The near 9-Richter earthquake, tsunami, disrupted coolant systems, the consequent partial core meltdown in the nuclear reactors, and spreading radioactivity around the Fukushima Daiichi complex constitute the perfect disaster, and could not have been foreseen. But certain nuclear aspects of these inter-connected events have a bearing on the fanciful power generation schemes the Manmohan Singh-led Congress Party coalition government has embarked upon and which it hopes will piggyback on the controversial civilian nuclear deal with the United States.
The Japanese reactors are of the same low enriched uranium fuelled light water (LWR) type as the French Areva EPR (Evolving Pressurised-water Reactor), the Russian VVER 1000, and the US-Japanese Westinghouse-Toshiba AP 1000 India is on the point of buying. Except, technology-wise, we may be digging ourselves into a hole. Dr Anil Kakodkar, former chairman, atomic energy commission explained, apropos the prospective Areva plant in Jaitapur, that the EPR incorporates the best processes and technologies the French have developed over many decades. This seems akin to cobbling together an aircraft from an assortment of high-value parts taken from different planes. Not reassuring. Without a prototype reactor to prove such technology integration works, the odds are the EPR will amount to less than the sum of its parts and, in operating terms, could turn out to be a fiasco. The other two reactors in the fray are equally a liability. The basic VVER design, safety-augmented in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, is coming up in Kudankulam without the modified design having proved its druthers elsewhere first. The new American reactor (AP 1000) is, likewise, unproven, having been rejected by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission on safety grounds. Undeterred, the Indian government has fast-tracked its purchase, prodded by Washington and powerful American Companies, such as General Electric providing turbines for nuclear power plants. India has thus hoisted itself in the nuclear marketplace as testing ground for half-baked reactor concepts and technologies from abroad.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, obsessed as much with sustaining 8% growth as by an energy quick-fix offered by importing LWRs, has compounded the problem by approving the concept of “energy parks” – a host of nuclear reactors bunched together to achieve production efficiencies of scale. He is apparently unmindful of the dangers of “nuclear fratricide” triggered by reactors in physical proximity incapacitated by an accident in one of them, as happened in Fukushima. Other than India’s manifest inability to cope with the cascading nuclear effects of several reactors simultaneously facing different types of breakdown, consider the opportunity cost to Indian industry and services sector of a whole energy park – 10,000 MW plus from the single Jaitapur complex — suddenly going missing. That, however, is the lesser problem.
Because LWRs use low enriched uranium fuel packages on a “once through” basis before being discarded, huge amounts of spent fuel end up stacked in cold water storage pools to dissipate the heat and constitute, as Fukushima shows, a potentially grave health and safety hazard. Indeed, we have 40-years of experience of being saddled with spent fuel outputted by the two US-built LWRs in Tarapur. Given its radioactivity, Washington is unwilling to take back the stored Tarapur spent fuel and a gutless Indian government is not prepared to up the ante by issuing an ultimatum, followed by reprocessing the fuel for use in Indian designed plants as a way of reducing our risk. The issue of what to do with the imported spent fuel, in the event, remains unresolved. In a nuclear mishap in an energy park, the mass of stored spent fuel could source a calamitous spread of radioactivity in the Indian countryside.
Then there’s the complex issue of the level of earthquake tolerance to be engineered into reactor construction without completely skewing the cost-calculus. In Jaitapur, as in other quake-prone locations, based on careful seismic analysis certain levels of protection are introduced into reactor construction. There’s no guarantee, however, as the Fukushima reactors, perhaps, built to withstand 3-4 Richter shock indicated, that Nature will be accommodating enough to restrict the quaking to the engineered levels. There, moreover, being no such thing as an absolutely quake-proof reactor, safety levels will be dictated by commercial considerations, especially as every little accretion in quake tolerance adds significantly to the total cost.
Whatever the initial figures being bandied about ($11 billion), after factoring in predictable escalations and only minimal quake protection, Jaitapur, for instance, may actually end up costing the Indian taxpayer $15-$20 billion and, depending on the number of reactors, $3-$6 billion a unit, resulting in electricity costing around Rs 30-Rs 35 crores per megawatt compared to the Rs 2-Rs 3 crore per MW cost of power produced by reactors featuring home-grown technology. Even at this latter cost level, hydro and coal sourced energy is cheaper. For an economist to maintain otherwise, as Dr Manmohan Singh has done, is to upend the logic of viability.
In the late Forties and Fifties, the dawning nuclear era encouraged dreams of cheap electricity. The visionary Dr Homi Bhabha and his political mentor, Jawaharlal Nehru, neither of them fools, nursed a weapons capability under cover of this rationale. But the dis-economics of nuclear power is such, a nuclear energy programme today makes little sense if it is not mainly national security-driven but which allows for meaningful investments in time-bound, high-accountability, projects to develop breeder and thorium reactors and achieve energy independence in the shortest possible time. Without investing in renewable energy development, the continuing justification by the Prime Minister of nuclear power as the “green” answer for the energy deficit is nonsense. Estimates suggest 35,000 MW from imported reactors will account for only 5% plus of the total energy produced in the country in 2050, a small increase from 2.4% in 2010. It is a policy geared, it seems, to enriching foreign nuclear suppliers and the “commission”-seeking political class at home and, in the process, to bequeathing India future Fukushimas — Manmohan Singh’s legacy as lasting nightmare.
[Published in ‘Business Today’, April 17, 2011]