple source of electricity—coal,” Ramana says, adding it takes typically 10 to 14 years to set up one reactor. The foreign reactors that are likely to be bought and imported are going to be light water reactors, while India has been using heavy water reactors. “Light water reactors are very expensive and this would make nuclear power uncompetitive,” Ramana points out.

N-parks across India

Tarapur has four reactors, TAPS 1&2 (1969) are under item specific safeguards. TAPS 3&4 are not open to IAEA inspection. We know its safety history.

Kaiga 1, 2&3 that produce barely 400MWe are not under IAEA inspection, Kaiga 4 (another 202Mwe to be added in 2010) is also not under IAEA inspection. Kaiga 5&6 are expected to be ready by 2014.

Kalpakkam 1&2 (MAPS-1984) produce barely 202 MWe, not under IAEA inspection. The PFBR reactor and Bhavini give less than 100MWe and the indigenous fast breeder reactor (FBR) will give 470MWe in 2011. None of these are under IAEA.

Reactors 1&2 at Kakrapar in Gujarat make just 202Mwe and will be under inspection after 2012. There will be two more reactors at Kakrapar by 2014. Two reactors in Rajashthan (RAPS or Rawatbhata) are under item-specific safeguards, four more reactors in this site are open to inspection under new agreements, since 2009. By 2014, the Rajasthan campus will have 8 reactors.

Narora in UP generates about 202MWe with two reactors and will be under inspection by 2014 under new agreement.  Koodankulam has two Russia supplied VVER reactors under item specific safeguard. These are yet to start producing power. The safeguard status of four new Russian reactors in Koodankulam are undecided yet. Thus, the Koodankulam N-park will house at least 6 reactors.

Jaitapur in Maharashtra will be home to two reactors producing 1600MWe each by 2012. Another similar two EPR reactors will be added here by 2016.These are to be obtained from the French company Areva. These, as foreign reactors obtained under specific safeguard terms, will be under inspection in 2017. Jaitapu 5&6 are also planned but when, no one is certain. Chyamithi Virdi in Gujarat will host Westing house (USA-Ap1000) reactors.  Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh will get Hitachi/Ge ABWR reactors. At least six reactors are planned here. Pulivendula in Andhra Pradesh is the site for at least two PWR reactors.

Haripur in West Bengal is to house four Russian VVER reactors, and this has run into local protest.

Markandi in Orissa is another future nuclear park site with target generation capacity 6000MWe. Kumharia in Haryana is the site for 4 700MWe PHWR reactors made in India. Bargi in Madhya Pradesh is the site for two PHWR reactors and two FBR reactors by 2020. Bihar and Jharkhand are also in the queue.


Pakistan has nuclear facilities at Kahuta, its largest research site, a power plant at Karachi, (KANUPP) and at Chashma. The Khusab plant is under construction, it has labs near Rawalpindi and an enrichment site at Golra Shariff. Jhang and Sahr Zarat have additional sites.

All these are barely 200km from India. Myanmar, western media reports say, has been assisted by North Korea to begin a nuclear programme that will help it build at least 14 bombs in the next two decades. It is hardly 200km from India.

Sri Lanka’s energy secretary MMC Ferdinando has said it is discussing with South Korea plans for a nuclear power plant on the island, hardly 100 km away from India.