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Time to talk

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011

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T+T-

The Kudankulam protesters must not be maligned as misguided by foreign' interests. Dialogue with them on nuclear hazards remains an imperative.

AS the popular agitation against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) gains in strength and determination, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and its subsidiary, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), have mounted a multi-pronged attack on the movement and its leaders, while claiming that the Russian-designed reactors being installed are perfectly or 100 per cent safe.

One part of the attack is that the agitators are imperilling the safety of the Rs.13,000-crore project by impeding its normal operation and maintenance through their picketing. In particular, Reactor 1, which is at an advanced state of completion, and recently had a hot run, is in danger of being damaged.

This underscores the protesters' grave irresponsibility. Another part of the attack is the disinformation spread through newspapers to the effect that the movement is backed by anti-nuclear groups, the Church and foreign activists ( The Times of India, November 7). NPCIL chairman S.K. Jain said activists from the United States, Finland, France and Australia are simply sitting there.

The second attack is reminiscent of past campaigns to malign environmentalists who fought against large dams and destructive mining and industrial projects and made a valuable contribution to ecological protection and defence of livelihoods. Anti-nuclear groups naturally support the Kudankulam protests on well-reasoned grounds.

It is their legitimate job to do so. But it is pernicious to introduce a denominational/communal element here. The protesters include people from all communities.

My telephone conversations with a number of people around Kudankulam confirm that there are no foreign activists there. The only foreigners present recently were the Russian engineers invited by NPCIL itself.

The charge is particularly deplorable because it comes from an organisation that is bent on rewarding foreign nuclear manufacturers with lucrative reactor contracts for their governments' support to the U.S.-India nuclear deal and its endorsement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Former DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar put it straight to the Marathi daily Sakaal (January 5): We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and companies America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects.

Worse, such propaganda about the foreign hand behind the protests guts the possibility of a genuine dialogue with the agitators, mandated by the Centre. The whole rationale of the Prime Minister's October 7 meeting with the people's delegation, in response to the Tamil Nadu Cabinet's call for suspending construction at Kudankulam until people's apprehensions about safety are allayed, was to facilitate dialogue and rational debate.

To return to the first line of attack, DAE Secretary Srikumar Banerjee has claimed he had serious concern about damage to the reactors: It is not a plant which can be just switched on and off.We have done the hot run. We can't go from hot run to a freeze condition. We have to have a minimal operational system. S.K. Jain said: [a reactor] is not a car factory where you can switch off the systems and close.... You have simulators, ventilators, computer and electronic systems you have to maintain them.

There is as yet no nuclear danger at Kudankulam. Reactor 1 has not gone critical that is, had a nuclear fission chain reaction. For all intents and purposes, it is like a car factory, which too has simulators, ventilators and computers.

Contrary to the suggestion of a nuclear activity, a hot run involves loading of dummy fuel assemblies (without uranium) into the reactor, and then taking the temperature of the primary coolant water to the operating temperature of 2800 Celsius, according to site director M.K. Balaji ( The Hindu, June 5). After the three-week-long hot run, the reactor would be disassembled, not just shut down, and the reactor vessel, pipelines, gauges and safety devices inspected. The run's purpose is to see how the coolant circuit operates and whether pipes, pumps, and so on work properly.

Until Reactor 1 attains criticality, its safety will not be affected in the least if operations are suspended even for months. Kudankulam is already delayed by 10 years. Shutting down reactors even after they have gone critical is not rocket science. All reactors are periodically closed for maintenance. Many have been shut down safely or for good most recently in Japan and Germany, and earlier in the U.S., France, Britain, Italy, and elsewhere.

Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has lent a degree of legitimacy to the DAE's campaign by alleging that geopolitical and market forces (the layer presumably meaning rival nuclear suppliers to Russia) are behind the Kudankulam protests. He was categorical that the reactors are 100 per cent safe, because they have multiple sophisticated safety features, and because 99 per cent of their spent fuel would be reprocessed.

NUCLEAR WASTES

Now, reprocessing is a known hazardous and expensive activity, which also produces nuclear wastes, with all their intractable problems. Many components of nuclear wastes have long half-lives (period during which they naturally decay to half their original mass) such as 24,000 years (plutonium-239) and even 710 million years (uranium-235).

Science knows no way of storing wastes safely for such long periods, leave alone neutralising them or disposing them of. No geological formations can be trusted to be stable for millennia and ensure that the wastes will not leach into the environment.

As for safety, no technology is 100 per cent safe. All technologies carry a finite risk. Risk is particularly great in relatively high-pressure high-temperature systems such as nuclear reactors, which concentrate enormous quantities of energy in small volumes. The work of safety and organisation theory analysts such as Charles Perrow (of Normal Accidents fame) and Scott Sagan tells us that reactors are highly complex systems whose subsystems are, internally, tightly coupled, with the danger that a small mishap or abnormal event in one subsystem can get quickly transmitted to other subsystems, malfunctions get rapidly magnified, and the whole system goes into a massive runaway crisis. Fail-safe or fail-soft mechanisms can easily break down.

That is what happened at Fukushima, where a station blackout initiated by an earthquake and tsunami caused a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA), leading to three core meltdowns and huge releases of radioactivity, whose effects have not fully unfolded, or been understood and studied. The accident is still continuing and the reactors remain crisis-bound.

A station blackout is not a rare phenomenon. LOCAs are known in virtually every reactor type with long operating experience.

FLAWED METHOD

Engineers try to make reactors safer by designing them to recover from various initiating failures, and installing multiple protections, all of which would have to fail before radioactivity is released (defence-in-depth). To quantify risks, engineers use a mathematical method called probabilistic risk assessment (PRA). The physicist M.V. Ramana says that PRA conceives of accidents as resulting from one of many combinations of a series of failures, and computes the probability of a severe accident resulting from these event-trees or fault-trees ( Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 19).

Japan's nuclear safety agency used PRA to extend the Fukushima Daiichi station's licence just one month before the accident. PRA is also cited by reactor manufacturers to make tall claims about safety. However, PRA is a deeply flawed method and has been questioned on both theoretical and empirical grounds. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study in 2003 says that uncertainties in PRA methods and databases make it prudent to keep actual historical risk experience in mind when making judgments about safety.

That experience says five core meltdowns have occurred in the global record of 15,000 reactor-years of operation. At this rate, one can expect a meltdown every eight years in the world's 430-odd reactors.

Conceptually, PRA uses chain-of-event modelling which cannot account for the indirect, non-linear, and feedback relationships that characterise many accidents. These risk assessments do a poor job of modelling human actions and their impact on known, let alone unknown, failure modes. Therefore PRA-based conclusions about overall accident probabilities are undependable.

Perhaps the only robust conclusion one can draw is that no two major accidents are alike. This means, unfortunately, that while it may be possible to guard against an exact repeat of the Fukushima disaster, the next nuclear accident will probably be caused by a different combination of initiating factors and failures. There are no reliable tools to predict what that combination will be, and therefore one cannot be confident of being protected against such an accident.

This grim conclusion warrants sobriety, caution and abundant humility on the part of our nuclear establishment. It should thank the Kudankulam protesters for raising the issue of nuclear safety, and highlighting its paramount importance. It should also reconsider its certification of the French-designed Jaitapur reactors in Maharashtra as safe when their design has not even been frozen or shared with it, and about which hundreds of queries have been raised in Finland, Britain, the U.S., and even France.

There must be a moratorium on all further nuclear activity unless an independent, broad-based, credible safety review is conducted.

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