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Koodankulam nuclear project: Separating fact from fiction

October 18, 2011 16:14 IST

Uncritical acceptance of any major project is undesirable. So also is unbending opposition to it. Constructive criticism of the project could bring about greater safety in design, construction and operation or even lead to abandonment of the project. The scientific and engineering community in the country should play an active role in such criticism instead of remaining mute spectators, leaving the ground to the lay public, says L V Krishnan.

There are only a few ways of producing electricity commercially. Among those available, each has its merits and demerits; its supporters and detractors. Many years ago, nuclear power was considered a silver bullet and several countries jumped at it. With experience, now only a handful is still interested in it, because they have their compulsions, lacking suitable alternatives.

Nowadays, energy from the sun and the wind is being offered as a golden bullet filling the public mind with great hope. We shall have to wait a few years for the results of their utilization on a very large scale. To generate the same amount of electricity through solar or wind power, we need three to five times the installed capacity compared to coal or nuclear. Nevertheless, they have an important role to play.

India cannot afford to disregard any energy source and has to make use of every source available to it. Very rightly, a wind farm of 10 MW capacity has been set up by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and is now in operation at the Kudankulam site. But, if India needs nuclear energy, public acceptance is essential.

There are some genuine concerns in the public mind about any major industrial project, whether coal mines, chemical plants or nuclear plants. Residents in the proposed site fear they would be displaced, lose their livelihood and their roots and would have to adjust to new neighbours. Those who can continue to live near the plant worry about the effluents.

The prime concern about nuclear plants relates to the health impact of radiation arising from its operation. It forms the main basis for the protests in Koodankulam, although other reasons are also mentioned.

Such concern, in particular about cancer among children observed near nuclear plant sites, has been raised in Britain and other countries before. In Britain, there has been for many years now, a standing committee of medical experts to investigate. It has published numerous reports and concluded that there is no evidence to link the low levels of exposure from nuclear plants to child cancer, since cancer is found in other parts of the country at similar incidence levels. In Germany, the allegation related to one particular nuclear plant among the many in the country. The entire country was surveyed and the findings were similar to that in Britain. Another study examined data for about 200 nuclear plants out of the 400 and came to the same conclusions. These studies were possible because of the availability of a large data base on the health of the population. The studies found no increase in the incidence of any other health condition around a nuclear plant. At the minimum, a state-wide health data base in those states with nuclear power plants is essential for similar investigations in India. There is no reason why until then we cannot go by the results found elsewhere, as long as similar radiation levels prevail around the plant. For too long the fiction of widespread harmful health effects at low doses has been perpetuated spreading scare among the innocent public.

Cancer has many causes, radiation being only one among them. The low exposure levels found near nuclear plants are similar to exposure from radiation present in nature in the environment everywhere. At these levels, the human body has considerable ability to repair what little damage takes place. There are no systematic measurements of the environmental levels of carcinogens other than radiation. That has led to the excessive focus on linking cancer with radiation exclusively.

Birth defects at higher than natural incidence levels have not been found to occur near nuclear plants. Yet, such allegations continue to be made in India based on perfunctory inspections of the area. Till such time as a health data base is compiled for the country, these allegations are likely to continue.

There are complaints about radioactive and thermal discharges into the sea from nuclear plants causing harm to fish. It is now well established that many types of edible fish and other marine organisms accumulate in their body very significant levels of polonium, a particularly harmful radioactive substance found in nature, without any adverse effect. Levels of radioactive substances discharged by the plant are continuously being monitored to keep within prescribed safe levels for human consumption as well.

Many coal or gas fired plants have come up on the country's coastal areas and more are planned. These also discharge warm water into the sea. Regulations are the same for nuclear and thermal plants. Sea water pumped to the plant is first subject to filtering and some fish invariably also come along, get caught and are killed. Perhaps this is being attributed to the warm discharge. An elaborate design for the sea water intake system at Koodankulam with novel features grossly minimises the trapping of fish.

Protesters at Koodankulam cite the case of Fukushima in Japan and raise the spectre of damage through earthquake and tsunami. Can Fukushima be taken as the basis for either type of damage in Koodankulam? The answer is no, whether the reference is to earthquakes, tsunami or plant design. But, the admirable disciplined manner in which the Japanese citizens conducted themselves after the accident has set a high standard for the world.

Japan experiences an earthquake on a daily basis. The tsunami that damaged the reactors there was triggered by an earthquake of magnitude nine that occurred close to the reactor site. The highest magnitude recorded so far anywhere in Tamil Nadu is of magnitude six and occurred at Coimbatore a few hundred kilometers from Koodankulam. According to earthquake pundits, an earthquake of similar intensity is not expected in Koodankulam area. The reactors here are designed to withstand a magnitude six quake if it occurs within about 35 kilometers distance.

The tsunami in Fukushima was so severe because the point of origin was very close. The nearest likely tsunami source for Koodankulam is far enough away to reduce the wave height, weaken the intensity and also provide sufficient warning.

Information now available from Japan reveals that the reactors were damaged because adequate care was not taken in design. At the Fukushima site itself not all of the six reactors there were affected. Two out of the six remained unscathed. Why? These were built seven years later and were designed to withstand an earthquake and tsunami of intensity comparable to what was actually experienced. They were built on a ground level higher than the other four and their diesel generators were placed in safer locations. Apparently, the decision to do so was based on good information. Clearly, there was failure to apply this information to the earlier reactors by way of retrofitting. At Koodankulam, the emergency diesels are located on high ground well shielded from the sea by the turbine and plant buildings.

In Fukushima, the ventilation systems of two adjacent reactors were interconnected because they shared a common stack. As a result, hydrogen from a damaged reactor spread to its undamaged twin, exploded there and caused unnecessary destruction to it. Wisely, Koodankulam has a safer design with total isolation of the ventilation system of a reactor from its neighbours. The containment design in present day Indian reactors is superior to that in the Three Mile Island reactor where despite core melt and hydrogen explosion negligible release of radioactive substances occurred.

The Russian designers have provided a passive heat removal system for the Koodankulam reactors to ensure cooling of the core for 24 hours under conditions of total power blackout. This is an advance over similar Russian reactors supplied to China earlier. Other safety features are also included in the Koodankulam design at the specific instance of the Indian team.

All the above facts are available from open sources to anyone who seeks answers to questions about reactor safety that he or she may have. But, most people are content to take for granted views and opinions of others not so well informed.

The air is now thick with much misinformation about the nuclear power programme in the country. There is a grossly mistaken notion that Russian technology supplied to Koodankulam is old, unreliable and prone to accidents, based perhaps on the Chernobyl accident. Some still harbour the wrong impression that the reactors at Koodankulam are of the same design as at Chernobyl. People interviewed on the television or writing in their blogs are spreading false information that more land is being acquired for Koodankulam reactors and that local fresh water sources are being appropriated by the plant. The fact is there is no further requirement of land and all fresh water needs are being met by desalination.

The preparations for an emergency exercise, to test the ability of the authorities of the district and the plant to implement prescribed protective measures, appear to have been misinterpreted putting fear in the minds of the local residents that their permanent evacuation from the area is imminent.

Word is being spread incorrectly that the whole world is now going back on nuclear power. Other than Germany, many countries plan to continue to operate their reactors. They have their reasons. The desire for nuclear weapons is alleged to provide the basis for India's nuclear power programme. It is said that the sun and the wind alone can meet our entire needs for now and in the future.

The accident at the chemical plant in Bhopal is often invoked scaring people, although there are very great differences between Bhopal and Fukushima. Exposure to the chemical there caused near instantaneous fatality, there was no buffer distance between people and the plant, the effect of the chemical was not understood, there was no way of measuring the atmospheric level and no emergency plan either. Nuclear accidents pose no similar immediate threat to life among the public. But they trigger unending debates as to whether and to what extent delayed fatalities would occur in the distant future. It is all a statistical assessment, since individual exposures are not known except where levels of radioactive substances ingested are actually measured.

In the past, the projections for nuclear power generation in the country have been unreal. And now, the danger from an operating nuclear power plant of current designs is being vastly exaggerated. Resort to such exaggeration is contributing to fear psychosis among the public. Thus a vicious cycle seems to be at work. Notice that no specifics of practical alternative options for India have been put forward by any group beyond pointing the finger at solar and wind power and efficiency increase.

Clearly, there is much that can and should be done to redress the basic concerns of the locals about displacement, loss of livelihood and health. Provision of amenities in villages that have provided land, annuities to families that have given their land and rehabilitation grants for jobless labourers have been proposed. These are steps in the right direction. Uninterrupted supply of electricity and continuous monitoring of the health of the people in the plant neighbourhood also warrant attention. But, above all, greater transparency in communication to the public on the part of the plant and the regulator is very important.

Uncritical acceptance of any major project is undesirable. So also is unbending opposition to it. Constructive criticism of the project could bring about greater safety in design, construction and operation or even lead to abandonment of the project. The scientific and engineering community in the country should play an active role in such criticism instead of remaining mute spectators, leaving the ground to the lay public.

L V Krishnan is former director, safety research and health physics group at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam.

L V Krishnan