N-power is mired in deception | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 17, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 17, 2011

Praful Bidwai Column

N-power is mired in deception

India's former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam earned no credit for himself by visiting the controversial Koodankulam nuclear project in Tamil Nadu, and declaring it "100% safe."
The idea that any technology, especially a hazardous one like nuclear power, is "100% safe" is unscientific. All technologies carry risks. The more complicated, energy-dense, and dependent on high-pressure high-temperature systems they are, the higher the risk.
Dr. Kalam, the father of India's missile programme, supports outlandish ideas, like interlinking India's rivers, and making India "fully developed" by 2020, with per capita energy consumption rising 20 times, to US levels (thus burning coal, displacing millions, and raising greenhouse emissions).
Dr. Kalam didn't meet or convince the protesters, who are on a relay-fast for over three weeks. He blatantly sided with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) officials. His 10-point local development proposal doesn't address safety concerns.
Dr. Kalam's visit was part of a three-pronged attack by India's nuclear establishment on Koodankulam's protesters. The second prong is disinformation that they are imperilling the safety of the nuclear plant which recently had a "hot run."
The third is malicious propaganda that the protesters are being misled by "foreign" environmentalists and nuclear manufacturers with rival designs to Koodankulam's Russian-origin reactors.
Department of Atomic Energy secretary Srikumar Banerjee claimed that Koodankulam cannot be "just switched on and off…We have done the hot run. We can't go from hot run to a freeze condition…" NPCIL chairman S.K. Jain added, [a reactor] is "not a car factory where you can switch off the systems... You have simulators, ventilators, computer and electronic systems…."
Such scare-mongering is deplorable. There is no nuclear danger at Koodankulam yet. Its reactors-under-construction haven't gone critical, with a nuclear-fission chain-reaction. Basically, it's still like a car factory, which too has simulators, ventilators and computers.
A "hot run" involves loading dummy fuel (without uranium) into the reactor, and heating the primary coolant water to "280 degrees Celsius …," according to site director M.K. Balaji. After the three-week-long hot run "the reactor would be disassembled," not just shut, and the reactor vessel, pipelines and gauges inspected. The run's purpose is to test the coolant circuit.
Until criticality occurs, Koodankulam's safety won't be affected if operations are suspended. Even shutting down working reactors isn't rocket science. All reactors are periodically closed for maintenance. Many have been shut down for good -- recently in Japan and Germany, and earlier in the US, France, Britain, Italy, etc.
The DAE/NPCIL is playing dirty with the "foreign hand" allegation. I confirmed through telephone calls that there are no foreign protesters in Koodankulam. The only foreigners around are the Russian engineers invited by NPCIL!
The charge is a bit rich coming from the DAE. All DAE reactors are based on Canadian or US designs. Its very survival depends on imports.
Former DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar explained to Marathi daily Sakaal (Jan 5) why India is offering lucrative reactor deals to foreign suppliers: "We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and … companies …America, Russia and France were … made mediators in [promoting the US-India nuclear agreement]… for nurturing their business interests, we made deals with them …"
The DAE's gutter-level anti-protest campaign will only further discredit it. The DAE has never completed a major project on time or without a 300%-plus cost overrun. Its safety performance is appalling, with numerous accidents and exposure of workers to radiation in excess of the officially stipulated limits, including 350 cases from the Tarapur power station alone.
DAE accidents include a fire in the turbine room (Narora 1993), collapse during construction of a containment dome -- a "safety" structure -- (Kaiga 1994), pipeline leaks (BARC 1991), heavy water spills (Rajasthan 1999; Kalpakkam 1999), massive leaks of radioactive substances (Kalpakkam 2003), and contamination of drinking water with highly toxic tritium (Kaiga, 2009).
According to former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman A. Gopalakrishnan, these accidents were never properly investigated, and nobody was punished.
The DAE lacks a commitment to transparency, truthfulness and safety. Its knee-jerk response is to deny that nuclear reactors pose a safety problem. When the truth becomes undeniable, it trivialises the problem.
Thus, Messrs Banerjee and Jain denied the gravity of the March 12-14 hydrogen explosions at Fukushima. Banerjee said the blasts -- which indicated severe core damage and aggravated it, causing three meltdowns -- were "a purely chemical reaction, not a nuclear emergency!" Jain called it a "planned emergency preparedness programme…"
It's an abiding disgrace that such delusion-prone men should be entrusted with ultra-hazardous nuclear power.
Popular fears about Koodankulam's hazards are well-founded. Science shows that all reactors types can undergo a catastrophic accident, releasing radioactivity. Radioactivity poisons air, water, and plant and animal life, causing cell death, genetic damage and cancers.
Nuclear power is bound up with radiation from cradle to grave -- from uranium mining to spent-fuel reprocessing and storage. Contrary to Dr. Kalam's claim, reprocessing 99% of Koodankulam's spent fuel won't eliminate radiation, but produce yet more radioactivity and nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste remains hazardous for thousands of years. Half the Plutonium-239 in it will be present even after 24,000 years, and half the Uranium-235 for 710 million years. Science knows no way of safely storing such substances, leave alone disposing them of. Even routine emissions and effluents from nuclear plants are dangerous.
Nuclear power is also far costlier than electricity from conventional fuels, and increasingly, renewable sources like wind, biomass and solar, whose costs are falling amazingly rapidly.
Nuclear power's greenhouse emissions are also higher per unit of power than those from most renewables. It cannot "decarbonise" the energy economy cost-effectively or rapidly enough.
The nuclear industry was always promoted through deception and public subsidies. No bank would finance it. It has been called "the greatest failure of any enterprise in industrial history," which has lost more than $1 trillion in subsidies, cash losses, abandoned projects and damage. It's high time we stopped this juggernaut.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.
E-mail: bidwai@bol.net.in

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