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Former bureaucrats, scientists, say government pushing dangerous nuclear power programme without assessing safety or comparing cost with other sources of energy like renewables
As protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant under construction in Tamil Nadu grows louder, several former bureaucrats and scientists have petitioned the Supreme Court to stay all the proposed nuclear power plants till a safety reassessment is done. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), however, maintains that Indian nuclear power plants are safe and capable of enduring natural disasters.
The public interest petition, filed on October 14, seeks a safety reassessment and comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of all the nuclear plants in India. The petition asks for a stay on all proposed nuclear plants till the safety and cost-benefit analysis is carried out by an independent competent authority. The petition also questions the constitutional validity of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act passed last year.
“Safety is our primary concern. No matter how low is the probability of a nuclear accident, the social, economic and health consequences are enormous, if it happens,” says EAS Sarma, former power secretary and one of the petitioners.
“Studies have shown that the impact could be inter-generational. Are we ready to take that risk?” asks Sarma, adding that the government has itself admitted that nuclear power plants are prime targets of terrorists.
The petition which is not against the use of nuclear energy per se, says the government is pushing an expensive, unviable and dangerous nuclear power programme without proper safety assessment and comparative cost-benefit analysis with other sources of energy, especially renewable sources.
Leaked Russian report flags safety concern
It highlights a leaked Russian report on safety assessments points that some nuclear reactors in Russia have design faults. The report prepared for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on nuclear safety of reactors was leaked in June this year (see 'What leaked Russian report said'). Two Russian nuclear reactors are under construction and two are being imported for the Koodankulam nuclear power plant.
Similarly, the petition also questions the credibility of French nuclear technology giant Areva which is supplying six nuclear reactors for Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra. On September 30, the French appellate court fined Socatri, a subsidiary of Areva, Euros 40,000, for contaminating ground water table following leak of toxic liquid uranium at the Tricastin nuclear facility in southern France in 2008. The company was also reprimanded for delay in communicating the leaks to the Nuclear Safety Authority. There have also been reports of Areva’s technology not being properly tested. “How can we import the reactors of such dubious and untested quality for our nuclear power plants,” says Prashant Bhusan, the counsel of the petitioners in the case. The first hearing is expected in November.
Dharne Shashikant, associate director, of Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) does not agree with what the petition says. He explains, there is a fool proof process in place for the selection of reactors. First, the reactor technology should be licensed in the parent country. Then, AERB through multi-tier safety assessments approves that technology for use in India.
Making a case for cost-benefit analysis, the petition draws attention to the enormous cost of nuclear power generation. “While thermal power plants cost around Rs 4.5 crore per MW capacity, nuclear plants cost more than Rs 10 crore per MW or more,” says Sarma. Then there is a cost of decommissioning and decontaminating because a nuclear power plant lasts only 40 years. According to the United Kingdom's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, at least 70 billion pounds would be required to decommission United Kingdom’s 19 existing nuclear sites, the petition says.
Nuclear liability bill criticised
The petitioners also take a dig at The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010. They mention that countries like the US, France and Russia, with whom India has signed nuclear agreements, pushed the government to get a provision in which all the liability is of the nuclear operator, which presently is the Government, and not of the supplier of the technology. The victims are not allowed to sue the supplier companies. What’s worse, the Act also limits the liability of the operator to Rs 1,500 crores whereas the social and economic cost could be enormous. Besides, the right of citizens to a clean, healthy and safe environment is not protected, the petition says.
Sarma raises a question on the way Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is carried out for nuclear power plants. “There is no proper distinction between the process of EIA for a thermal and nuclear power plant. The latter is a very sophisticated technology for which an independent competent authority is required,” says Sarma. “While the general process may be the same, but in case of nuclear power plants a separate radiation assessment is also required,” says Sashikant. The consultants qualified to conduct EIA studies are notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, he clarifies.
However, a recent report prepared by AERB on the safety assessments of nuclear power plants after Fukushima disasters concludes that the design, operating process and regulations followed in India has inherent strengths to deal with natural events and consequences.
The Indian government plans to increase nuclear power capacity from about 4,800MW now to about 64,000 MW by the year 2032.