First nuclear power plant in North India at Fatehabad in Haryana

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By: Dr Arun Mitra

The climate crisis has forced the global community to debate over viable alternatives to the fossil fuels about which there is consensus that these are major cause of carbon generation responsible for climate crisis. There is also consensus on that renewable resources are the best alternative to the fossil fuels. But there is no such consensus on the use of Nuclear energy for power generation as it is fraught with several dangers. All this was evident in the debates in the COP26 at Glasgow. Yet in some parts of the world nuclear power is being fancied for this task. Therefore the news of the first nuclear power plant in north India in Gorakhpur village near Fatehabad in Haryana is to be read with caution.

Electricity forms the major source of energy to move the society in the present times. India is the third largest producer of electricity in the world. The national electric grid in India has an installed capacity of 388.134 GW as of 31 August 2021. This generation is met from Fossil Fuels, Nuclear, Hydro and Renewable Energy Sources (RES). The fossil fuels i.e. Coal, Gas and Diesel contribute about 60 per cent of the total generation; Hydropower contributes 11.9 per cent, RES 26.40 per cent and Nuclear energy 1.7 per cent.

Pursuit for nuclear power in India began in 1950s. Expected power production according the predictions made in 1950s India should have been producing 43,500 Megawatts.  But actual installed capacity from nuclear power plants in 2021 is 6780 MWs only. For this we have built 22 nuclear power plants. Even after 70 years the nuclear power is producing only 1.7 per cent of total installed capacity of electricity in our country.

The drawbacks of nuclear energy are costs, security, waste, water, radiation, proliferation and safety record. The cost of generating electricity from the nuclear power is more expensive than the other sources. According to world nuclear industry status report the cost of generating solar power ranges from $36 to $44 per megawatt hour (MWh), while onshore wind power comes in at $29–$56 per MWh. Nuclear energy costs between $112 and $189.

According to Daria Iurshina, Nikita Karpov, Marie Kirkegaard, Evgeny Semenov, “The design and construction of a new nuclear power plant requires many highly qualified specialists and often takes many years, compounding financing costs, which can become significant. Design changes or lawsuits can cause delays that further increase the financing charges, which in some cases exceed the actual construction costs.

The high cost of constructing plants has made it difficult for nuclear power to compete with other energy options in the United States, particularly natural gas. The high cost of nuclear power has led to a significant decline in the construction of new plants-with just one plant, Watts Bar 2, entering commercial operation in the past 20 years”.

Every nuclear power station needs to be decommissioned after 30-40 years of operation. Currently, it takes 6-12 years to build a nuclear station, and up to 20 years to decommission, involving extreme safety issues and huge costs.

One nuclear reactor plant requires about 20.5 km2 (7.9 mi2) of land, located near a massive body of coolant water, but away from dense population seismic and natural disaster zones. Massive opposition at sites currently selected show how challenging this task is.

Another area of concern is water which is required for uranium mining and for cooling of reactors. There is danger of water contamination. Uranium Mining needs huge amounts of water as well.

There is no fool proof method of nuclear waste management. No single nuclear waste repository exists today. High level waste of Plutonium is a problem. It is usually kept in basins; may catch fire or explode, as it happened in Kysthym/Chelyabinsk in the former Soviet Union in 1957, when a tank with Plutonium waste exploded. Even though about 9,000 square miles (23,000 square km) of land were contaminated, more than 10,000 people were evacuated, and probably hundreds died from the effects of radioactivity.

These plants are also a cause of security concern. That is why there is total secrecy about these. Terrorism nowadays is a threat everywhere. Terrorists just need to cut the circuitry of the plant and the cooling system may go out of control. A direct hit or the melting of the core can potentially cause widespread radioactive contamination and make a region uninhabitable for centuries.

The world has by now realized that the nuclear power plants are fraught with danger. There is enough evidence for this.  We have seen some major Nuclear accidents in Fukushima Daiichi, Japan, March 2011, Chernobyl, Ukraine (former Soviet Union), April 26, 1986, Three Mile Island, Middletown, Pennsylvania, USA, March 28, 1979 Enrico Fermi Unit 1, Frenchtown Charter Township, Michigan, USA, October 5, 1966, SL-1, Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA, January 3, 1961, Sodium Reactor Experiment, Los Angeles, California, USA, July 1959, Windscale, Cumberland (now Cumbria), UK, October 10, 1957.

Impact of exposure to nuclear radiation are a cause of serious concern. These may range from dizziness, disorientation or confusion, weakness, hair loss and baldness, vomiting blood or dysentery, low blood pressure. The impact may last for several years.  Health risks are for entire population, but in particular for small children and foetus of pregnant women. Increasing scientific evidence of damage due to chronic low level radiation in and around mining site has been documented by a study on the health effects on the people living around Jafugoda Uranium mines in Jharkhand state of India. The study was carried out by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD).

Nuclear power plant is a potential threat for proliferation. Pu239 is one of the deadliest substances known with a Half life of 24000 years. A few micro grams cause cancers.    Pu serves to generate energy or manufacture nuclear weapons. High grade (highly enriched, pure) Pu can sustain fission reaction and is used to ignite nuclear bombs.

Track record of nuclear facilities in India is unsatisfactory. But most of these have remained official secrets so far. With the data available till 2006 there have been accidents at Kalpakkam, Tarapur, Maharashtra, Tarapur, Maharashtra, Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, Kota, Rajasthan, Kalpakkam which have cost 910 million US$.

Another issue of grave concern is unfair compensation in case of a nuclear accident. According to Clause 6 of the nuclear liability bill agreed upon by the Indian government, the maximum financial liability in case a nuclear accident is $458 million (Rs. 2,087 crore). It is less than the compensation in Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The amount is considered meagre in comparison to the destruction caused by a nuclear accident. A same kind of law in U.S. has set the financial liability for such accident at $10.5 billion.

People around Fatehabad raised serious objections to the plant after its proposal. They are much worried that the government may not pay them due compensation for land acquired and also for the health security of people and the livestock.

Fatehabad does not have any large natural water body around to meet the water requirements of the area.

Concerns of the people are real. Important issue is that why the government is out to embark upon the failed technology. (IPA Service)

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