Part 1 of this Nuclear Googly series ended with a rhetorical question: Who would take stewardship of India’s nuclear destiny?
This question was posed for a scenario where the Indian electorate was tired of the incumbent Congress-led UPA, and that the BJP was not a desirable option beyond a narrow spectrum of Hindu nationalist vote-bank, given it’s religious extremism, and it’s tendency to reverse positions on critical policy matters while in opposition.
The question was rhetorical because, in reality, there is no credible alternative apart the Congress & BJP. The Third Front is an ideological soup whose inherent contradictions are exposed at the slightest of divergence of opinion amongst it’s constituents. So, despite the fact that we have a theoretical Third Front led by the Left Parties, it is practically speaking, unviable.
So at the end of our search, with the BJP devoid of any direction, we are left at the mercy of the known devil, which is the Congress led UPA. As depressing as this sounds, it is the reality that we face. The history of the Congress Party whose ideological moorings are tied to Nehruvian Socialism and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) continues to manifest itself from time to time. Witness the last 3 years of this UPA government where it has handled the issue of Nuclear Power Generation with almost casual disregard. It is as if the momentous Nuclear Deal signed with the United States was an interesting diversion for the Congress leadership after which it got back to it’s old comfortable & familiar domain of short-term and populist socialist policies designed to appeal to India’s millions of poor & impoverished masses. Congress leaders very well know that India’s millions in the rural hinterland did not and would not care about geopolitical victories like the Nuclear Deal.
There is a sound reasoning behind the way the Congress views Nuclear power generation. With the recent history of peasant agitations against land acquisition by corporate interests, it is now considered political hara-kiri to propose or push for any development in rural or tribal areas, be it in the area of mining, hydro-electric power generation, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for industry, or Nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants, in particular, have been victim to controversy arising from a confluence of factors. These range from historical experience from badly managed disasters like the Bhopal gas tragedy, recent disasters like the Fukushima nuclear emergency in Japan, the actions of countries like Germany to mandate the shutdown of all their nuclear reactors in response to Fukushima, and last but not least – the protests against risks of nuclear reactors by locals worried about their livelihoods and displacement. All these factors combine to form a toxic and lethal rallying point against nuclear power.
Take the case of the proposed project at Jaitapur in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra which envisages six European Pressurized Reactors designed and developed by Areva of France, each of 1650 megawatts. Signed between French nuclear engineering firm Areva S.A. and Indian state-owned nuclear operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India, this planned project has been facing protests, many of which turned violent. These protests have been led by environmentalists and local villagers who have many arguments including a) that the type of reactors for this project are not operational anywhere in the world, b) environmental effects of nuclear power, c) the geological issues with the site of the reactors, d) adverse effects on the livelihoods of fishermen due to discharge of warm water into the surrounding sea, e) and the devastating effects of a nuclear crisis in the event of an earthquake and/or a tsunami like the recent one in Fukushima, Japan.
Then, we have the case of the Kundakulam Nuclear Power Plant Reactors already built in Tamil Nadu. Two reactors each of 1 Gigawatt capacity each were constructed by the Nuclear Power corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and Atomstroyexport of Russia. When commissioned, they will become the largest nuclear power generation complex in India producing a cumulative 2 GW of electric power. Four more reactors were set to be added to this plant under a memorandum of intent signed with Russia in 2008. But, here too as in Jaitapur, we have thousands of protesters and villagers rallying against the plants. Highways are being blocked, hunger strikes organized, and construction work prevented by locals fearing the sky falling on their heads like in Fukushima, should the plants become operational. Generic statements like “the nuclear plant is unsafe” are being bandied about which are difficult to immediately disprove in terms of convincing a common layperson about technical safeguards implemented.
Mind you, each one of the risk factors mentioned above is a valid one and the protesters are correct in questioning whether adequate measures were in fact taken to address them or not. The problem arises when the answers that are given to allay fears about such a technical subject are not comprehensible by the average protester. How, may I ask, is an expert on Nuclear Power Plant safety expected to convince a fisherman? Will radioactivity measures taken around the plant vicinity convince the skeptics?
In India we have a general tendency to use the term ‘risk’ as implying that the adverse scenario is certain to happen. Each risk is associated with two factors that are used to assess it’s mitigation strategy: 1) The probability of the adverse event occurring and 2) the impact of the occurrence of the adverse event. Just because a nuclear reactor is on the coast, doesn’t mean that a tsunami will occur and a nuclear disaster will result. Risk-management as a concept and prevailing practice has not been effectively communicated to the average layperson. It is here that political leaders whom the people vote into positions of power have to play the leading role in calming down frayed nerves and using effective communication strategies to educate people of the concepts of risk and risk management.
True, technical risk management is not an integral aspect of the lives of the average Indian, but on the other hand, if you allow people to start using ‘risk’ as an excuse to protest against doing anything at all, then India might as well give up on building any kind of power generation capacity. After all, even a dam powering a hydro-electric power generation facility is susceptible to risks. Why build any dams in the Himalayas given that they are perhaps the geologically most earthquake-prone regions in the Indian sub-continent? Does the Arabian Sea have a history of earthquakes and resulting tsunamis? Is the risk of radioactivity in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant more than what the general populace is exposed to daily sitting in front of their televisions?
An example: the likelihood of a tsunami hitting the Eastern coast of India is higher than one hitting the western coast, since the earthquake prone zone lies in the east in the ring of fire surrounding the Pacific. The 2004 tsunami was triggered by an earthquake in Indonesia situated in this geologically sensitive zone. On the other hand, the western part of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea have seen little geological activity of the sort that could trigger earthquakes. This is not to say that the risk is not there, but the likelihood or probability is much lesser. Using this reasoning, it becomes clear that a nuclear plant built on the coast of Tamil Nadu, is going to have a different set of safeguards than the one built on the coast of Maharashtra. Each location has it’s own unique set of risks which have to be then addressed using a unique combination of risk mitigation strategies. And, given that we have the benefit of hindsight from previous disasters like Fukushima, we can learn from their mistakes, and put in measures to have backups to even the backup power systems to keep the cooling systems working in order to prevent a meltdown like which happened in Fukushima.
New reactor designs also allow for the reactors to automatically shutdown should the power supply break through what is called a ‘Passive Heat Removal System’. Passive nuclear safety is a safety feature of a nuclear reactor that does not require operator actions or electronic feedback in order to shut down safely in the event of a particular type of emergency. Such reactors tend to rely more on the engineering of components such that their predicted behaviour according to known laws of physics would slow, rather than accelerate, the nuclear reaction in such circumstances. This is in contrast to some older reactor designs, where the natural tendency for the reaction was to accelerate rapidly from increased temperatures, such that either electronic feedback or operator triggered intervention was necessary to prevent damage to the reactor.
If we get down to the probability of earthquakes occurring on the Indian landmass itself, then Jaitapur falls in under the Zone 3 category of Moderate Earthquake Zone as specified by the Earthquake hazard zoning of India. This system divides India into four zones (from 2 to 5), where 5 stands for the highest severity, and Zone 2 the lowest. As per this zoning, Delhi falls under Zone 4, higher than the Jaitapur site. That does not mean that Jaitapur cannot have a high intensity earthquake, it’s just that the probability of such a high intensity one is low. Now, given this information, design considerations would need to account for a) preventing structural damage in high intensity earthquakes having low probability, and b) ensuring minimum or no damage in frequently occurring moderate intensity earthquakes. It’s basically the familiar bell curve in play here with extreme events having a low occurrence, and moderate incidents having higher occurrence.
A telling example of risk management is that of the state of California in the United States which sits on a fault-zone with as many as twenty low intensity earthquakes occurring every month. California nevertheless operates many nuclear plants, with a total of 104 reactors currently operating in the US. Japan itself sitting on the ring of fire is prone to devastating earthquakes operates 54 nuclear plants, and is not considering shelving nuclear energy wholesale. There are sensible proposals from the Japanese government to introduce legislation in the coming months to require reactors to stop running after 40 years. This would phase out reactors using older technology, and would allow maintaining the power generation capacity by building new plants with newer, safer technology.
Opponents in India cite the example of Germany, which took the unprecedented step of mandating that all nuclear plants in the country to be shutdown after a given date, and no more reactors to be built henceforth. The opponents use this as an example to argue that if an industrialized, progressive country like Germany can forgo nuclear energy, why can’t India?
Yes – why can’t India give up nuclear energy? Can India create enough energy to meet the demands of 1.2 billion people (and counting), unlike Germany with 80 million people? Are we serious when we say that we can fulfill all our energy needs using gas, coal, solar, wind, and hydro generated power? Why don’t we take the case of France, which sources more than 70% of its energy from nuclear sources? Why are we always picking extreme examples like Germany, and refusing to look at other examples like the United States, Japan, and France?
And is using coal and gas fired power plants really going to be our only major fallback option? What about the environment? India has a commitment, if not to itself, then to the rest of the world in making sure that it does not become a major polluter and contributor to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. How are we planning to address that? Putting up solar and wind powered plants is expensive, and takes up valuable land in a densely populated country like India. If you think the protests against the nuclear plants are big, wait till the Government starts land acquisition to create space for solar and wind farms. With the recent food price inflation fresh in the minds of the public, good luck with that.
I could go on, but ultimately we have to answer a basic question: are we going to continue to agitate always for the safest possible option with zero-risk? Zero-risk essentially means doing nothing, constructing nothing. No dams, no mines, no nuclear power plants. That is what zero-risk means. When you realize that, you then ask how do we deal with the risks of such power generation projects. Ah, we finally see some brain juices to start flowing! This is when you introduce the concept of risk management, and risk mitigation strategies, some of which were outlined above. This is essentially the message the Government should be conveying. Laudable though former President APJ Kalam’s visit to the Kundakulam Nuclear Power Plant was, his declaration that ‘it is safe’ did nothing to allay the fears of the protesters. Only when things are laid out in black & white in terms of what you will get for a zero-risk strategy, will people begin to understand that essentially there is no free lunch in generating infrastructure and power generating capacity. Similarly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts at allaying fears are misplaced. They do not remove the illogical reasoning that has taken root in the minds of the protesters. They instead reinforce the suspicion by sounding like forced statements coming from a defensive mindset.
Misplaced as they are, former President APJ Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at least tried to put up a defense of Nuclear energy. The rest of the political spectrum of leaders including those in the Congress Party have been ambivalent in their statements, if not downright hostile. Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was trying to blackmail the Central Government against commissioning the Kundakulam Power Plants, in return for a favorable intervention in the Mulliperiyar Dam water dispute with the neighboring state of Kerela. Such is politics, and you begin to wonder how we even managed to cross the number of 20 nuclear plants in India. Come to think of it, Jawaharlal Nehru’s push for the large-scale industrialization of India in the ’50s was perhaps the most progressive phase of India’s infrastructure and industrial revamping.
Lastly, and this is where we arrive at the crux of the Nuclear Googly India has thrown at itself.The passage of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal has a last step in implementing a Nuclear Liability Law, which deals with the compensation to be provided by the suppliers & operators of a Nuclear Plant in case of an accident. The international convention in the civil nuclear liability arena is to provide a cap on the amount of this compensation to around USD 285 million. Though there is no international obligation to do so, putting this cap would allow US nuclear supplier companies like GE & Westinghouse to apply for insurance. Without this cap, no insurance provider would be willing to cover the supplier. Now, while it is not obligatory for India to put such a cap, it is perhaps expected by the US, since it only then that the US will be able to reap some of the benefits of having pushed through the Nuclear Deal. Other countries like France & Russia have also some apprehensions on India’s version of the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, but are nevertheless going ahead with their projects. What their issues are with insurance in case of an accident are not immediately known.
There are several clauses in this Bill which have come under severe criticism by opponents for letting off operators and suppliers too lightly. With the memory of Bhopal still lingering in the minds of millions of Indians, such clauses fuel great suspicion and alarm. For example, The clause 7 defines the share of financial liability for each of the culpable groups. It states that the operator will have to pay Rs. 500 crore and the remaining amount will be paid by the Indian government. If written into the contract, the operator can claim the liabilities from the manufacturer and supplier. But the maximum amount payable by the foreign companies will be limited to a meagre sum of Rs. 1500 crore. This is considered as a moot point as the operator will be the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) which itself is a government owned facility. In other words, the government may have to foot the entire bill thereby exonerating the manufacturer/supplier. Another example is Clause 18 of the nuclear liability bill which limits the time to make a claim within 10 years. This is considered to be too short as there may be long term damage due to a nuclear accident.
Now, as if there weren’t enough sources of suspicion already in the minds of the public, the government had to go ahead and come up with such a bill. Essentially, its like being caught between choosing the frying pan or the fire, with the Indian public on one side, and the obligation to the US on the other. I feel sorry for the Indian government on this issue. It’s first obligation lies with the Indian people, whose interests it must protect. That it seems it has not done so in the provisions of the Nuclear Liability Bill is a matter of grave concern. The government is only making it’s case for nuclear energy in India that much tougher, never mind the obligation to the Americans.
It is not as if passing the Nuclear Liability Bill is going to put Indians at grave risk. Nuclear power generation technology has evolved significantly from it’s early days in the 1950′s, and is now much safer than it used to be. Nevertheless, perceptions matter, and the central message of this Nuclear Googly series is that the Government and our politicians are doing little to stem the slide in the public perception and confidence.