Nuclear emergency in Japan: lessons for India

Posted on | november 25, 2011 | 1 Comment

The recent devastation that has impacted the people of Japan has been described as of epic proportions of many kinds: loss of lives, loss of private properties and public assets; economic set back; and nuclear emergency. While there was not much the civil society could do to avoid the earth quake and Tsunami, the man made nuclear scenario has emerged as the focal issue because of its long term ramifications on Japan itself and also on its neighbors.

Whereas the whole world is extending its sympathy and support to the people in Japan, there are also many lessons for poor countries like India with dense population. A crucial lesson has been the folly of the misconception that the over reliance on modern technology alone can ensure safety, security and welfare of the masses even in a developed country such as Japan.

While the nuclear emergency caused by Tsunami/earthquake has thrown up many critical issues even in a safety and quality conscious country like Japan, it is very hard to imagine that the powerful and secretive nuclear power sector in our country (a country generally associated with corrupt and poor quality practices) has taken all the essential and adequate precautions to avoid such nuclear emergencies. It is even more critical to ask ourselves whether a densely populated and resource constrained country like ours can afford such a nuclear emergency?

While it is clear as to why Japan has put so much importance for the safety and reliability of its nuclear power plants (it is relying on its nuclear power industry for about 30% of its total electricity supply), can we assume similar checks and balances in India where the installed capacity of nuclear power is only about 2.8%?

In this background and with the potential for nuclear catastrophe our society has to seek answer to a credible question: whether the planned addition of more than 60,000 MW of nuclear power by 2031-32 (as per Integrated Energy Policy, IEP) is in the interest of our society?. It is also the high time that the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power park in Maharastra, and similar nuclear power parks in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarath are put to such a critical and objective analysis. A document by DAE (A Strategy for the Growth of Electricity in India: indicates the aspiration of the department to increase the nuclear power capacity to 274,560 MW by 2052. It is very unlikely that the huge risks involved in such a large number of nuclear reactors in the form of vast nuclear power parks can be acceptable to a densely populated and poor country like ours.

The other question that needs to be answered honestly is that in the backdrop of all the associated high risks, are nuclear power plants essential to our society? Can we not manage the legitimate demand for electricity from so many other benign options? It is very relevant here to note that our society will not need many more conventional power plants such as nuclear, coal based or dam based hydro power plants to meet the true demand for electricity of all sections.

In this context one would expect environment ministry and the Union Government to take serious note of the nuclear emergencies in Japan, objectively learn from the situation there, and take people friendly and environment friendly decisions towards the welfare of the masses. Since our country has not committed itself yet to rely on nuclear power technology to meet substantial percentage of its electrical energy (unlike the case of Japan), there is a huge scope for our society to correct the past mistake of investing massively in the nuclear power sector.

Countries like Australia and New Zealand will never have to worry about such nuclear emergencies, because they have clearly stated “NO” to nuclear power. Our society will do well to notice that since the nuclear emergency in Japan, the governments of Germany and Switzerland are reported to be reviewing their nuclear power plans. European Union also is reported to be reviewing the safety of so many nuclear power plants spread all over Europe. We have to seriously consider the consequences of nuclear emergencies in our densely populated country with low literacy levels.

There is an urgent need to address a fundamental set of issues. Do we need nuclear power plants to meet the legitimate electricity demand of our masses? If so, how many are needed? If they are safe and economically viable, as being claimed by the nuclear establishment, why not increase its share of the total installed power capacity as in France? Who can guarantee us of the required amount of fissile material required for the economic life of these plants? How are we going to ensure the safety of the plants and the spent fuel for thousands of years? Shall we not ponder whether it is fair to pass on all these costs and risks to the future generations, while the present generation may get the meager benefit of electricity at a very low Plant Load Factors (as is the record for our nuclear power plants)? Why have we not objectively considered very many benign alternatives to meet the electricity demand of our masses?

Since each of the three techno-economic super powers (USA, Russia and Japan) has experienced the nuclear emergency from their power plants, the very wisdom of relying on nuclear power technology is being increasingly questioned. If such resource rich and knowledgeable communities could not avert nuclear emergencies, can our densely populated and ill-prepared society ever hope to avert the possible human catastrophe from a nuclear mishap?

In this regard the larger issues of nuclear power technology deserve detailed attention in order to ensure that society’s overall welfare is protected.

IEP admits that India is poorly endowed with Uranium, and that the known sources within the country can supply only about 10,000 MW of power capacity based on Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR). It also say that because of low grade Uranium ore available in the country, Indian nuclear fuel costs at least 3 times that of international supplies. It adds that the substantial Thorium reserve in the country should be harnessed by converting it into fissile material through three stage development: PHWRs, fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), and reactors based on Uranium -233 and Thorium -232 cycle, which is still reported to be far away from reality. Yet IEP advocates a large and unrealistic addition to nuclear power capacity by 2031-32.

Observers of nuclear power industry have been of the opinion that whereas the nuclear establishment in the country has been making tall claims on the increased role of nuclear energy, the reality has been much less in successive decades after independence. On the basis of many plans and assuming optimistic development times, Dr. Homi Bhabha had announced that there would be 8,000 MW of nuclear power in the country by 1980. As the years progressed, these predictions increased. By 1962, the prediction was that nuclear energy would generate 20,000 -25,000 MW by 1987 and by 1969 the AEC predicted that by 2000 there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear generating capacity. All of this was before a single unit of nuclear electricity was produced in the country – India’s first reactor, Tarapur, was only commissioned in 1969! {M. V. Ramana, “Nuclear Power in India: Failed Past, Dubious Future”, March 2007,}.

The reality has been quite different. Installed capacity of nuclear power generation in 1979-80 was about 600 MW; about 950 MW in 1987; 2,720 MW in 2000; and 4,120 MW in mid-2009. Despite the huge increase in electricity generation capacity in India, from a meager 1,800 MW in 1950 to 90,000 MW in 2000 and 147,000 MW in 2009, the total contribution of nuclear power to the total power generation capacity is about 3% only.

The observers are also of the opinion that this utter failure has not been because of a paucity of resources. Practically all governments have favored nuclear energy and the DAE’s budgets have always been high. The high allocations for the DAE have come at the cost of promoting other, more sustainable, sources of power. In 2002-03, for example, the DAE was allocated Rs. 33.5 billion, dwarfing in comparison the Rs. 4.7 billion allocated to the Ministry of Nonconventional Energy Sources (MNES), which is in charge of developing solar, wind, small hydro, and biomass based power. Despite the smaller allocations, installed capacity of these sources was 4,800 MW in 2005 (as compared to 3,310 MW of nuclear energy). {M. V. Ramana, “Nuclear Power in India: Failed Past, Dubious Future”, March 2007,}.

Today, notwithstanding over five decades of sustained and lavish government support, nuclear power amounts to just about 4,000 MW. As against this, the current installed base of renewable energy is about 13,200 MW. That is, India’s renewable energy capacity is three times that of nuclear energy, despite the fact that the government expenditure on the latter has been many times that on renewable energy {M. V. Ramana, “Nuclear Power in India: Failed Past, Dubious Future”, March 2007,}.

While the country is fortunate that there were no major accidents in the nuclear establishment, the observers are of the opinion that adequate safety of operation in the nuclear facilities within the country cannot be guaranteed for various reasons. While more and more complex safety systems/redundancies are being designed and built for the overall safety of nuclear power stations, it should be noted that they are only increasing the number of sub-systems and the complexity. Such complex systems can result in increasing the risk of failure of individual sub-systems/ sub-components (because of unintended/ unexpected interaction between sub-systems), and increasing new accident modes. All these can result in an increase in the number of automatic shutdown of reactors or catastrophic failures. The rapidity at which a minor problem in the complex system of safety can escalate into a major disaster is great in a nuclear power station, as experienced at Chernobyl.

Tall claims have been made about the capability of Indian nuclear establishments, especially the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), to ensure complete safety of nuclear power projects. The fact that the people manning AERB are generally deputed from Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) OR Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd., which is the operator of the nuclear power plants in the country, cannot assure the complete operational independence of AERB. As far as Chernobyl disaster is concerned Indian nuclear authorities have said that “… secrecy was part of the Soviet culture…” How transparent are the issues with our own nuclear establishments? Mr. A Gopalakrishnan, A former Chairman of AERB, has expressed concern about the complete dependence of AERB on DAE for resources.

There have been suggestions from Indian nuclear authorities that the safe storage of nuclear waste is technically feasible during its active life time. Is it really so, and if so, what about the huge costs involved? Are the efforts to keep nuclear waste safe for thousands of years worthy of all the risks involved? In this regard there are credible and serious concerns that whereas the present generation may get the benefit of electricity from nuclear power, the future generations have to deal with all the risks and costs associated with the spent fuel. Is this fair or socially responsible?

Pro-nuclear advocates have started to argue that nuclear power is a good option against Global Warming. Observers are of the opinion that “flailing nuclear establishments around the world, including India’s, have grabbed this second opportunity and made claims for massive state investments in the hope of resurrecting an industry that has largely collapsed due to its inability to provide clean, safe or cheap electricity”. Two assumptions made by such pro-nuclear advocates are fundamentally flawed. One is that Global Warming can be contained without fundamentally changing the Western pattern of energy consumption, because nuclear energy is tiny contributor to energy mix world wide. It is generally considered to be impossible to contain Global Warming without significantly reducing the energy consumption levels of Western/ developed countries.

The second flawed assumption is that adoption of nuclear power can make sense as a strategy to lower aggregate carbon emissions. In this regard an example of Japan, a pro-nuclear energy country is given. As Jinzaburo Takagi, a Japanese nuclear Chemist, has showed, from 1965 to 1995 Japan’s nuclear power plant capacity went from zero to over 40,000 MW. During the same period its CO2 emissions increased from about 400 million tons to about 1,200 million tons. Increased use of nuclear power did not really reduce Japan/s emission levels. {M. V. Ramana, “Nuclear Power in India: Failed Past, Dubious Future”, March 2007,}.

Additionally, the amount of energy consumed in the nuclear fuel cycle from the mining stage till its radio active emission gets reduced to safe levels after hundreds of years is estimated to be colossal. The total energy consumed by these processes during the life cycle of a set of nuclear fuels, is estimated to be more than the energy generated by such nuclear fuels. The contribution to atmospheric pollution at the stages of mining and processing, and radiation leaks to atmosphere are not inconsiderable. Taking all these facts into objective account it is certain that nuclear power cannot be a source of clean and green energy. There are much better, cheaper and safer options.

As a long term policy document, IEP was expected to consider all the related issues w.r.t a technology. But in case of nuclear power technology the issues relating to the environmental impacts of nuclear ore mining, radiation risks involved in the entire cycle, popular local opposition for locating a nuclear reactor in a given area, difficulties experienced in land acquisition, and the crucial issue of long term storage of spent fuel have not even been referred to. IEP is quiet on such issues.

The exorbitant capital and operating costs, cost and time over runs, subsidies and hidden costs in the Indian context of nuclear power plants have also been quietly ignored by IEP. International studies have established that if we take into account the true costs associated with disposing nuclear waste, decommissioning the worn out plants, and insuring reactors against catastrophic failures into objective account building nuclear plants in a competitive electricity market is not simply economical. If the import of technology and fuel are to be relied upon the energy security becomes a major issue which has not been addressed. It is very strange that IEP has not dedicated much space for the discussion on nuclear power issue.

As stated by Hazel Henderson, a columnist (Deccan Herald of 29.6.2010), “Nuclear energy, heavily subsidized since its inception, is still the most inefficient, expensive and hazardous way that humans have ever devised to boil water.”

It is a sector on which the govt. is known to be spending large amounts of national resources, because of which much more discussion of the related issues should have been held while formulating recommendations in IEP. Unfortunately, the views of Dept. of Atomic Energy and the personal views of nuclear power proponents seem to have been simply accepted. The fact that not a single a nuclear reactor has been approved in USA or UK after the Chernobyl disaster; the difficulties faced in 1-2-3 agreement with USA; and public opposition to Nuclear Damages Civil Liability Bill etc. should have been taken into objective account.

There seems to be growing skepticism even to finance the nuclear power. “Too many well known banks that otherwise have taken laudable steps towards sustainability, are still investing heavily in the nuclear industry, putting the world on the wrong energy track. Sustainable banking and financing nuclear energy are simply incompatible” said Johan Frijns, BankTrack coordinator.

As per IEP’s projection even with about 17 times increases in capacity by 2031-32 (from present level of about 3,700 MW to 63,000), nuclear contribution can only be about 8 % of the total capacity. As compared to this huge capacity addition projection many countries are planning to raise the percentage of renewables to about 20% of their energy mix. Being a tropical country India is endowed with much more renewable energy potential such as solar power than many other countries which have shown determination to increase their renewable energy share to 20-25%. Israel is reported to be planning for about 50% share of renewable energy. As per a simulation by Greenpeace International, by 2050 India can meet around 65% of electricity and 50% of the Primary Energy demands from renewable energy sources.

The proponents of nuclear power in India project it as a very safe technology. But the reality in Indian conditions seems to be vastly different. In an article by rediff NEWS at on 4th October 2010 under the title “197 suicides and 1,733 deaths at India’s nuclear establishments in last 15 yrs”, it was mentioned that “197 employees belonging to a number of nuclear establishments and related institutes in India have committed suicide and 1,733 scientists and employees belonging to these centres have died of illnesses like multiple organ failure, lung cancer, cirrhosis of liver etc, as per a report compiled by Mumbai-based RTI activist Chetan Kothari.”

There is also a considered opinion of the experts that due to exorbitant costs associated and the base load nature, nuclear power can be at best suited to rich societies with high per capita consumption. But for a poor country, like India, it cannot be a suitable option from any perspective.

A press release on 31. March 2011 by Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Power refers to a study on potential savings in the states and indicates that the total consumption assessed in all States is 501,003 MU of electricity; there is a deficit of 73,093 MU and the total energy saving potential is 75,364.08 MU. This is about 15 % of the total consumption. This clearly indicates that in reality there is no need for the crippling power cuts we are facing today. This potential when combined with other efficiency measures like high performance of generating plants, T&D loss reduction, energy conservation, and modest use of the commercially available technologies on distributed renewable energy sources can mean that our country may not need additional conventional power plants for next few years; certainly we do not need the large number of power plants being planned/executed all over the country.

T&D loss reduction from the present level of about 28% to 10% alone can provide about additional power capacity which will be equal to 6 times the present installed nuclear power capacity. So the irrelevance of nuclear power to our electricity supply scenario is obvious. In this context the very need for many nuclear power parks can be & must be consistently questioned. Only the people directly dependent on nuclear establishment are the beneficiaries of the huge money being invested in nuclear power in India. This fact has to be highlighted.

In view of the multifarious problems associated with nuclear power plants and its miniscule contribution to overall energy scenario even by 2031-32, our society should thoroughly review whether the resources made available for this sector is well spent on developing the new & renewable energy sources, which will eliminate all the thorny issues associated with nuclear power sector.

An objective analysis of all the costs and benefits to the society of nuclear power plants will most certainly reveal that while the costs are unbelievably high, the benefits are very meager and that too for a small section of the society. Without undertaking such objective analysis and without taking all the stakeholders into confidence, to continue to rely of nuclear power will tantamount to letting down our people.

Without an objective and transparent process of diligent approval mechanism for high impact nuclear power projects, it is not inconceivable that the present and future generations are likely to blame the MoEF and the present Union Government for all the dire consequences of nuclear emergencies in this country.

AUTHOR: Shankar Sharma
E-MAIL: shankar.sharma2005 [at]


One Response to “Nuclear emergency in Japan: lessons for India”

  1. Navroze Contractor
    november 27th, 2011 @ 01:42

    Mr Sharma, you have said it all. Congratulations.

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