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Be clear about nuclear

India's nuclear industry needs a boost, not a Koodankulam-type contoversy, writes OP Sabherwal.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2011 01:11 IST
OP Sabherwal

The controversy over the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu is harming India's ambitious nuclear power programme. This is happening because of the apprehensions that have surfaced after the incidents in Fukushima, Japan. However, there are two other reasons for it: the lack of adequate understanding of nuclear issues and domestic politics.

There is little commonality between the two projects in India and Japan. The Koodankulam units are third-generation reactors while the Fukushima reactors were first generation. This specially applies to the safety parameters. The reactor components of Koodankulam are housed in a 1.2 metre thick pre-stressed concrete containment that have thick steel plates inside. It's hermetically sealed and has been tested for any leakages. The safety factor in the Koodankulam reactor design is far superior than the first-generation reactors. There are multiple barriers to stop radioactive materials from entering the environment — fuel matrix, fuel cladding, the piping system, besides the sealed containment building.

Also, it's dangerous to mix up geogra-phical locations. Japan stands on the tip of the 'Pacific Ring of Fire' where about 1,500 earthquakes are recorded annually. The March 11 earthquake (measuring 9 on the Richter scale) was the biggest-ever in Japan and the resulting tsunami was more than 7 metres high. India is relatively stable, with seismic activity confined to the Himalayan regions. The southern plateau is even more stable. It must also be noted that the first two Fukushima reactors had outlived their 40-year lifespan and their technology had not been upgraded.

The only striking commonality between Koodankulam and Fukushima reactors — and those at Kalpakkam and Tarapur in India — is their location on the sea coast. For decades, all sea coast reactors have been operating without any risk or damage to coastal marine life. The apprehensions being raised by Koodankulam fishermen are baseless. Even so, after the Fukushima accident, prompt counter-veiling measures were taken specifically for the purpose of cooling nuclear fuel. There are now four independent systems installed in operational and upcoming projects. So, if the first or second systems malfunction, there are two more to work as back up. Additionally, for the first time at Koodankulam reactors, a passive heat removal system has been installed. It ensures cooling of the nuclear reactor core in a passive manner — without any pumps and valves requiring any power supply.

Another feature is the 'core catcher'. In the event of an accident, if the molten nuclear fuel were to breach the reactor pressure vessel, it will fall on to a matrix containing neutron-absorbing substances (such as boron). Then the nuclear fuel, mixed with this material, is rendered incapable of starting a chain reaction. Only the latest design provides this safety back-up.

The post-Fukushima jolt to India's nuclear programme appears to be more severe than it did six months ago. The event also had an impact on the nuclear industries in France, the US, China and Russia, where nuclear energy plays a significant role in power generation. But all these countries have continued with their expansion and maintenance plans after learning lessons from Fukushima and inducting appropriate safety features. The US has, after a decade's gap, started constructing two new Westinghouse 1200 MW power reactors and budgeted for an expanding nuclear programme. China, after a post-Fukushima evaluation pause, has expanded its nuclear power construction, with the vision of making nuclear power the main alternative to fossil fuel. The only country to tread a different path (and for political reasons, not scientific ones) is Germany. It could afford this because of European conditions. For across the border, Slovakia, Russia, the Czech Republic, and even tiny Lithuania have launched construction of nuclear reactors for exporting electricity to Germany.

The Indian scenario is just the contrary. In fact, the country's programme has, right from inception, had to tread a bumpy path. The scientific and technological challenges that the nuclear programme poses have been supplemented by a three-decade-long sanctions and technology denial regime imposed by the West. Yet, the Indian nuc-lear establishment has built a magnificent nuclear edifice. Notwithstanding domestic sceptics, international scientists recognised India's nuclear attainments. The demise of the sanctions regime and the Indo-US civilian nuclear accord were a great victory for India and Indian scientists.

A bright vista has opened for India's nuclear programme, followed by a quick-change scenario — rapid imports of uranium fuel to enable optimum capacity utilisation of existing pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR), and expanding PHWR projects. Nuclear energy targets for 2020 have been pushed from 20,000 Mwe to 30,000 Mwe.

In this setting, the Koodankulam protests pose a severe challenge to the programme. They could lead to power generation shortage in the future and render a big blow to the economy.

OP Sabherwal is a Delhi-based veteran journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.