Friday, 2 September 2016

Nuclear Power and its implications for environment and human safety

There are at present over 400 nuclear power plants in the world. These plants provide less than 7% of  world’s total energy supply. India’s share of nuclear power generation  is just 1.2% of world’s nuclear power generation capacity, making it the world’s 15th largest   nuclear power producer. India has  7 nuclear power plants(21 reactors) having an installed capacity of 5780 MW.(as in 2013).These nuclear power plants are located in six states  of  Maharashtra , Gujrat , Rajasthan , U.P. , Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Out of these , only one nuclear power station is located in UP at Narora. It is operated by NPCIL  and has two units of 220MW each (total 440MW).Four projects(6 units) are under construction in Tamil Nadu , Rajasthan and Gujrat ,with capacity of 4300 MW.
                    India gets under 2% of its electricity   from nuclear power with the rest coming from  coal(60%) , hydroelectricity(16%), other renewable sources (12%)  and natural gas (9%). India plans  to produce 25% of its electricity from   nuclear power in due course(9% by 2032).
                    India has had many advocates for nuclear power , the most notable in the recent past being our former President , Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam who said: ”Energy independence is India’s first and highest  priority. India has to go for nuclear power  generation in a big way using Thorium  based reactors .Thorium , a non-fissile material is available in abundance in  our country.” There is no burning of fossil fuel in nuclear power plants , no green house gases  are produced. Nuclear energy produces more  electricity on less land  than other carbon free technologies. It is under such reasoning  that India is going in a big way for setting up nuclear power plants.
             But let us go  into the safety and environment aspects of nuclear power plants. There have been three major  reactor accidents  in the history of nuclear power generation . They are :
1. Three Mile Island  (USA , 1979)
2. Chernobyl              (Ukraine , 1986)
3. Fukushima              (Japan , 2011).      
 Tem former Nobel Peace Laureates , including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rigobata Manchu Tum  stated the following in an April  21 , 2011 open letter  to 31 Heads of State  whose countries are currently  heavily invested in nuclear power production  or are considering investing  in nuclear power: ”Choose renewable energy over nuclear power :Nobel Peace Laureates to World Leaders::
On the twenty fifth anniversary  of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine—and more than two months after the massive earthquake  and tsunami that devastated Japan , it is time to recognise that  nuclear power is not a clean , safe or affordable source of energy.
  We are deeply disturbed that   the lives of people in Japan are  being endangered by nuclear radiation in the air , in the water or  in the food  as a result  of the breakdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. We firmly believe that if the world phases out its current use of nuclear power , future generations of people everywhere—and the Japanese people who have already suffered  too much – will live in greater peace and security.
             Radiation is not just  a concern  in a nuclear accident .Each link in the nuclear fuel chain  releases radiation , starting with drilling for uranium ;  it then continues for generations  because nuclear waste includes plutonium  that will remain toxic for thousands of years. Despite years of research  , countries with nuclear energy programme such as the United States  have failed to solve the challenge of  finding safe and secure storage  for spent nuclear fuel.
                There are presently over 400 nuclear power plants  in the world –many in places of high risk  for natural disaster or political upheaval . These plants provide less than 7% of the world’s total energy supply .As world leaders , you can work together  to replace this small amount of energy  to move us towards  a carbon-free and nuclear –free future.”
                    Though there was no death , injury or adverse health effects  due to Three Mile Island accident , it shattered the  public confidence in nuclear energy , especially in the USA. As a result   , there was a major decline in nuclear  construction though the  1980’s and 1990’s .The lessons learnt were applied in a big way in all the nuclear power plants in the USA.
                            In Chernobyl accident , 30 firemen and operators were killed  within 3 months. In addition , 28 persons died as a result of Acute Radiation Syndrome(ARS) within a few weeks of the accident. 19 more died subsequently between 1987 and 2004.The Chernobyl Forum report said that   about seven million people are now receiving  or are eligible for benefits as Chernobyl Victims. In what is referred to as his Testament –which was published soon after his suicide   two years after the accident –Valery Legasov- who led the soviet delegation to  the IAEA post-accident review meeting ,wrote,: After I had visited  Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,I came to the conclusion that  the accident was the inevitable  apotheosis of the economic system which had been developed in the USSR  over many decades.  Neglect by the scientific management   and the designers was every where with no attention being paid to  the condition of instruments or of equipment.”
                   In Fukushima accident , there were no deaths from the accident but  over one lac people were evacuated from their homes so that there was no radiation exposure. There have been over 1000 deaths from maintaining the evacuation. Evacuation orders were issued to people residing  within 20kms of the site. Fukushima accident destroyed the public confidence  in Japan  in nuclear power, particularly in earthquake-prone regions having reactors. Japan has decided to  meet its energy needs without relying on nuclear power  and  is now going  for alternatives to nuclear power .Japan is building a network of 30  solar power stations , of 2MW each.
      A disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima , if it happens in a densely populated country like India , could have huge human , economic and environmental  consequences, as had happened in the  industrial disaster  of Union carbide , Bhopal. There have been mass protests in India against the French-backed 9900MW   Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra. Though India has enacted 2010 Nuclear Liability Act   which puts financial responsibility and compensation  in case of a nuclear accident on  nuclear suppliers, contractors and operators. But is it enough to make provision for financial   compensation  ? We just have to look at the  precariously hanging electricity distribution lines in any city like Lucknow and ask whether we have the confidence  in the maintenance of equipments and instruments of nuclear power plants ?Where does  nuclear power  fit in the culture of neglect and indifference among public sector employees in India ?And add to this the rampant corruption  in public sector in supply of plants , materials and accessories. We need to think and re-think   hard about  our  nuclear options  and pay heed to the appeal of ten Nobel Peace Laureates  against  going in for nuclear power. India  , which has lot of land and sunshine , may opt for cost-effective, cleaner  and  safer  solar power , where location is also  not at all critical.(This article was published in Tree Take  magazine , Lucknow in its August 15,2016 issue.)