Why Kudankulam is untenable

A view of the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam. File photo  

As the local people determinedly continue to resist the commissioning of the Kudankulam reactors, the statements of the nuclear establishment have acquired a desperate edge. The chief of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) claimed that a “foreign hand” was behind the protests. The former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, while assuring the locals that the reactors were “100% safe,” also wrote an article in > The Hindu (“Special Essay,” November 6) arguing that nuclear energy is India's ticket to modernity and prosperity.

Such claims go back several decades; for example, Jawaharlal Nehru compared the “Atomic Revolution” to the “Industrial Revolution,” arguing that “either you go ahead with it or ... others go ahead, and you ... gradually drag yourself.” However, in the intervening half century, atomic energy has failed to live up to its promise, and the idea that it is linked to progress and economic success is now both clichéd and historically inaccurate.

Generation targets and reality

The grand hopes for nuclear power in India must be evaluated in the light of the history of the numerous pronouncements of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) about the dominant role for atomic energy it envisioned — and failed to deliver. In the early 1970s, for example, it projected 43,500 MW of nuclear generating capacity by 2000, whereas what materialised was a mere 2,720 MW. Last year, the nuclear contribution to electricity generated in the country was 2.8 per cent. What little energy has been generated has been expensive. When viewed in the light of the ample financial and political support from successive governments, the nuclear programme has been a failure.

About thorium

The gap between pronouncements and achievement is the largest where thorium is concerned. In 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) explained that although “the programme [had] slipped badly,” the country would be in a position to start setting up thorium reactors in about 15 years. Forty years later, there is no thorium reactor in existence, and there is yet no solution to several serious technical problems with the thorium cycle.

Unlike uranium, thorium itself cannot be used as reactor fuel, but must be put through a nuclear reactor to first produce a fissile isotope of uranium, uranium-233. Uranium-233 has three key properties. First, it can be used to make nuclear weapons, being superior, in some respects, to weapon-grade uranium (lower critical mass) and plutonium (smaller spontaneous fission rate). Second, uranium-233 is produced in conjunction with uranium-232, which emits energetic gamma rays, and this is the main reason it has not been used to make weapons. The second property is even more problematic when uranium-233 is used as nuclear fuel, because it makes fuel fabrication hazardous to the health of workers and expensive. Thus, the very properties that make thorium unsuitable for weaponisation pose a greater hurdle to energy generation. Third, the DAE's plans for producing uranium-233 in bulk involve the use of plutonium-fuelled fast breeder reactors which, when compared to heavy water reactors, carry a significantly greater risk of catastrophic accidents and produce much more expensive electricity. For some or all of these reasons, most countries have abandoned thorium; India is a leader in this field by virtue of being one of the only participants.

In recent years, dreams of a nuclear-powered future got a fillip with the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The deal served as the flagship of the Manmohan Singh government's efforts to give its foreign policy a pro-Western tilt. For the United States, the deal was, in the words of Ashley Tellis, an important adviser to the Bush administration, intended to craft “a full and productive partnership with India.” But this relationship is not one between equals. India soon fell in line with U.S. strategic objectives, for example, by twice voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and halting the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project — an important potential source of energy.

Dr. Singh's government is also willing to pay generously to reinforce this “partnership.” As the former DAE head, Anil Kakodkar, admitted in an article published in a Marathi daily earlier this year, India must import reactors worth billions of dollars because “we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there.” It is these imports and the larger foreign policy shift that hasten the process of “neo-age imperial subjugation.”

Are concerns being heeded?

So the “foreign hand” is partly behind the nuclear expansion, not the local protests that have sprung up at every site earmarked for a nuclear plant. The conspiracy theory being peddled by the NPCIL amounts to dismissing genuine local concerns out of hand. The end result of this policy is visible in Kudankulam. The villagers, who have been opposed to the project since the beginning, were ignored and ridiculed till they finally escalated their protest in desperation. The public money that has been spent on the Kudankulam plant is imperilled not by the intransigence of the local residents, but by the failure of the government to heed their concerns earlier.

Residents have a right to be worried. Nuclear accidents can have very destructive public health consequences. The impacts of Fukushima can be gauged only over the long term but are certain to be grave. Although some nuclear advocates quote the absurdly low and misleading figure of 57 direct deaths in Chernobyl, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated about 9,000 excess deaths due to cancer globally. Many more thousands will have cancers that are assumed to be curable. The American Cancer Institute's recent study found that children who were exposed to Iodine-131 from Chernobyl are continuing to develop thyroid cancer. Other epidemiologists estimate even higher figures. Even today an area of about 10,000 square km around Chernobyl is under “strict control” because it is polluted by Caesium-137, which has a radioactive half-life of 30 years. A recent study conducted by a team of atmospheric scientists in Europe and the U.S. estimates that the multiple accidents at Fukushima released over 40 per cent of the estimated Caesium-137 emission from Chernobyl. However, because the wind was blowing towards the Pacific Ocean for a significant fraction of the period, the area polluted with the same concentration of Caesium-137 is estimated to be only about 10 per cent of the area at Chernobyl. The wind may not always be propitious. These figures should be of great concern in India since most people are dependent on the land and the sea for their livelihood.

Claims about the reactor

The claim that modern reactors, such as the VVER reactors in Kudankulam, are “100% safe” is scientifically untenable; every nuclear reactor has a finite, albeit small, probability of undergoing a catastrophic failure. More specifically, the VVER reactors have previously had problems with the control rod mechanism. On March 1, 2006, for example, one of the four main circulation pumps at Bulgaria's Kozluduy unit 5 tripped because of an electrical failure. When the system reduced the power to 67 per cent of nominal capacity, three control rod assemblies remained in an upper-end position. Follow-up tests of the remaining control rod assemblies identified that in total, 22 out of 61 could not be moved with driving mechanisms. Control rod insertion failures can seriously compromise safety in an accident.

Issue of liability is the test

There is a very simple indirect test by means of which even a non-expert can evaluate the question of nuclear safety. If there was really a “0% chance” of an accident, why would nuclear vendors work so hard to indemnify themselves? Atomstroyeksport, the vendor of the Kudankulam plant is protected by a special intergovernmental agreement, which would prevent victims from suing it in the event of an accident. Companies like Westinghouse are holding back on reactor sales to India, since the new liability law includes some very mild liability for suppliers. When nuclear companies are unwilling to stake their financial health on these claims of “100% safety,” how can the government ask local residents to risk their lives?

(The authors are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. M.V. Ramana is the author of “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India” — forthcoming, Viking Penguin.)


This article has been corrected for factual error on November 15, 2011

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