Are India’s nuclear power plants unsafe?

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India Climate Dialogue, Tamil Nadu, India

Recent shutdowns at atomic plants, which are critical to the government’s strategy to veer away from coal-fired energy, have raised disturbing questions over safety and transparency

An image of Kundakulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu taken in 2013. Ever since it began, it has faced a series of shutdowns that has impacted its production. (Image by Petr Pavlicek / IAEA)

An image of Kundakulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu taken in 2013. Right from the onset, it has faced a series of shutdowns that has impacted its production severely. (Image by Petr Pavlicek / IAEA)

Even as India seeks to contain its carbon footprint by favouring alternatives to coal such as renewable and atomic energy, recent shutdowns of several nuclear reactors are causing concern about their safety systems.

A refurbished pipe carrying heavy water sprang a leak at Unit 1 in Kakrapar Atomic Power Station in the western state of Gujarat on March 11, forcing the plant operator to seal the reactor building and declare an on-site emergency. Since Unit 2 has been under maintenance shutdown since July 2015, the utility has now stopped producing electricity. Although the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has termed the leak in the primary heat transport system as an incident and not accident, some experts are not reassured.

This is the latest in several shutdowns at Kakrapar that started commercial production in 1993. Its reactor was flooded in 1994 and there were shutdowns in 2004 and 2011 as well. The plant is located in southern Gujarat near the west coast.

“There have been safety concerns about atomic power plants in India for a long time. The leak in Unit 1 of the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS-1) is indicative of the continuous danger of technological failures,” said M.V. Ramana, a physicist working at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory in Princeton University.

Production has been stuttering due to shutdowns even in the spanking new nuclear power plant at Kudankulam near Chennai on the east coast, which started commercial production on December 31, 2014. In the last month alone, the facility has been shut down twice, on February 4 and 16. Prior to that, it was under maintenance shutdown for seven months, unusual for any new factory. In the nine months till December, the latest period for which data is available, electricity generated at Kudankulam was less than 25% of its installed capacity.

Questions over components

These stoppages in the plant in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have been due to reasons such as a steam leak and what has been called instrumentation deficiencies. Experts and activists have alleged use of defective and aged components, but their observations have been brushed aside by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), the state-owned utility that runs these plants.

Nuclear power is supposed to play a large role in ensuring India’s energy security. The country’s largely indigenous nuclear power programme expects to have 14.6 GW of installed capacity by 2024 and 63 GW by 2032, according to the World Nuclear Association, a London-based industry lobby group. The Indian government aims to produce 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

Experts and activists are sceptical of the government being able to meet its target. “India’s nuclear establishment has forever been threatening massive increases in nuclear power’s share of Indian electricity capacity. The fact is that 60 years after its first grand claim, nuclear electricity’s share in India’s electricity mix is less than 4%,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and social activist.

Ramana agrees with this view.  “All Indian governments have been committed to increasing nuclear power production. But the growth of nuclear power in the country has always been slow. Nuclear power contributed about 3.5% of India’s electricity in 2015. It has been at a similar level for a long time and it will probably stay at a roughly similar level for a long time to come,” said Ramana, who is author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India,

India depends heavily on fossil fuels for its electricity needs. More than two-thirds of its installed capacity is from plants powered by coal, oil and natural gas. The government has been extremely proactive in promoting alternative sources to reduce this dependence, making rapid strides in the renewable energy sector in the past few years.

Nuclear energy also plays a vital role in the government’s scheme of things in this context. The country was for many years treated as a pariah by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a set of nations exporting atomic reactors and fuel, since it did not sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That status underwent a change after India signed a civil nuclear pact with the United States of America in 2008. It has since then secured initial uranium supply agreements from Australia and Canada, the two nations that produce most of the radioactive fuel to run nuclear plants. The government is also in talks with reactor manufacturers in the US and France to install nuclear power plants in the country.

Protests galore

However, questions have been raised on the cost of these plants as well, besides the issue of protests in locations where the plants are proposed. “I don’t think they (the costs) are justified. And, if safety is to be given adequate priority, the economics will become worse, and make it harder to justify nuclear power,” Ramana said.

“Nuclear plants are expensive. The proposed plants in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh with Westinghouse and GE reactors will be far more expensive and difficult to build, with average gestation time of 15 years from the time construction begins,” said Jayaraman.

Emailed queries on safety issues to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the country’s apex policymaking body, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), AERB and NPCIL remained unanswered.

India’s nuclear establishment has been criticised often for its lack of transparency. Many experts say that there is inadequate separation of the government agencies that work in this sector.

“All future plans for expanding the civilian nuclear power sector should be put on hold until a truly independent nuclear safety regulator is put in place, who is not controlled by the AEC or the Prime Minister’s Office, who will then be answerable to openly communicating with the public on all civilian nuclear power matters,” A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of AERB, wrote in a note on March 12.

Jayaraman has a few suggestions to address this knotty problem. “Decouple AERB from DAE. Rewrite the laws to introduce autonomy. Enforce the Right to Information Act on all civilian nuclear facilities, and on the radiation and pollution related aspects of all nuclear facilities.”

Ramana argues for creating a role for independent experts in the assessment of any project. These citizen-nominated experts could be scientists from another field, and do not need to be nuclear engineers to understand a specific safety related discussion, he said.