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Mainstream, VOL LV No 50 New Delhi December 2, 2017

Danger from Nuclear Reactors

Saturday 2 December 2017


by P.B. Sawant

The news published with fanfare on May 18, 2017 that the government had decided to install ten indigenous nuclear reactors in four different States to augment energy by 7000 MW followed by the news on June 2, 2017 that two additional Russian reactors would be installed at Kudankulam, had then shocked all the conscientious and knowledgeable people. Now comes the news that the government has decided to go ahead with the building of six French reactors, each with the capacity of 1650 MW, with modified terms of the contract.

The desirability of the production of nuclear energy has been in controversy in this country since its inception. When the first nuclear energy plant was proposed to be installed at Tarapur near Bombay in 1959, the well-known scientist, Prof D. D. Kosambi, had warned Pandit Nehru about its dangers, its physical and environ-mental hazards, financial non-viability and its superficiality in view of the abundant supply of sunlight throughout the year in this country. In addition to the sun, we have enough other renewable sources of power, namely, wind, waves and biomass. What he said then about the dangers of the nuclear power plants was proved by the disastrous accidents at Three Mile Island in America, Chernobyl in Russia and Fukushima in Japan in addition to frequent accidents on a smaller scale at the same and other places. His estimates about the generation of power from the renewable sources have also come true, more particularly in respect of solar and wind energy.

Having learnt lessons from the enormous human and other costs, country after country has closed their old nuclear plants, cancelled orders for new plants and shifted to solar energy. Even in this country, we have erected and are erecting solar energy plants in appreciable numbers. The result is that, today even when the solar energy is in its infancy, the tariff per unit of solar power is Rs 2.62 per unit which is expected to go down to Rs 1.50 per unit within another five to seven years. As against this, the nuclear power’s negotiated tariff per unit is Rs 6.30 in Russian reactors 3 and 4 installed at Kudankulam, and will be Rs 9 per unit for the Westinghouse reactors of Japan, and Rs 12 per unit for the Areva reactors of France. The six French reactors to be installed at Jaitapur in Ratnagiri District of Maharashtra, each with the capacity of 1650 MW, will involve the capital cost, as per the September 2015 estimate, of $ 11.5 billion, that is, about Rs 74,000 crores. For the six reactors it will be Rs 4,44,000 crores. The reactors will last only for 60 years.

There are several reports suggesting that the radio-active emissions from a nuclear power plant during its normal operation causes adverse impact on the health of a people, especially children, living around the plants, who suffer from diseases like leukaemia, thyroid cancer and brain tumours. However, when accidents like Three Mile Island in America, Chernobyl in Russia and Fukushima in Japan occur, there is a heavy radiation fall-out.

For example, after the Chernobyl accident, Belarus faced 60 per cent radiation fall-out affecting 25 lakh people including five lakh children. According to the report published by the Chernobyl Forum in 2005, 4000 cancer deaths in a time span of 80 years were expected. The National Committee for Radiation Protection of the Ukranian Population reported 5722 casualties among the Ukranian clean-up workers by 1995. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, approximately 27,000 excess cancer deaths are expected globally. According to a report published by Greenpeace, excess deaths between 1990 and 2004 could be anywhere between 10,000 to 20,0000. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health estimated 70 per cent of the population unwell with large increases in respiratory, blood and nervous system diseases.

In Belarus, there was an increase of 40 per cent in congenital defects within six years of the accident. A highly contaminated district of Belarus reported that in 2005, 95 per cent of the children were suffering from at least one chronic illness. Many of the 50,000 clean-up workers, who worked as Bio-Robots at Chernobyl, died of leukaemia.

After the Fukushima accident, according to the reports released by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in February 2016, there was a ten-fold increase in the incidents of thyroid cancer in children, and an estimated increase in overall cancer cases in Japan ranging from 9600 to 66,000. The flora and fauna were also greatly affected by Chernobyl accident. The said disaster was a consequence of accident at a single 1000 MW nuclear power reactor, which eventually led to evacuation and resettlement of 350,400 people from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. About 40,000 sq. kms. of agricultural land of Belarus was contaminated due to radiation fall out. Thirty years after the Chernobyl accident, there still exists highly radio-actively contaminated exclusion zone of the radius of 30 kms (approximately 2800 sq. km.).

After the accident at Fukushima in March 2011, nearly 154,000 people were evacuated from an area of 30 km radius from the plant due to radioactive contamination, half of whom are still not able to return to their homes as radio-active contamination still persists. In November 2011, the Japanese Ministry of Science reported contamination of 30,000 sq. km area by radio-active Cesium-137. Considering the damage by the accident at Chernobyl which was the consequence of the accident of a single 1000 MW nuclear power reactor, we can imagine what would be the consequence of six nuclear reactors of 1650 MW each, which are proposed to be built at Jaitapur. This is apart from the consequence of the fall-out of radioactivity from the normal operation of the six reactors of 1650 MW each (total 9900 MW).

The disposal of the nuclear waste is another frightening problem. In the first instance, there is no such thing as a safe burial place for the said waste. The waste has to be buried very deep in the ground. The nuclear fission leads to the generation of many highly radioactive elements, and it takes 241,100 years before the emissions are reduced to safe levels.

Although, according to NPCIL, the Indian nuclear power plants (which are at present 21), follow safe operating practices, and there are no adverse effects on public health from the radio-active emissions, the report published in 1991 by two scientists (Gadekar brothers) regarding the Rawatbhata Nuclear Plant in Rajasthan, disclosed that there were adverse health effects among local population living in villages around. Further, there were at least 17 cases of accidents involving radiation leakage, fire or structural damage between 1991 to 2016 in India’s civilian nuclear power plants.

As regards the reports of accidents all over the world, according to International Nuclear Events Scale, during the last 38 years, apart from the accidents at civil nuclear power plants at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima which caused five reactor core melt downs, there were accidents in the Soviet Union in 1957 which led to evacuation of atleast 22 villages, four accidents one each in UK, Canada, Switzerland and Brazil. Five accidents at Sellafield (UK) and another five in the US, France, Argentina, Czechoslovakia and Japan. The nuclear industry, in order to sell their plants, has always been hiding the truth from the people with regard to the dangers of the nuclear reactors. But they are exposed from time to time by incidents which cannot be hidden from the people. The above accidents and their studied consequences belie the claim of the industry that they are safe or produce electricity by a clean method.

As a result, today several countries of the world have either banned nuclear power or have reduced their reliance on it or have planned phased reduction in their dependence on it. Italy has voted, in a referendum, against it. Germany has decided to shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2022. Switzerland and Spain have banned construction of new nuclear reactors. France has decided to reduce its dependence on nuclear power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025. Taiwan has called for drastic reduction in its reliance on nuclear power. Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Malta, Malaysia, the Philippines, Luxemburg, Latvia and Liechtenstein have no nuclear power and remain opposed to it. Belgium is also phasing out nuclear power.

As against the nuclear power, there are alternative sources of energy such as wind, sunlight, rain, tide, waives, biomass and geothermal heat. These renewable sources are replenished on a human time-scale and are available over wider geographical areas unlike other conventional energy sources. The time required to install power plants based on renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and small hydro-electric, are much shorter compared to plants based on other forms of energy. The carbon footprint of renewable energy-based plants, such as wind and solar, are much smaller compared to the ones based on fossil fuels. The capital cost of renewable energy-based power plants are much smaller compared to those of nuclear power plants. The power plants based on wind and solar, do not pose any risk of catastrophe due to accident as do the nuclear power plants. They also do not create any hazardous pollutants like coal-ash and radioactive nuclear waste. The renewable energy plants can also be built on small scales and in remote areas. The sources of fossil fuels will exhaust in next about 100 years, but renewable energy will exist till sun shines. There is abundant supply of solar energy all over India and is equivalent to 5000 trillion units per year. The solar power plants built on one per cent of India’s land mass, can have a capacity of almost 1330 GW. In fact, there are plans to add 60 GW of installed wind power capacity by 2022.

As on March 31, 2017, the total installed power generation capacity connected to the national grid was 319.6 GW. To this the nuclear powers contribution was only 2.1 per cent as against the contribution by the renewable sources which was 30.3 per cent. The thermal power had the largest share contribution 66.7 per cent (coal 59.9 per cent, gas 7.8 per cent and diesel 0.3 per cent).

That in spite of the above incontrovertible facts, the government and its nuclear power agency, should be rushing through the installation of nuclear reactors, one after another, with infantile enthusiasm is a misfortune of this country. The present government seems to be in a hurry to be one-up in this insane race. The people have therefore a right to ask the government the following questions. In view of the availability of enough energy from the renewable sources to meet all our present and further needs at cheaper cost, why is the government insisting on installing the nuclear reactors? If the evidence has established that there is a risk of danger to human, plant, animal and marine life and all environment including air, water and soil, from the operation of the nuclear reactors, as against no such risk whatsoever from the renewable sources, why is it bent upon foisting the death wish upon the country, by installing them? In view of the enormous costs of installation of the nuclear reactors both in terms of money and time, and the higher costs per unit of electricity compared to the installation and production costs of the renewable source plants, is it not sheer obstinacy to insist on nuclear energy? Are the political compulsions, if any, of higher importance than the lives of the people and the survival of the plant and animal life and the protection of the environment in the country? Has not the supplier corporation Areva of France, breached the contract giving a right to this country to repudiate it and to get rid of the reactors? Are we trying to save the totteringnuclear industry by buying their unwanted reactors?

In any case, no contract or international law can prevail over human rights. The production of nuclear energy is patently in flagrant violation of human rights. Should not the government immediately stop the import of or installing any foreign or indigenous nuclear reactors? Should the government not undertake production of energy from the renewable resources, on a war-footing, instead?

The author, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, is a former Chairman, Press Council of India. He is currently based in Pune.

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