By Dr. Arun Mitra
A recent proposal by the government of India to install nuclear power plants in Punjab has once again generated debate on whether the nuclear energy is a viable option for electricity generation? According to Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2018 India is 3rd largest energy consumer. This accounts for about 6 per cent of global energy for 130 crore people which is roughly 17 per cent of total global population. The sources of electricity production include Thermal (Coal, Diesel, Gas), Hydro Electric, Renewables (Solar, wind) Residual Biomass etc.
Despite lot of hype the contribution of nuclear energy in total electricity generation in our country remains 1.9 per cent only out of the total installed capacity of 356818MW.
So far thermal plants have been the major source of power generation. But now they are considered to be highly polluting source and contribute to global warming. Therefore there is need to produce electricity from alternative eco-friendly resources.
Points to be considered for any project to be sustainable are Impact on Human Health, Environmental effects, Installation cost, Running cost and management of waste products generated by them. Nuclear plants have been projected to meet these requirements. A study on the various aspects however reveals facts to the contrary.
The process of nuclear power plant begins from the mining of radioactive material. India has a major uranium mine in Jadugoda in the Jharkhand. A study conducted by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), has revealed that people living around 30 Kms radius of the mine have statistically significant health problems compared to the control population beyond 30 Kms. Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman who with his team conducted this study points out that the population suffers from congenital deformities, primary sterility, cancer and poor life expectancy. Management of the waste produced by the mine is highly questionable.
The safety standards maintained by Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) authorities can be gauged by the fact that the tailings (waste material) are lying in open in which children of the area play and are put to high risk.
It is also reported that an incident had happened on the 24th of December, 2006, when thousands of liters of radioactive waste spilled in a creek because of a pipe burst at a Uranium Corporation of India Limited facility at Jadugoda. It is disquieting that UCIL did not have its own alarm mechanism to alert the company in cases of such a disaster. But for the vigilance of the villagers who had arrived at the scene of the accident soon after the pipe burst the UCIL would not have come to know about the toxic spill. UCIL took nine hours before the flow of the radioactive waste was shut off that had spewed into a creek. Consequently, a thick layer of toxic sludge on the surface of the creek killed scores of fish, frogs, and other riparian life. The waste from the leak also reached a creek that feeds into the Subarnarekha river, seriously contaminating the water resources of the communities living hundreds of kilometers along the way. This is not the first such accident. In 1986, a tailing dam had burst open and radioactive water flowed directly into the villages.
It is important to carry out epidemiological survey of the health of the people living around nuclear facilities before installing them and then regularly monitored yearly. This should be made transparent in the public domain. It is also important to ensure that there is no population living around nuclear facilities. But there are few such areas in densely populated country of ours.
Nuclear Plants World Wide Have Poor Safety Record which is coupled with lack of transparency. Track record of nuclear facilities in India too is unsatisfactory. According to reports an estimated 300 incidents of serious nature have occurred causing radiation leaks and physical damage to the workers. But these have remained official secrets so far. Major accidents in the nuclear plants in the world include the 3 Mile Island accident on 28th March 1979 in (USA), Chernobyl (Ukraine) on 26th April 1986 and Fukushima (Japan) on 11th March 2011.
Chernobyl Nuclear disaster has been the worst ever disaster. The Belarus national academy of sciences estimates 93,000 deaths so far and 270,000 cancers, and the Ukrainian national commission for radiation protection calculates 500,000 deaths so far as a result of this accident. According to the Union Chernobyl, the main organization of liquidators (cleanup workers), 10 per cent of the 800,000 liquidators are now dead and 165,000 disabled. Between 12,000 and 83,000 Children Born with Congenital Deformations and 10,000 people developed Thyroid Cancer in Belarus alone.
The cost of installing Indian designed and built nuclear power unit is about Rs. 16.5 crores/MW. For the Russian reactors, the cost is about Rs. 22 crores/MW. Since the fuelling cost of the Russian reactors is lower than those of the Indian reactors, both of them produce power at about Rs. 5/kwh. This cost, when escalated to the time horizon of 2023-24, will come to about Rs. 6.5 per kwh. Coal based power in regions far away from coalfields would cost more in the same time horizon. Solar power for recent projects costs about Rs. 2.5/kwh, but an expenditure of Rs. 2 /kwh is needed to connect the solar units to the grid system, taking the total cost to Rs. 4.5/kwh.
A joint study by Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) and US-based think tank Climate Policy Initiative (CPI) has revealed that with new technologies boosting efficiency levels, cost of Solar power will fall to Rs 1.9 per unit in India by 2030. Similarly, for wind, with mast heights increasing from the current level of 80 meters to 100 and even 120 meters, the baseline projection for 2030 for the levelized costs of wind at Rs 2.58 per kWh could be as low as Rs 2.26 for projects with higher capacity utilization factors.
Nuclear issues in India are the sacrosanct holy cow. It has been kept out of the purview of ordinary citizen. A nuclear India has been made to be the symbol of national pride by the successive Indian governments. Anybody raising the issue of nuclear safety is either ridiculed or branded as anti-national.
As per the Nuclear Liability Bill Clause 6, the maximum financial liability in case a nuclear accident is $458 million (Rs. 3,138 crore). It is less than the compensation awarded in Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The amount is considered meager in comparison to the destruction caused by a nuclear accident.
It is time the decision makers and the public at large be informed about that the nuclear power plants not only unviable option but also a potential health hazard. The health of indigenous people working in the uranium mines and those living around cannot be ignored. (IPA Service)