French advantage

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

AREVA, which is helping India build the Jaitapur nuclear plant, allays fears of a Fukushima-style accident.

recently in Flamanville, France

IT is going to be a bad year for the nuclear industry. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has estimated that half of the projects that have been initialled will not materialise.

While China has put some 28 proposed projects on hold, Japan, which had invested heavily in the nuclear industry, is having a rethink of its energy policy. Before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in the wake of a powerful tsunami in March this year, Japan was planning to build 12 more nuclear plants. Its government has now announced that it will not build any new reactors.

In this context, India's stand on the issue seems curious. During the recent visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated that his government would go ahead with its ambitious plans to build civilian nuclear power plants in the country. The German media were interested in the Indian position as their government had announced plans to scrap all existing nuclear plants following the domestic uproar in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In a recent poll in Germany, parties opposing nuclear power did exceedingly well. Only last year had Merkel wholeheartedly endorsed nuclear energy and even extended the lives of nuclear plants that were due for shutdown by 2021.

In India too, some civil society groups have started becoming vociferous about the inherent risks posed by nuclear reactors. Coupled with this is the issue of land acquisition for the slew of nuclear power projects the Indian government has in the pipeline. Jaitapur in Maharashtra, the site chosen for building the French nuclear firm AREVA's reactor, is currently in the eye of a storm. The location of the plant on India's western coastline and the reluctance of the local residents to relocate have made both Indian and French officials jittery. Political parties too have got into the fray. The Left parties have called for the scrapping of the project because of the untested technology AREVA is using and the vulnerability of the location to the forces of nature. The Shiv Sena, a loud supporter of the India-United States nuclear deal, says it is opposed to the Jaitapur project because the local population is against it. Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, however, reiterated in the first week of June that the plans to construct the plant would not be affected.

Having got the green signal from the Indian government, the French side is gearing up to start work expeditiously on the two European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) as soon as issues relating to pricing are sorted out. The EPR is a third-generation reactor and is touted as the most advanced in its class. The official agreement to build the reactors was signed when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India in December last year. Officials of AREVA who briefed a team of Indian journalists on a recent visit to France said that the EPR reactor's design guaranteed unprecedented levels of safety for the local populace as well as the environment. According to them, the design is the result of decades of an advanced research and development (R&D) programme involving the French Atomic Energy Commission and the German Karlsuhe Research Centre. They said that the EPR reactor that would be installed in Jaitapur was a direct descendant of the Framatome-Siemens reactors that functioned in France and Germany.

French officials describe the reactors as the most modern and powerful ones available in the market. Work on the new generation of French reactors has already started in China, Finland and France. Finland, which wanted to put nuclear power at the heart of its energy mix, was the first country to opt for the EPR. However, cost and schedule overruns have delayed the Finnish project, Olkiluoto 3. It is now expected to commence power production in 2012.

Following the calamity unleashed by the Fukushima meltdown, safety issues surrounding nuclear plants have become paramount, especially in the West. In the U.S., many nuclear reactors were found to have design faults. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based group, last year nuclear plants in the U.S. experienced 14 near misses serious failures in which safety was jeopardised. The scientists pointed out that many of the plants in the U.S. were situated on geographically active faults.

The European Union (E.U.) has ordered stress tests for all the 143 nuclear plants on its territory from June 1 in the wake of the Fukushima incident. The Chernobyl nuclear accident 25 years ago caused widespread devastation and panic in many parts of Europe. That disaster was initially blamed on faulty Russian design and alleged incompetence of the Soviet managers.

But after the Three Mile Island incident in the U.S. in 1979 and now Fukushima, it has become evident that the West's claim to have incorporated high standards in its civilian nuclear reactors was far from true. An American company, General Electric (GE), designed the Fukushima reactor. It has now been acknowledged that there were serious design faults that contributed to the disaster in Japan. Twenty-three operational American reactors have the same GE design.

AREVA prepared

Those opposed to the Jaitapur plant insist that the area is near a seismic zone and is also susceptible to tsunamis as it is located near the sea. A French official, trying to allay fears about the dangers posed by nuclear power plants, told this correspondent that even flying a commercial aircraft had inherent risks. Does it mean that you will stop flying? he asked. French officials claim that the EPR reactor met the highest safety requirements and offered comprehensive protection against internal and external accidents. Jaitapur is located in a zone with a significantly lower seismicity than Fukushima. There have not been any recorded earthquakes in the region of the magnitude witnessed in Japan recently.

All the same, the EPR, according to the officials, will be designed to withstand a peak ground acceleration (PGA) of 0.25g (where g stands for the acceleration due to gravity). This is the norm recommended by the European Utilities Requirements (EUR) and, according to AREVA officials, will be able to withstand earthquakes much stronger than the one that struck Koyna in 1967. Koyna is only 64 kilometres away from Jaitapur.

AREVA says that it is prepared for any eventuality, including worst-case scenarios similar to a Chernobyl/Fukushima-type core meltdown. The EPR reactor, the company claims, has been designed to prevent any exposure of the corium to external air. The double concrete shell of the reactor is designed to avoid critical damage to the building structure, from both internal and external sources.

Unlike the reactors in Fukushima, the French reactors will store the spent nuclear fuel in a dedicated fuel building, which will also be protected by a double concrete wall. AREVA officials at the Flamanville nuclear plant on the Normandy coast claimed that their reactors would be able to withstand a Fukushima-scale disaster successfully. Design is no doubt important, but what is equally important is how you train your personnel to manage crisis situations, an official at the plant said. The proposed civilian nuclear plant in Jaitapur will be modelled after the Flamanville 3 EPR. This is considered a benchmark for the construction of future EPR units around the world. According to the company's officials, significant safety upgrades have been introduced, including reduction of core melt risk and mitigation of radiological consequences in the eventuality of an accident.

AREVA nuclear reactors are the most expensive in the world. The Chinese reportedly paid $8 billion for two French reactors. India may end up paying a similar amount. New Delhi evidently assigns a great deal of importance to ties with France in the field of nuclear energy. France is helping India build a huge stockpile of uranium, which will be handy in case of disruption of supplies due to unforeseen circumstances. Readily available uranium supplies will help safeguard India's civilian nuclear programme. AREVA has a virtual monopoly over uranium supplies in Niger; it also owns mines in Canada. Indian policymakers are convinced that continued economic growth can only be sustained with the accelerated installation of civilian nuclear power plants to build a modern grid. India's Eleventh Five-Year Plan foresees a five-time increase in production capacities before 2032. This means a progression from 153 to 778 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity within the next two decades. Nuclear energy is expected to be a crucial part of the nation's energy mix.

French officials talk of their country's own experience. The political leadership of the country had decided to opt for nuclear energy in a big way after the oil shock of the early 1970s. France had by then also run out of coal deposits, which other countries use to generate electricity. Since the 1980s, most of the power consumed in France has been generated by nuclear plants. Some of the surplus power generated is exported to Germany. French officials point out that energy self-sufficiency is an essential prerequisite for a country to retain genuine sovereignty. German companies and conservative media commentators have criticised their government's decision to phase out nuclear power as they feel it will adversely impact the economy, which is Europe's strongest, and even lead to power outages in the near future.

The debate about the efficacy of nuclear power will rage on all over the world, but the desire for abundant electrical energy could once again see the return of nuclear power stations.

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