People's power vs. nuclear power
If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanted to insult the people agitating against the Koodankulam nuclear reactors at India's southern tip, he could have found no better way than agreeing to meet their delegation on October 7-- only to have Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) Secretary Srikumar Banerjee lecture them on the virtues of nuclear power.
The meeting was held to respond to the grassroots demand for scrapping the project. The demand's moral force, expressed in a 12-day hunger strike by over 100 people, impelled the Tamil Nadu cabinet to ask that project construction be halted.
The delegates had to suffer Mr. Banerjee, who recently disgraced India's scientific community. Just as the Fukushima disaster turned nasty with the March 12-14 hydrogen explosions, he dismissed its gravity. He said the explosions -- which indicated severe core damage and aggravated it -- were "a purely chemical reaction, not a nuclear emergency!" Nothing could have been more delusional.
Dr. Singh promised to halt work on two Russian-made reactors at Koodankulam, but immediately went back on his word. The protestors started another fast and 10,000 people besieged the plant site.
The protestors shouldn't be treated like ignorant and misguided children to be coached and disciplined by a nanny state. Their leaders are well-informed professionals, including S.P. Udayakumar, who has taught at a US university, M. Pushparayan, a lawyer, and Tuticorin's Bishop.
Their case is compelling. The two 1,000 MW reactors under construction were never subjected to an Environment Impact Assessment. They were cleared by the environment ministry five years before the EIA process started -- without considering the intrinsic hazards of nuclear reactors.
The reactors will daily draw in millions of litres of freshwater, and release it at a high temperature into the sea, affecting the fish catch on which lakhs of livelihoods depend. They are being built within a one-kilometre radius of major population-centres, violating the 1.6-km "nil-population" zone stipulation.
The reactors will routinely release effluents and emissions containing radioactivity, a poison you can't see, touch or smell. Scientific studies covering 136 nuclear sites in seven countries show abnormally high leukemia rates among children, and higher incidence of cancers, congenital deformities, and immunity and organ damage.
All nuclear activities produce wastes, which remain hazardous for thousands of years. Science hasn't yet found a safe way of storing wastes.
Catastrophic accidents are possible in every nuclear reactor in the world, including a Chernobyl or Fukushima-style core meltdown. The death-toll from Chernobyl is conservatively estimated at 34,000 to 95,000, and is still climbing.
Twenty-five years on, 300,000 people cannot go back home because of radioactive contamination around Chernobyl. The Fukushima disaster still hasn't ended, but the station operator is already paying out $50 billion in damages.
A reactor is a barely controlled nuclear bomb, where a runaway chain reaction is prevented by circulating water and some safety devices. But these can fail. Lack of cooling can produce a catastrophe as the fuel gets relentlessly heated.
That's what happened at Fukushima. The reactors couldn't withstand the Magnitude 9 earthquake, belying the operator's claim. The tsunami knocked out the backup, precipitating a station blackout, causing a loss-of-coolant accident and meltdown.
A station blackout can occur because of any number of factors in any reactor, with unpredictable but uncontrollable consequences, including a meltdown.
PMANE activists understand this hazard. They probably know a lot more about the problems of Russian reactors than DAE bureaucrats who have failed to master nuclear technology.
A Norwegian group has revealed a special report by Russian nuclear safety experts in June, which says Russian rectors are grievously under-prepared for disasters.
The report comes from multiple sources including the natural resources ministry, federal regulators as well as Rosatom, the nuclear reactor operator. It says Russian reactors are marked by 31 "serious flaws," including absence of regulations for personnel to know how to deal with large-scale disasters or major contingencies; inadequate protective shelters; lack of records of previous accidents, which would help learn from past mistakes; and poor attention to safety-significant systems.
This holds true not just of the RBMK design implicated in Chernobyl, but also of the VVER-type reactors being installed at Koodankulam. The report questions the reactors' ability to remain safe if cooling systems fail.
Also, key equipment involved in cooling suffer from metal fatigue and welding flaws. Russian reactors are vulnerable to hydrogen explosions, which ripped up reactor buildings at Fukushima. Most important, the report says that the risk of earthquakes hasn't been factored into Russian reactors' design. Nor are there clear guidelines or sufficient infrastructure for spent-fuel management, making leaks possible during a disaster.
These disclosures are damning. Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko hasn't denied them, but merely claimed that more money would fix the flaws. The report contradicts the official Russian statement that a Fukushima-type meltdown could never happen in Russia.
The DAE makes identical claims about India -- as baselessly. Confronted with an informed opposition, it has stooped to maligning the broad-based multi-religious PMANE as a Church-dominated group.
The DAE also sees "the foreign hand" behind the movement. This is a bit rich coming from a department whose very survival now depends on the "foreign hand": importing reactors from Russia, France and the US -- without scrutiny.
Similarly, in Jaitapur in Maharashtra, the DAE is slinging mud at the opposition, while telling people "radiation is your friend." The French-designed European Pressurised Reactors to be installed there are as problem-ridden as and even more expensive than Koodankulam's VVERs.
EPRs haven't passed safety tests anywhere, including France. Indeed, 3,000 safety issues have been raised about them. Their construction, in Finland and France, is behind schedule by four years. They have become the world's costliest reactors -- about four times costlier than India's nuclear or coal-fired plants and wind turbines.
It would be suicidal for India to build such nuclear projects. They will bankrupt the electricity sector and impose terrible health risks. There are perfectly sound, safe, cost-competitive renewable energy alternatives to nuclear power. That's where the future lies.