Kudankulam nuclear power plant Unit-1 would soon be synchronised with the grid and deliver 500 MW power. It is a matter of time that power is raised to its full rating of 1000 MW. The surrounding areas are bound to see industrial growth from the power station. A cursory glance of Tamil media showed that land around the project site has started appreciating in value.
For the last two years the project has been riddled with problems due to opposition from anti-nuclear activists. As pointed out earlier (IE, April 2012), logic had been thrown to the wind, petty politics came to the forefront to exploit the situation and delicate public feelings were aroused by vested interests. For months, scientists, engineers and workers were physically prevented from entering the plant and carrying out their duties with the district authorities looking away.
Thorough evaluation by AERB...
When the public outcry was somewhat tamed, the project faced some technical problems. Were there any technical issues at all, if so what were these can at best be analysed only by reading between the lines of official statements. In the absence of any clarifications from the government spokesmen, this gave rise to wild speculation. All we know is that these led the regulatory agency to doubly check and review safety of various components in the reactor. Finally these were all overcome. But the amount of wild rumours it created could have been avoided. Summary announcements of postponement of commissioning date ad infinitum gave a poor PR image. Then came the news about finding some faulty valves which did not pass the integrated safety tests. It is not clear how this cropped up after hot commissioning of the reactor. This is presumed to be due to the Russian contractor’s compulsion to look for alternates, since the imported components were debarred from being used in India. These are only conjectures. What is clear is that similar units elsewhere never had problems of valves and pumps. Anyway it was good that AERB could get rectified these before commissioning. This goes to prove the thoroughness of the AERB evaluation and they need to be complimented on this.
Delays due to resort to court cases
Various court cases also chipped in to the element of delays. It is easy to throw an allegation arising out of suspicion but it is difficult and time consuming to exclude these on technical grounds, particularly if the target kept moving. Take the case of emergency preparedness. This is the outermost safety measure and the authorities have to be prepared but not by actually creating a mock drill disrupting the public. In India these steps are sometimes taken to the extreme. The activists can easily point to vague scenarios and issues and one should not expect authorities to respond to these. For example, if one insists that the operation will affect life up to 250 km radius and demand safeguards, there can be no end to it. First of all such situation in itself is hypothetical.
SC verdict helps in speeding up
Attaining criticality was perhaps delayed pending clearance from courts. When the Supreme Court verdict did come, the start up operations were speeded up. The second unit is also now loaded with dummy fuel. The hydraulic and hot commissioning tests are going on. In the case of the second unit the time lag is not bound to be so long before it also starts feeding power to the grid. Down the line, the grid capacity to take such huge load of power might also come under test. Such technical problems are bound to arise and would be sorted out. As a matter of fact all the safety concerns were effectively replied by the various committees set up by the Centre and the State Governments ( http://www.barc.gov.in/egreport.pdf). And the SC announced that the project has satisfied all the mandatory conditions and must go on and unambiguously stated that, “apprehension, however legitimate, cannot override the justification of the project.” In its judgment SC stressed that “KKNPP is safe and secure and it is necessary for economic growth of the country.”
Nuclear power scenario not encouraging...
Admittedly progress on nuclear power has been tardy also due to several other factors. With no definite plans the so called three stage nuclear plan and even the single stage plan remain in limbo. It was almost eight years since the Indo US nuclear deal was initiated and basking in the sunshine of newly found bonhomie we started talking of the revised target of 65,000 MW by 2050 without any specific plan in place. Over-dependence on India-USA nuclear agreement has been unreliable. And no worthwhile specific agreements have been realised with most of it in the back burner. Lots of one-sided concessions were given by India. Eg. the unilateral decision to place a number of facilities under IAEA safeguards. This has only resulted in decommissioning two research reactors which were supplying radio isotopes for medical and industrial applications. Now with only one reactor in operation, the dependence on imported radio isotopes is increasing, though no data on this is available.
The euphoria about nuclear power coming of age in our country following the Indo-US nuclear agreement has all but evaporated. Today, all the embargos for imports of even peripheral items to nuclear installations are still in place. The normal 10 years private US visas are denied even to persons retired long back from the nuclear establishments!
Additional capacity prospects bleak
The import of natural uranium is only in trickles. If the pipelines have been opened up, why NPCIL, which has the capability to put up 700 MWe PHWR reactors, does not go forward in a big way? Only four units of 700 MW each are right now under construction amounting to a total of 2800 MW. And together with 2 units of KKNPP, the expected increase in nuclear power in India cannot be more than 5000 MWe by 2020. The fast reactor project is still there but unless the first PFBR goes into smooth operation, nothing can be said definitely since it is a new evolving technology. India’s first commercial 500 MWe fast breeder reactor is stated to be ready for commissioning at Kalpakkam by September 2014 and 4 more units are planned in next 15 years. The success of the fast reactor programme depends on the reprocessing technology graduating to industrial scales and availability of the initial feed of plutonium from uranium fuelled reactors. Thorium utilisation would still be far off!
Are we following the right strategies?
The scientists have to be congratulated on their successful mastering of PWR technology in commissioning the 83 MW INS Arihant submarine reactor which is the state-of-the-art technology for nuclear power in the world. Encouraged by this there was an announcement of going ahead with scaling it up to designing the 900 MW indigenous PWR power reactors. Apart from the challenges to be faced, we need to look ahead for fuel resources for the reactor since the bilateral agreement has not made any headway in opening up the market and substantial addition to indigenous uranium resources seem to be bleak, the problems compounded with environmental issues. With the demand for enriched fuel for further submarine reactors and other strategic applications, shortage of uranium resources and the limited enrichment capability are bound to be areas of concern. We need to be introspective about trying to hatch too many eggs in the same basket. As such development of PWR reactors does not seem to be in line with the country’s long term plans.
Need for revamping the Atomic Energy Act
The regulatory issues about the submarine reactor pointed out by commentators is valid. Understandably it is out of the purview of the civilian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The separate regulatory outfits that are already in place for the review of strategic nuclear applications are equally effective. Presumably those have reviewed the safety aspects of the submarine nuclear reactor. But this needs to be backed up by appropriate incorporation in the Atomic Energy Act. Currently the Atomic Energy Act is silent about strategic applications (IE Dec 2008). The US Atomic Energy Act could be a model which has kept the safety regulation of civil and military applications clearly separate and also given a thought to their interplay. In the Indian context these are not that deeply outfitted and this needs to be done. Any defence nuclear accidents might have its repercussions on the civilian public also.
Re-orientation of tasks
The nuclear power plant operator and regulatory body are facing lots of court proceedings these days and the system may not be geared to this new type of activities. There is a need for a strong legal cell staffed with bright young legal professionals well-versed with nuances of atomic (IE June 2010). Just to quote an example: in the Mayapuri incident which led to the first radiation fatality in the country, no parties were convicted for violation and it showed lacunae in the areas of legislation. Though lot of lessons seem to have been learnt in the area of public relations, a concerted strategic planning does not seem to be taking shape. There is a need for setting up planning and implementation units staffed with young trained professionals with expertise in public relations and management. The solution is not in re-deploying the scientific staff for these purposes. The need for deep strategy on how to communicate to the public the complex concepts of radiation safety and efforts to logically and scientifically simplify these was also pointed out by this author earlier.
In the area of legislation, the revamping of the archaic Atomic Energy Act is long overdue and nothing substantial has happened. The reasons for which are not clear.