Nuclear Power: Real Risks, Real Costs
17 March, 2011
In view of the renewed focus on the nuclear industry following the earthquake-tsunami double-whammy in Japan, India's nuclear industry and its proponents are in overdrive to assure the public that nuclear safety issues are well in hand, but are nevertheless being reviewed. Some supporters of the nuclear program have questioned the credentials of common people to question the safety of nuclear power plants (NPPs); one commentator has even accused critics of the nuclear industry as being “ill-informed” and “emotional”.
Chance of accident
Part of the professional skills of nuclear scientists is expertise in probability and statistics. They can objectively calculate that an earthquake-tsunami striking a nuclear installation may occur only once-in-a-million-years (or so). This is the basis of assuring PM Dr.Manmohan Singh that Fukushima-type accidents in India are “most unlikely”. But they cannot assure that the next disaster will occur only after the next 1,000 years, or will not occur next month, nor predict the location of occurrence or the socio-economic fall-out. A once-in-a-million-years event can happen tomorrow.
It is argued that Fukushima happened because of the combination of earthquake-tsunami, but then the accidents at Three Mile Island (USA) and Chernobyl (USSR/Russia) did not need earthquake or tsunami. Today there is added risk of military or terrorist attack on a nuclear facility. The issue here is not about when, where and how it might occur, but that the combination of radioactive-social-environmental-economic-political fall-out of such a disaster is unacceptable to people.
The nuclear industry worldwide is secrecy-ridden, intransparent, unaccountable, self-certifying and self-opinionated. In the Fukushima disaster, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which claimed on its website that “monitoring goes on around the clock year round”, displayed, “This system is currently shut down”. Perfectly understandable, in view of the dire circumstances. The point here is that TEPCO has subsequently vented steam and used ocean water to cool the reactor(s) and there have been explosions. All these would have put unmeasured, indeed unmeasurable, quantities of radionuclides into the air and water. Yet, TEPCO claimed that it is only a Level-4 “event” with local consequences (Chernobyl was Level-7, the highest), on the basis of a monitoring system that is shut down. What are we to believe? As for the integrity of TEPCO itself, it is noteworthy that in 2003, TEPCO's nuclear plant was shut down for a period because of a data falsification scandal. The lesson in this is: Data released cannot be relied upon, because of self-certification, denial of questioning and over-reliance on professional scientific integrity.
Safe and cheap energy
The nuclear industry claims that nuclear power is safe, clean and cheap. The best way to examine these claims is through their connectedness. Structural safety calls for appropriate design and quality construction and is a trade-off against structural safety; higher initial cost of the NPP means higher cost of power generated. Operational safety calls for periodic preventive maintenance that involves shutting down the reactor. This is a trade-off against the plant load factor and consequently the cost of power generated. Routine operations involve removal and storage of spent fuel rods, which must be cooled by air and water in heavily shielded buildings for around 50 years to prevent overheating and fire. Later, they must be re-processed in a separate facility to separate the plutonium, and encased in glass for deep geological burial. All these eventually boost the cost of power generated.
All nuclear plants (like all things created by humans) have a useful life, after which they are to be “junked”. However, unlike things which we put on a junk heap, nuclear plants cannot be simply locked up and left unattended. They have to be decommissioned, spending as much or more money than it cost to construct it in the first place, and the precincts have to be guarded against human access for thousands of years because it remains radioactive. Even though its life is long since over, India's 42-year-old Tarapur NPP has not been decommissioned but had its life “extended”. The costs of decommissioning the Three Mile Island or entombing Chernobyl NPPs are not available. (The costs of decommissioning the five Japanese NPPs are tentatively estimated at around Japan's GDP!). Decommissioning costs add to the cost of power generated. But the cost calculations and accounts of the Indian nuclear industry are “secret”, and not even tabled in Parliament, leave alone available for public scrutiny.
Is nuclear power generation clean? To all appearances and according to normal human senses, it is certainly clean. The NPP looks green, there is no black smoke, no smell, no dirt. But our senses cannot detect the ionizing radiation routinely discharged through the chimney stack or cooling water, or defect-caused leakages from components, or even full-scale accidents. These can only be detected and quantified using sophisticated instruments, with which the NPP personnel measure the levels of radiation at locations in and around the NPP, with reference to the safe or permissible exposure to humans. This is a specialized branch called “health physics”. Even accepting the essential arbitrariness of the standards of safe or permissible exposure, the public has to accept the word of the NPP authorities (or the AERB, which is the regulatory body) regarding safety. No questions can be asked, and no independent measurements or verifications are permissible. Radiation exceeding permissible limits (different for different locations within the NPP for technical reasons) calls for investigation and rectification or repair, which may require shut down. Like safety preventive maintenance, maintaining nuclear hygiene affects the cost of power generated.
The “safe”, “cheap” and “clean” parameters are conflicting amongst themselves, and operating a NPP is essentially a compromise between them. After the Fukushima accident, there is a growing body of international opinion that NPPs are not an acceptable risk and NPPs should be permanently closed. (The cost of decommissioning will be staggering, but it will terminate nuclear accident and warfare risk). It is also best to close down because if safety “upgradation” by physical and system measures is adopted in a risk assessment-insurance model, its cost will add to the already high cost of nuclear power compared to other modes of generation, and nuclear power will anyway price itself out of the market. Thus the industry's claim that nuclear power is safe, cheap and clean cannot be defended in an open forum. It may be argued that if NPPs are indeed safe-and-clean, there is no reason why a NPP should not be constructed in the spacious and secure precincts of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Intransparency of the nuclear establishment is policy because its real risks and high real-time costs will work against it. Especially post-Fukushima, the nuclear industry is forced to do what it is best at – insisting on secrecy, selling the trust-in-me, papa-knows-best spiel, and insisting that nuclear issues are esoteric and beyond the understanding of the general public. Only public awareness, opinion and demand can bring to light the true risks and costs of the nuclear establishment. But this will require the cooperation of the media.
Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere holds a PhD in civil structural dynamics from I.I.T, Madras. He commanded a Task Force and later was Chief Engineer of a Border Roads project in the high-altitude area of Ladakh. In 1993, the President of India awarded him Visishta Seva Medal for distinguished services rendered in Ladakh. He retired as Additional DG (Discipline & Vigilance) in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.
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