We can allay the fears'

Print edition : December 02, 2011

Srikumar Banerjee. In the background is an image of Homi J. Bhabha, the father of the Indian atomic energy programme. - SHASHI ASHWAL

Interview with Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

AN organisation called the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) is demanding that the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu be scrapped. The Centre has set up a 15-member experts' group to allay the fears of the people living around Kudankulam on the safety of the two Russian reactors that have been built there. In this context, Frontline met Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, in his office in Mumbai on October 27. Banerjee, who is also Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), said the department was ready to answer any question on the safety of the VVER-1000 reactors at Kudankulam.

He was proud that in the nuclear field, we have run completely alone these years and that the country's self-esteem has come from this. Banerjee, who has a B.Tech in metallurgy from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and later earned a PhD in metallurgical engineering, asserted that nuclear power will give the country long-term energy security.

Excerpts from the interview:

The Kudankulam issue seems to have reached a deadlock. Where do we go from here?

The names on the experts' panel have been given by the DAE to the Tamil Nadu government. From the press, other media and websites, we have collected the questions raised by the local people. We have seen these questions and we are trying to answer them. If the DAE personnel themselves answer these questions, the protesters say, We will not accept them and we want an independent opinion. It is in this context that the government has given a list of 15 experts, and we have identified their domain of knowledge and expertise. This will actually make it convenient for deliberations to focus on specific issues and try to find answers to them.

We have identified specific subject areas such as how safe the plant is in case of a seismic event or when sea-water level rises by processes such as a tsunami, how the plant affects the livelihood of the people residing in the neighbourhood, and what the safety features of Kudankulam vis-a-vis some of the other VVER reactors are. You may be aware that we had negotiated with the Russians to provide additional safety features for the Kudankulam reactors.

What are those safety features?

I will come to that later. Then there is the question of radiation in the environment that is going to affect the people. There is yet another question about the discharge [of coolant water] into the sea. There are two kinds of apprehensions here that the sea water will become hot and that it will become radioactive. For each of these, we have quantitative, well-founded and accurate answers. With these answers, we would like to explain to the people around [the plant] that we are not going to bring anything which is dangerous either to their lives or to their livelihood. All this is only for the benefit of the people around and elsewhere because 2,000 MWe of electricity will be generated from Kudankulam 1 and 2 will feed the southern grid. Out of this 2,000 MWe, 925 MWe will go to Tamil Nadu and the rest to neighbouring States.

A view of the two reactor units of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.-A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

The State government will conduct the meetings. Our panel will answer the questions. If there are questions which need further studies, the experts on the panel will collect the questions and perhaps have a second session to answer them. So I don't consider it a deadlock. Nothing has happened to call it a deadlock. There will always be an open discussion on points, and it is our responsibility and duty to satisfy the queries coming up in the minds of people. The best way [to go about this] is to organise an open meeting near Kudankulam. When talking specifically of the Kudankulam plant, there will be specific questions, and we can address each one of them. If people are unhappy or not satisfied, let us try to answer them again with facts and figures and all the tests that have been done, which are backed by a huge amount of information. Through that, we will be able to allay the people's fears.

Some leaders of the PMANE insist that the work at the project should halt first and that the experts' panel can talk to people later to allay their fears.

Physically, the work has halted. But it is not advisable to do that. What exactly do they mean when they say the work should halt? The reactor has high-temperature systems, flowing coolant and high-voltage systems. So it is not a matter of switching off the whole thing and bringing it to a halt.

Whenever you have a coolant in circuit and you make it stagnant, then there is the possibility of some undue corrosion effect on some of the components. Obviously, this is not normally done. You always run the coolant and this requires the attention of technicians as well as the supporting people.

So far as the progress of work is concerned, we were actually expecting to bring the criticality of the first unit by September or October after the fuel loading. We were just waiting for the fuel-loading clearance. So this has essentially been halted. There is no big dispute on this issue. If by halting you mean that not a single person should enter the plant, then we are allowing a major asset of the country to degrade, and this is not acceptable. Really speaking, as far as the programme of work is concerned, we have halted. People are unable to go inside [the plant]. We need several thousands of people to work inside during the last phase of the work. But we are unable even to enter the place. So this is the situation today. So I don't see there is any real reason or real point of controversy on whether work has been halted or not. But you must run the essential facilities for the safety and long-term service of the equipment.

In your opinion, why did the agitation erupt now when, as you said, you were so close to starting up the first reactor?

I would say that it was a little unexpected because when you go in for a project, you have to have a cordial relationship with the people around. That cordial relationship existed all along. There was an excellent relationship with the people living around, and our engineers have been visiting them regularly and taking part in their social and educational programmes. We have actually been looking forward to further enriching our relationship with the people. Today, when we talk of this kind of a project, we expect the reactors to run for 40 to 60 years. So the relationship between people working inside the plant and those who live outside has to be excellent because it is a kind of social relationship. That had been achieved earlier. So, for me it was a big surprise that people around started agitating like this. I really do not know why this is happening.

A demonstration against the nuclear power plant in Palayamkottai, 80 km from the project site, on November 5.-A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

One of the reasons could be that people saw the Fukushima event and it has brought about a sense of fear that a nuclear accident may. Fukushima happened against the background of a natural disaster. Maybe, 20,000 died [in the earthquake and tsunami] but not in the Fukushima [nuclear] accident. In the Fukushima accident, the radiation casualty is still none. Zero.

In the Fukushima nuclear accident, are the casualty figures due to exposure to radiation really zero?

In Fukushima, the casualty due to radiation exposure is not there at all even today. The Fukushima reactors were 40-year-old vintage reactors. Not that they were unsafe. They could not stand the severity of the natural events, not one but two successive events the earthquake and the tsunami. Even then, you would have noticed that all the reactors stopped at the first signal of the earthquake. So there was no nuclear fission energy release in these accidents. They were quite safe on that.

The problem was because of hydrogen fire. Hydrogen got mixed with air. The removal of the decay heat [in the Fukushima reactors] was not possible because there was no power in the whole area and so no pumps operated. Decay heat means there is some radioactive substance in the reactor and it decays even after the reactor is shut down.

Today, reactors, particularly the VVER reactors, have a passive safety system, which does not need electricity.

The VVER-1000 reactors at Kudankulam have passive safety systems, do they not?

These issues were addressed in Kudankulam long before Fukushima happened. It is possible for us to explain each of these points to the people in the simplest language to convince them that one need not worry.

The second reason [for the agitation against the Kudankulam project] was that a drill had to be conducted, which was a requirement as per the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board [AERB]. That is, before you start up a reactor, you ensure that, in the remotest possibility of an accident, you should be able to evacuate the people from the nearby area. This exercise was being planned, which again caused undue fear among people.

The containment dome of the second reactor building of the project seen through the barrel hole of the first reactor building. A December 2008 photograph.-A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

There was another event. When you reach standardisation, steam is produced. In the hot run, before the fuel is loaded, steam is created and is let out. Normally, the steam goes to the turbine to generate electricity. But here [in the hot run], it was let out. In the process, it created a noise which again was falsely understood by some people to be an accident. But it was a very normal operation. It could be yet another trigger point which caused fear.

Why was Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) unaware that such a situation was building up?

The point is the situation did not build up in a gradual manner. There was no indication that there would be serious unrest around that area. There was no inkling of that. There is definitely an anti-nuclear lobby [at work]. It suddenly used the situation to organise a relay hunger strike, which amassed a large number of people to make a protest. We cannot go against people. It is not a question of shouting and counter-shouting. How can we do that? As a [government] department, we have to act in a responsible manner. We can only say that we are ready to answer any question. We are ready to meet everybody individually and explain the situation. We have all the facts and figures and [we can] explain these to them. That is where we stand. We can also remind people what damage they are doing [to the reactors] with this kind of action. When there was an anti-nuclear protest after the Chernobyl accident, some countries stopped their VVER reactors. After 10 years of inaction, they revived these reactors to make them operational. So imagine the economic loss, which is in terms of not only the years lost but the kilowatts of energy lost. The economic loss has to be seen in terms of development loss.

We are an impoverished country in terms of power supply. Tamil Nadu today has a serious power shortage. Tamil Nadu is also a State which is aspiring for major industrial growth, which will happen only when there is power. Now you have 2,000 MWe ready for delivery. But a situation has been created which is not allowing this to happen. Basically, this is a step towards decelerating the economic growth process, the growth of livelihood of people and their quality of life. There was only limited employment in those areas. So it has to be seen that we are providing power, which is the most essential and important ingredient for economic and industrial growth.

The leaders of the PMANE say that the DAE has not made public the environment impact assessment (EIA) and site selection reports of the first two units. It wants them to be made public. This seems to be an important demand.

When the EIA assessment was done for Kudankulam 1 and 2 sometime in 1998 or 2001, there was no requirement for a public hearing. So it was not done for Kudankulam 1 and 2. Subsequently, public hearing was done in detail for Kudankulam 3, 4, 5 and 6, and there is no difficulty in sharing all this information because it is already available. If some more details are required, that is not a problem at all. So this is not at all an obstacle to explain the questions raised by the protesters. All this can be shown right away because much of it is already on the website. Whatever is not there can also be shared. These are not secret documents that cannot be shared.

But a very detailed EIA was done as per the normal DAE notification. Public hearing was conducted. Responses from the stakeholders were taken, the review of the appraisal committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests was taken. Notification was done in 2006. So there is total transparency in the process in the latest condition.

All this was discussed during [the public hearing] for 3 and 4. The entire site was cleared then. The site selection process continued over a long period of a decade or so. Only the State government offers the sites.

The State government offers the sites?

After it offers, you make a detailed investigation because you want to minimise the displacement of people. In this case [Kudankulam], there was no displacement issue because nobody was living there. Secondly, you take geotechnical information. You see the potential of an earthquake or a tsunami occurring there. Then you see the water level rise at what level you should build your plant. The meteorological studies are done. It is a very extensive study. We did one more thing in 2001-02, which was not necessary. We did a thermal ecology study.

About coolant water being let into the sea?

Yes. This is a very important issue. We cannot use European standards because the European sea temperature is low. Our average sea temperature being higher, we did our own study. To do that study in detail, we have the Board of Research in Nuclear Sciences. I was the BRNS Secretary when the study was done. We wanted an independent opinion. Seven or eight universities were given the job of doing thermal ecological studies. They periodically did the sample collection during all the seasons. Every two months, they did a survey of the area.

They studied the sea temperature around Kudankulam?

There was a study not only at Kudankulam but wherever nuclear power stations were already operating [in India]. The studies were done on the temperature rise in the outfall [in the sea] near Kalpakkam and Tarapur, and the river Kali near the Kaiga nuclear power station. They also collected samples to see what organisms, including microorganisms, were present in those areas because fish depend on them for food. So this extensive survey was done over a period of five years. They found that the maximum rise in the temperature by the coolant water being let into the sea could be kept at 7 {+0} Celsius. Since we have a very good mixing zone [in the sea], it does not reach that temperature. It is lower than that.

It does not reach 7 0C?

It goes to a maximum of, in the worst months, 5-6 0C. Not more than that. You also have a system of mixing in a zone with a diameter of 300 metres to 400 m where there will be a slight rise in the temperature. Slight, not much. So this has been ensured in the design. Plus a very expensive water-intake structure has been created. When you take the water from the sea, fish will come along with it. So there is a fish-return mechanism. When the water comes in, there is a mechanism by which all the fish can be returned to the sea. An interesting thing is that this [coolant water being let into the sea] is not new. Tamil Nadu has had nuclear power reactors at Kalpakkam for over 30 years. They know that in Kalpakkam or Tarapur, there has been no degradation in fish catch. The fish have not been harmed. That part is well understood. We can prove it. Again, I don't see any reason why the fishermen around Kudankulam should feel that their livelihood will be affected.

Another issue that is being raised is that the radiation level goes up significantly around a nuclear power station. This is absolutely unfounded. The natural average radiation value that you get anywhere is 2,400 millisievert [mSv] a year. That is the kind of dose in nature.

But this average fluctuates considerably [from place to place]. I am talking of Kerala, where it is much higher. At Tarapur station, it is 2,413 mSv; 2,400 is from nature and there is an additional 13 mSv near the Tarapur Atomic Power Station. What is the AERB's limit? A thousand above 2,400 is the AERB limit. At Narora [Atomic Power Station in Uttar Pradesh], it is 1.1. At Kaiga, it is 1.7.

So it is just 2401.1 mSv at Narora?

Yes. If you go to Hyderabad, there is a much higher radiation level. So it is totally unfounded [that the radiation level around a nuclear power station is high]. The monitoring is done in a systematic and extensive manner. But if you take a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, you get a high radiation dose. If you take an X-ray or CAT scan, you get a tremendously higher radiation dose. Then you realise that it is an unfounded fear and if you keep saying this to people who have no access to information or knowledge, then it creates confusion. This misinformation [campaign] is most unfortunate.

We have environment survey laboratories [in each nuclear power station]. They are reporting [the radiation doses] regularly to the AERB, which puts it on the website. These are transparent data, which are available. They can be verified by anybody. There is no issue on this. There was the issue raised about the waste.

How do you manage the nuclear waste from the reactors?

In our case, the high-level waste [HLW] is in the spent fuel. In the Indian system, spent fuel is never just stored. It is reprocessed to get plutonium, and that plutonium is used in fast reactors. So we produce much less waste compared with countries that have a once-through fuel cycle. The spent fuel reprocessing set-up is not in Kudankulam. There is no plan for such a thing to be built there.

Kudankulam is only for reactors. Who is thinking of a reprocessing plant there? Reprocessing plants [will] come up in other places and they also do not create waste. We try to see that we get plutonium out of reprocessing and that plutonium is pushed into fast reactors.

Ultimately, there is a very small quantity of HLW. Since the quantity is very small, it can be converted into vitrified form glass form and it can be stored for a long time in a suitable geological repository. For short-term or intermediate storage, it can be kept in an underground vault, which is air cooled. This is how it is being maintained at Tarapur.

I went there recently.

You have seen how much empty space is there to keep it. At Kudankulam, there will be no issue about nuclear waste.

People fear the storage of liquid waste. I have seen liquid waste being stored in underground tanks at the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant (KARP). Solid waste can be converted into glass. But how can this liquid waste be disposed of?

Even the liquid waste at KARP is reprocessed, and there is finally volume reduction. From there, it is converted into small-sized solid waste. There is no question of discharging anything into the sea. There may be some very small quantity, within the AERB's or the IAEA's [International Atomic Energy Agency] limit and only that is to be discharged. There are very, very stringent regulations not to release anything above the stipulated limit. So there is no question of discharging anything into the sea. If people think that we discharge our radioactive waste into the sea, anybody can detect it immediately. If we do that, we are committing a very serious offence. These are all just fears that have got into the minds of people.

Why have you postponed the decision to buy the EPR-1650 reactors for Jaitapur? French Industry Minister Eric Besson has quoted you as having said that India would import only reactors certified by its own authorities and that you now want Fukushima certification. What do you mean by Fukushima certification?

It is called post-Fukushima certification. It means that if we experience any beyond-design-basis event, every system has to withstand it. Different stress tests are given. That is, you allow certain seismic waves to come in and see what components can withstand the seismicity. If there is a flood, you see where the equipment is and whether it will get flooded? These kinds of assessments need to be done for every piece of equipment in the whole plant area and then you can certify that they will withstand not only design-basis accidents but also beyond-the-design-basis accidents.

We will not be buying the full reactors. We will be building them ourselves with some components from outside. We will have to get a complete certification first of all from the country of origin. These countries also have regulatory bodies which have to first say, We have checked and these systems will withstand these kinds of extreme natural events. That is the prerequisite. Once we have that, our regulatory authorities will check on that. Plus the DAE and NPCIL will check whether everything is acceptable to us. This is called beyond-Fukushima certification because we have seen something happen in Fukushima and so we now have to see how plants will withstand each of these external events. We are waiting for that analysis to come and once it is released, we will be able to consider it.

When is the Pressurised Water Reactor, which uses enriched uranium as fuel, on board India's nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant, going critical?

I was actually hoping that it would be started up by the end of this year, but I am told now that it will be commissioned in January or February 2012. Some things are yet to be settled.

You are having problems at Kudankulam and Jaitapur. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said no to the Russian reactors coming up at Haripur in her State. There may be problems at Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh where imported reactors will be built. Are you looking for an alternative site to Haripur?

Yes. We are looking for alternative sites. That is not an issue.

How are you going to meet the target of 60,000 MWe of nuclear energy by 2032?

People have seen on television that nuclear power stations can blow up and it has created a bad impression in their minds. It is against this background that we are seeing this situation.

On the other side, the country is poised for major economic growth. When there is stagnation the world over, this is a great opportunity for the country. This is the right time for India to grow. This is not Sensex-oriented growth. It has to be backed by some solid, real growth in power, food, production of steel, manufacturing capability, etc. and not just some numbers. We have all the ingredients.

In the nuclear power field, we have run completely alone these years, without any relationship [partnership] with anybody else in the world. The country's self-esteem has come from this. We could do very sophisticated things although we were totally isolated.

We could develop complete technologies from mining of uranium to the final finish of building reactors, reprocessing, waste management, and so on. It is indigenously developed and commercially viable. It is not just doing things at a huge expense but we can show that we can do things at internationally competitive rates. Our capital cost of setting up a nuclear power plant is the lowest in the world. It is our own technology.

How much is it per megawatt?

Rs.6 crore to Rs.8 crore. Even large plants where you get the advantage of size cannot compete with this cost. But then, why are we buying reactors from outside? Because we need to grow fast. Also the most robust systems are these Light Water Reactors [LWRs]/Pressurised Water Reactors [PWRs]. For our growth, we cannot just think of one type of reactor. We want to have a mix, some Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors [PHWRs] and some LWRs in the first phase. In the second phase, we will go for our own Fast Reactors. I hope that the logic behind these developments will strike the minds of the people. Today, there may be a disarrangement but it will not be there forever. They will come to their senses.

On the other side, today, more than 400 million people in India do not have access to electricity. So it is necessary to grow very fast in electricity generation, and this can be done by nuclear energy, which is clean energy. It does not generate carbon dioxide. If you are going to generate electricity only by carbon, it will be polluting. Today, we produce 5 per cent of the carbon dioxide emission in the world. It may go up to 50 per cent. So it is not possible to take that path.

You may say there is solar energy. You should exploit solar energy, biomass and wind energy, to the fullest extent. But there is a difference between these kinds of energy paths and the nuclear path. These are distributed forms of energy. Nuclear power is a concentrated form of energy.

There are two kinds of energy needs. One is from the grid. Another is local area, for lighting up streets and homes, and this part can be done by wind. But you cannot have industrial growth, large-scale electricity deployment in agricultural pumpsets, etc. without grid power. What is the way forward? Nuclear power will give the country long-term energy security. If we miss the opportunity now, we will be miss it forever.

Our energy growth is retarded only because we are dependent so much on energy imports. Nuclear power can eventually give this country complete energy security and can enable it to come out of the shackle of energy imports. That is why we are saying nuclear power is important.

We have done this development [in nuclear power] indigenously. We are buying a few reactors. That does not mean we will stop our indigenous development. We will continue to do our indigenous development of even LWRs.

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