21 May 2011

The multiple costs of India’s nuclear ambitions

Areva claims that the European Pressurized Reactors it plans to install at the proposed nuclear plant in Jaitapur will provide “an unequalled safety level”. If so, Areva should be willing to risk its financial health on the safety of its reactors and accept an unlimited amount of liability for accidents, instead of lobbying for a modification in India’s already absurdly low liability caps, argue MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju in the second of our series on rethinking nuclear energy after Fukushima

Writing as we are after the tragic earthquake in Japan and the multiple accidents at the Fukushima nuclear reactors, we cannot think about India’s nuclear ambitions without discussing what went wrong in Fukushima and its implications for evaluating the risk of nuclear accidents. This is all the more necessary because discussions of nuclear power in India have been dominated by voices from the Department of Atomic Energy and related institutions, which have been busy trying to make the accident at Fukushima seem like an aberration, at times denying reality completely. Joining this chorus of reassurances has been the international nuclear industry, which is looking to make billions of dollars in sales of reactors to India after the US-India nuclear deal. Domestically, the Manmohan Singh government, which staked its survival on this deal in 2008, is deeply politically invested in pushing through a large nuclear expansion. 

Let us start with the assurance offered by the chairperson of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission to viewers of NDTV on March 20, 2011 that Indian reactors are “100%” safe. One should add, though, that according to him, what happened in Fukushima was “purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency”. Is it really true that all of the nuclear reactors in India have a 0% chance of undergoing a major accident?  

This can be answered in two ways. Empirically, there have been many accidents and incidents of safety lapses at the facilities run by India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and its sister organisations. These accidents, and the underlying causes, show that these organisations have poor safety culture, hardly what is recommended when dealing with a hazardous and complex technology like nuclear power. It has been mostly luck that prevented some of these from escalating into major catastrophes. 

Theoretically, nuclear power advocates have a standard though flawed argument: reactors are safe because they have “defence-in-depth”. That concept refers to the practice of having multiple protective systems so that they would all have to fail before a radioactive release occurs.  However the key point is that while it might be improbable for these systems to fail independently it is possible for a single initiating event to cause simultaneous or sequential failures. In Fukushima, the earthquake not only knocked out the primary power supply, it also caused a tsunami that disabled the backup power supply.  Events of this sort are very hard to model in the “probabilistic risk analysis” (PRA) that the industry performs to produce estimates of how infrequent reactor accidents are. 

In fact, perhaps the only robust conclusion one can draw from the PRA methodology is that no two major accidents are alike. This means, unfortunately, that while we can guard against an exact repeat of the Fukushima failure, the next nuclear accident will probably be caused by a different combination of initiating factors and failures.  The many claims we have seen about how reactors, such as the one proposed for Jaitapur in Maharashtra, are safe because they are sufficiently far from the coast and thus protected from tsunamis, are misleading; the next accident is more likely to result from other root causes, not tsunamis. The tsunami was a sufficient condition to trigger the Fukushima accidents, not a necessary condition. 

Despite their claims about the safety of their reactors, nuclear manufacturers and operating entities have known all along that catastrophic accidents are possible. This is why they spent so much effort in lobbying the Indian parliament to pass a nuclear liability law that would limit the amount of compensation they would have to hand out in the event of a disaster. Areva claims that the European Pressurized Reactors it plans to install in Jaitapur provide “an unequalled safety level”. If so, Areva should be willing to risk its financial health on the safety of its reactors and accept an unlimited amount of liability for accidents which, in any case, are supposedly impossible in its facilities. The fact that President Sarkozy, on his visit to India, insisted that India should modify its liability law to indemnify Areva from the cost of a disaster belies these reassuring pronouncements. 

The accident in Fukushima also brings out the absurdly low level of the Indian liability cap, which is set at a maximum of the rupee equivalent of 300 million special drawing rights (approximately $462 million). Accurate estimates are not yet available, but the economic loss due to Fukushima has probably already exceeded this figure and will end up being in the billions of dollars. Furthermore, while the Indian liability bill allows the operator of the plant a limited right of recourse in the event of an accident caused by a design failure, this does not extend to the damage done to the plants themselves; in Fukushima, four units have been irreparably damaged by the accident and subsequent cooling-operations.  In India, if one of the expensive reactors being sold by Areva — currently about USD 8 billion apiece in the international market — is damaged by a design-defect, it is the public sector Nuclear Power Corporation, and indirectly the Indian people, who will be left holding the bag.  

The Fukushima accident also reveals the safety implications of building large nuclear complexes. In Jaitapur, the Indian government would like to establish six nuclear plants—each nearly four times larger than Fukushima Daiichi I. Similar mega-nuclear complexes are planned in other parts of the country — including Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) and Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh) — which have been promised to American companies. From a safety standpoint, a nuclear complex is a terrible idea; not only is the potential damage from an accident at a complex much larger than the potential damage from an accident at a single reactor, but an accident at one reactor can damage co-located reactors and hamper emergency operations in the entire complex,. The nuclear industry regularly promises that safety is its number one priority but builds such complexes just to reduce costs and logistical overheads. 

The safety concerns regarding nuclear power that have been so vividly brought out by the accidents at Fukushima following the tragic earthquake and tsunami are only one of the problems with the vast nuclear expansion that the nuclear establishment and the current government are proposing. Also at stake is democracy at multiple levels, as seen from the “cash for votes” scandal in parliament, the loss of citizens’ right to demand adequate compensation from international nuclear vendors under the Nuclear Liability Law, and the beating up, arrest and police firing on locals of Jaitapur (leading to one death), whose concerns about the safety of the reactors to be built on their lands have been further justified by Fukushima. Nuclear ambitions come with high costs that cannot be measured only in dollars. 

(M V Ramana and Suvrat Raju are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Ramana is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India, forthcoming from Viking Penguin) 

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