Secrecy, fettered regulator are a worry as India plans nuclear expansion
THE slow-moving disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that is spreading a cloud of anxiety across the world has forced most nations to either suspend or review their nuclear power programmes—but not India. In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the huge Daiichi power complex of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, two things have happened: a series of disclosures that have exposed more of the nuclear industry’s dark secrets, not least in Japan, and a rethink by several countries and utilities that had planned new projects.
Switzerland has suspended plans to build and replace plants. Germany, which had approved delaying decommissioning of its 17 plants, has put that on hold, and China has suspended approval for all new nuclear power plants. Its initial response to the earth-tsunami catastrophe in Japan had been a firm “no rethink”. Analysts think the turnabout signals a move to tighten safety and risk-assessment norms for new projects. The most dramatic impact has been in the US, with NRG Energy saying its plans to build two big reactors at its Texas plant could be delayed, or cancelled.
India, on the other hand, appears cocky. Officials say the country will push ahead with its ambitious expansion agenda, including the much-opposed Jaitapur and Mithi Virdi nuclear power complexes in Maharashtra and Gujarat, respectively. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Sri Kumar Banerjee is categorical that there will be no pullback from the proposed projects since none of these, he says, are in danger from either earthquakes or tsunamis. As for technology worries, there would be a “review” of the French company Areva’s controversial EPR reactor, six of which are planned in Jaitapur. This would make for the world’s largest nuclear energy complex with 10,000 MWe generation capacity. To give a comparison, the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s six reactors have a total capacity of 4,696 MWe, and at the time of the calamity only three were operational.
Currently, work is under way on six projects in India: two Russian-built light water VVER reactors at Kudankulam (1,000 MWe each), and two pairs of indigenously developed pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) of 700 Mwe each in Rawatbhata, Rajasthan, and Kakrapar in Gujarat. But more bold, and marking a sharp turn in the country’s nuclear programme, are the big nuclear power-generating parks in five locations, all coming up with foreign technology.
This is a clear worry for the experts. “Fukushima shows accidents at one reactor can affect other reactors and associated facilities, such as spent fuel pools,” points out physicist M V Ramana, who is with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, US. “If one reactor has an accident and spews radioactive materials, raising radiation levels, it prevents workers from approaching nearby reactors.”
AEC says there will be no change in the planned structure of these new parks. Instead, there is to be a safety audit of the 19 projects India’s sole nuclear generator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), operates. So far, no clear answers are forthcoming on what this entails. Sudhinder Thakur, distinguished scientist and fellow at NPCIL, told Down To Earth that “NPCIL engineers have commenced work on ‘scenario building’ exercises for each of the different technologies we have for our reactors.” Two of these reactors, Tarapur I and 2, are the same GE boiling water reactors as at Daiichi but of older vintage; the rest are PHWRs that use natural uranium.
According to Banerjee, however, the safety audit would consist of subjecting the current facilities to different levels of seismic loading. Although each plant has been designed on the basis of the fault lines of the site, “we need to know how it functions in an off-normal situation,” he said in a TV interview, adding, “not that this hasn’t been done before”.
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