The Statesman, 25 Dec 2014
Unless the world goes on a frenzy of new construction, for which there is no evidence, nuclear power will vanish from the face of the earth by 2059, according to World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014. In 1996, nuclear power accounted for 17.6 per cent of the world’s electricity. Today it has come down to 10.8 per cent and could drop further in the coming years. Fukushima put paid to Japan’s nuclear power industry. All the 48 nuclear reactors in Japan have been closed down. Germany closed eight of 17 nuclear reactors in 2012 and is in the process of phasing out the remaining nine between 2015 and 2022. Since the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown of 1979 in Pennsylvania, the USA has not commissioned a single nuclear power plant, but closed five nuclear power plants since 2012 Florida, Wisconsin, Vermont and two in Canada. The few reactors now under construction from Finland to Vietnam have been bogged down by inordinate delays and cost overruns and their future is uncertain.
China, Russia and India are the only countries where nuclear power has not yet gone out of style. It is therefore not surprising that India signed an agreement with Russia to build 12 nuclear reactors during President Vladimir Puttin’s one-day visit to New Delhi on 11 December. This was coupled with the signing of a contract by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited to start construction of Koodankulam 3 and 4 units. It is not clear whether the 12 include Koodankulam 3 and 4 for which the Congress-led UPA government had already signed an agreement with Russia two years ago.
Any person would normally place a repeat order if satisfied with the outcome of the first order. India entered into an agreement for Koodankulam 1 and 2 way back in 1988 with the erstwhile Soviet Union which was firmed up subsequently with Russia. It is neither possible nor expected of the Prime Minister to keep track of the progress and working of each and every project in the country. But he has the benefit of a high-power 24-member Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, the brain child of the late lamented Rajiv Gandhi. When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister he thought having SAC to the PM was not sufficient as critical decisions were the collective responsibility of the Cabinet and he wanted a scientific and technology advisory body for his Cabinet colleagues as well. Hence the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet comprising 45 members was constituted. The chairman of the SAC to the PM is not a member of the SAC to the Cabinet but the chairman of the latter is also a member of the former. The SAC to the PM is said to be the “uppermost body that deliberates on various policy issues pertaining to science and technology,” and based on its recommendations discussed with the Prime Minister policies are implemented. The SAC to the Cabinet claims to be the “apex advisory body” on science and technology policies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the benefit of both the advisory bodies before he entered into an agreement with President Putin to set up 12 nuclear power plants in the country in the next two decades. The sarkari scientists of the two committees have been issuing “the best and the safest” certification to the Koodankulam nuclear power project for the last two years notwithstanding the fact that the first unit continues to limp and tumble while the second unit has been cannibalised to coax the first unit produce some electricity before the 11 December summit. What is surprising is that despite the well-demonstrated appalling performance of the Koodankulam project, any further order, and that too of this magnitude, is being placed on Russia.
The first unit of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant attained criticality on 15 July 2013 and was grid-connected 69 days later. During the last 400-odd days since the grid connection, the reactor was under outage for more than 100 days and on maintenance shut-down for another 60 days. The first outage on the day of grid connection was caused due to ‘reverse power’ which means the generator instead of producing electricity became a consumer of electricity. When the Information and Control system detects a defect in the reactor system which has the potential to result in an accident, a trip is actuated leading to the release of all control rods within three seconds. Too many trips, also known as scrams, place unnecessary strain on plant components. Plant managers announced commercial generation would begin on 22 April 2014. It was postponed twice. Since 25 September the reactor has been shut down indefinitely for replacement of turbo-generator and some other repairs. There is no knowing when commercial generation will start.
The Koodankulam reactors are certified as Generation-3 and are said to be inherently safe. A study by an international team including academics from the Cochin University of Science and Technology, Bremen University, Germany, and Sussex University, the United Kingdom, based entirely on official documents from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, NPCIL and their Russian counterparts, came to the conclusion that major equipment like the reactor pressure vessel and the polar cane were obsolete and counterfeit. The polar crane, a safety related equipment, was found to have only 80 per cent of its rated capacity. Many of the equipment rendered surplus post-Chernobyl and post-Soviet cancellation of more than 25 VVER-1000 reactors had been incorporated in the Koodankulam power plant.
Dr BK Subbarao, nuclear physicist who designed a pressurised water reactor for Indian Navy’s nuclear submarine, in an article described the Koodankulam reactor as a speaking tree. “Since her marriage with the grid, KKNPP-1 has spoken for 4,701 hours in 14 episodes. She spoke for 56 days during the first 90 days. Her eloquence is being progressively replaced by silence. During the past 90 days, we heard her speak only during nine days. The officials of Rosatom and NPCIL are busy in finalising the deal for the fifth and sixth reactors, while the commissioning crew at Koodankulam is experiencing the worst nightmares in their lives. In spite of all the postponements, unmet deadlines, a major accident and very high trip rates unheard of during the commissioning of any modern reactors, it is business as usual. This cannot go on. KKNPP has all the ingredients of a perfect disaster and is a global catastrophic risk. The people of the world, their children and their children’s children to be born yet, expect more proactive decisions from the Government of India at the highest level. All deals should be frozen, the fuel assemblies must be removed from the reactor core and placed in the spent fuel tank immediately before it is too late. This must be followed by an impartial safety audit by a body of independent scientists and a thorough financial audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India.”
The most important issue is the very decision of India to push ahead with the nuclear power programme despite it being, as of now, uneconomic compared to conventional and renewable sources of power and intrinsically hazardous as it deals with radioactive substances and there is as yet no foolproof method of waste disposal and decommissioning and disposal of obsolete plants. Globally, nuclear power is on the wane despite vigorous lobbying by the nuclear industry and its cohorts. India should not attempt to swim against the current.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of
The Statesman Print Journalism School