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How safe is India’s nuclear energy programme?

How safe is India’s nuclear energy programme?
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First Published: Tue, Aug 23 2011. 01 15 AM IST

Wake-up call: A file photo of the Tarapur nuclear power plant. The Fukushima disaster in Japan this year led countries with nuclear power plants to revisit safety measures.
Wake-up call: A file photo of the Tarapur nuclear power plant. The Fukushima disaster in Japan this year led countries with nuclear power plants to revisit safety measures.
Updated: Tue, Aug 23 2011. 12 54 PM IST
The March nuclear disaster in Fukushima in Japan led countries with nuclear power plants to revisit safety measures. The International Atomic Energy Agency constituted a global expert fact-finding mission to the island nation. The purpose of the mission was to ascertain facts and identify initial lessons to be learned for sharing with the nuclear community.
The mission submitted its report in June and the report stated in clear terms that “there were insufficient defence for tsunami hazards. Tsunami hazards that were considered in 2002 were underestimated. Additional protective measures were not reviewed and approved by the regulatory authority. Severe accident management provisions were not adequate to cope with multiple plant failures”.
Wake-up call: A file photo of the Tarapur nuclear power plant. The Fukushima disaster in Japan this year led countries with nuclear power plants to revisit safety measures.
Further, on the regulatory environment the report states: “Japan has a well organized emergency preparedness and response system as demonstrated by the handling of the Fukushima accident. Nevertheless, complicated structures and organizations can result in delays in urgent decision making.” The inability to foresee such extreme scenarios is a forewarning to countries that are expanding nuclear capacity at a frenzied pace.
For India, this is a lesson and an exceptional opportunity to relook at the protected structures of the department of atomic energy (DAE), and establish more transparent processes and procedures.
In the past, the Three Mile Island incident (1979) and Chernobyl accident (1986) had provided similar opportunities to evaluate nuclear safety and regulatory systems. India, in response to these incidents, constituted safety audits to assess the safety of nuclear power plants. However, A. Gopalakrishnan, (a former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) in his recent article said, “DAE management classified these audit reports as ‘top secret’ and shelved them. No action was taken on the committee’s findings.”
If this is so, these reports, or at least action-taken reports, ought to have been published and made available. Such steps could have guaranteed DAE considerable public faith in the functioning of regulatory authorities and given significant confidence in engaging with stakeholders in the present expansion plan.
Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd, post-Fukushima has undertaken safety evaluation of 20 operating power plants and nuclear power plants under construction. The inm report titled Safety Evaluation of Indian Nuclear Power Plants Post Fukushima Incident suggested a series of safety measures that must be incorporated in all the audited nuclear power plants in a time-bound manner. Measures pertain to strengthening technical and power systems, automatic reactor shutdown on sensing seismic activity, enhancement of tsunami bunds at all coastal stations, etc.
However, in the same breath, the report provides assurance by stating that, “adequate provisions exist at Indian nuclear power plants to handle station blackout situations and maintain continuous cooling of reactor cores for decay heat removal”. Further, the reports recalls, “the incidents at Indian nuclear power plants, like prolonged loss of power supplies at Narora plant in 1993, flood incident at Kakrapar plant in 1994 and tsunami at Madras (Chennai) plant in 2004 were managed successfully with existing provisions.”
DAE’s official response, post-Fukushima, has been cautious while providing assurance. Separately, DAE has made it clear the nuclear energy programme will continue as planned after incorporating the additional safety features identified by the safety audit report.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his speech two days ago in West Bengal was emphatic about the future of India’s nuclear energy programme. He said that “there would be no looking back on nuclear energy. We are in the process of expanding our civil nuclear energy programme. Even as we do so, we have to ensure that the use of nuclear energy meets the highest safety standards. This is a matter on which there can be no compromise”.
However, with the memory of Bhopal accident, these assurances have done little to assuage us. The legal, administrative and political failure in Bhopal to effectively respond is a constant reminder that due diligence of major developmental projects is a necessary prerequisite.
S. Banerjee, chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and secretary DAE at the International Atomic Energy Agency Ministerial Conference on Safety, categorically said: “India’s effort has been to achieve continuous improvement and innovation in nuclear safety with the basic principle being, safety first, production next.” This is important at a time when we are in the process of expanding nuclear capacity at an incredible pace.
Currently, there are several domestic and international power projects in the pipeline. DAE has projected 20,000MWe (megawatt electric) by 2020 from present 4,780MWe, a fourfold increase from the current production. Going further, Banerjee stated that India hopes to achieve targets exceeding 30,000MWe by 2020 and 60,000MWe by 2032. This is a tall order, considering our experience in executing major infrastructure projects. DAE has struggled in the past to achieve targets.
Execution of these targets is to be achieved by importing high-capacity reactors and through DAE’s own programme. As we see greater activity in the nuclear energy sector—which was traditionally not transparent in engaging with the public—the trust deficit could only widen as we expand the programme.
Land acquisition is already a major concern for infrastructure projects and has become an issue at the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant as well. However, the biggest challenge in this expansion would be to convince the public of the safety and security of nuclear power plants and also arrive at a comprehensive information and communication package for states in whose territory projects are being executed. Because of the nature of India’s nuclear programme—the combined existence of civilian and military programmes—the nation may not be in a position to achieve the kind of regulatory autonomy, process and engagement that has been witnessed in many European countries and in the US.
Europe, which has been at the forefront of engagement with its citizens, could possibly do so because many countries in Europe moved on to peaceful civilian use by shutting down military programmes. This allowed countries to establish credible, autonomous and competent regulatory mechanism with strong emphasis on public and stakeholder engagement for their civilian programmes.
The nature of Indian nuclear polity and engagement are different and what emerges now is the need for an overhaul of the regulatory process and its structure. The bifurcation of India’s nuclear establishment into civilian and military, subsequent to commitment under India-US civil nuclear cooperation has provided with the prospect of an empowered regulatory system.
Incidents in Jaitapur and the Fukushima nuclear disaster have further pushed the government to commit to establish an independent nuclear regulator, the Bill of which is expected to be in Parliament any time this year. Nuclear programme is likely to face more complex issues in the future with respect to environment, social and health. Neighbouring countries may also join the chorus soon since some of the proposed nuclear power plant sites are close to our borders.
The existence of a liability regime is no panacea for operation of nuclear power plants and is an add-on to a necessary well structured legal, regulatory and institutional environment.
M.P. Ram Mohan is a fellow at the The Energy and Resources Institute and is with Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, as a sponsored research scholar. He chairs the Nuclear Law Association.
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First Published: Tue, Aug 23 2011. 01 15 AM IST