The Broad Mind | Do we need this Faustian bargain- Part 2

To continue from  my previous post:

Of the three accidents cited in the last post,  the first one, Three Mile Island accident- far from proving that nuclear energy was a Frankenstein that had been let loose – demonstrated that, despite a serious damage to the reactor, the leakage could be successfully contained within the building. The second, Chernobyl, revealed that the old Russian design was faulty and did not have many of the basic features that one takes for granted in today’s design. It led to more alertness and more safe-guards. The third, Fukushima, was an accident caused to a 50-year old plant due to a double whammy of the worst earthquake ever recorded in human history, followed by a tsunami of monstrous proportions.

I won’t dwell on the incidents. For a description of the above accidents, the lessons learnt and applied later, and additional back-ups and redundancies introduced subsequently to eliminate the likelihood of recurrence, let me point you to this overview provided by the World Nuclear Organisation , an association of nuclear professionals.

What are the metrics one uses to assess how safe a technology is?  There is no single parameter acceptable to all, and this is exactly what opponents of nuclear energy take advantage of. The fact is that the track record of civilian nuclear energy installations has been far superior to that of plants based on any other fuel. In terms of no. of deaths per terawatt hours (TWh) as reported by the World Health Organisation, coal-based plants led the list, followed by oil-based and then hydro and natural gas. Nuclear plants recorded just 0.04 deaths per TWh, compared to 161 of coal.

While the smallest of incidents involving nuclear plants get magnified in the media, accidents that have happened with other types of conventional power plants are allowed to slip out of public memory.

Thousands of people have died (and continue to die) in coal mines and many more deaths are indirectly caused every year by the emissions and fumes from coal plants. The social costs of displacement of people have also been high.

India has planned a number of Ultra-mega power plants, up to 4000 MW each, based on coal. A 4000 MW will generate 8 million tons of ash per annum, and it will be increasingly more difficult to dispose off this material for land-filling, etc. So, huge ash dykes need to be constructed. CEA estimates that the ash dyke of a typical 4000 MW plant will occupy an area of 1200 acres, and the ash will ultimately reach a height of 18 metres.  Accidents are not unknown in ash dykes.  In 2008, an ash dyke in Tennessee, USA ruptured and covered surrounding land, rivers and homes with 2 metres of sludge. The spill is yet to be fully cleaned.

Yet, we continue to cling to coal and depend on it to meet 60% of India’s energy needs. The XII Plan envisages an addition of another 60000 MW of coal plants..

If you thought that hydro-plants were innocuous structures benevolently churning out electricity,  let me point you to this news story that appeared in 2005, about a cascade dam accident in China in 1975 ( yes, the world did not know much about the incident for 30 years) which is reported to have killed a staggering 171,000 people in a single night. This incident- the  Banquio calamity-  has not dampened Chinese enthusiasm for hydro-plants. The Three Gorges project (18000 MW) was conceived later and implemented. 

In 2009, 75 people died in a matter of minutes in a bizarre incident in a hydro-electric plant in Siberia. If photographs of this accident are given the same prominence as the images from nuclear incidents, Indian’s plans for hydro-electric plants in the north-east will not be allowed to proceed.

In 2010, in Connecticut, a gas-turbine based power plant witnessed an explosion which caused the death of 6 people. India hopes to add another 15000 MW in the next 5-6 years, using natural gas.

The possibility of lethal doses of gases escaping from chemical plants such as ammonia and chlorine plants is much higher than radiation leaks from nuclear plants.  Only last year, a leakage from a chlorine cylinder kept in Mumbai port affected 120 people. (read this case study) We continue to use chlorine in swimming pools without getting paranoid about the possible risks. We use LPG for cooking, even though LPG is 1.5 times heavier than air and when it leaks, tends to settle down as a cloud and as a readily-combustible medium.

In contrast to coal plants or chemical plants where emissions make it straight into the atmosphere, waste management in a nuclear plant would involve controlled storage in corrosion-resistant canisters. After 20-30 years of continuous-cooling, the ultimate disposal is carried out in deep underground geological formulations with extra protection barriers. (For more information, please refer to the website of BARC).

Every technology presents some safety risks, and when we aim at progress and development, we do recognise that there’s a trade-off. The train was viewed as unsafe when invented and so was the plane (“If God had wanted man to fly, he would have given us wings”)

With each of these technologies, we accept the trade-off of benefits versus vigilance. When we build airports close to the cities, there is always the possibility that a plane would come crashing down over a thickly-populated locality. We try to foresee such threats and safeguard against them. We maintain eternal vigilance. We institute preventive maintenance practices. We constantly raise the bar on safety standards. We ensure that the benefits eventually far outweigh the risks.

The success and safety of nuclear technology depend to a large degree on the political culture and climate of the country. Democratic governments and its various institutions can ensure transparency and accountability that are essential for monitoring of safe practices.

Sadly, though convinced on the merits of nuclear energy, I remain skeptical on the odds of nuclear energy getting accepted in India. Vibrant democracies that can ensure accountability also encourage protests, and the Indian variety of protest is known for its shrill noise and destructive capability. The subject of nuclear energy is excellent fodder for self-styled activists and it doesn’t take much effort from them to whip up a mass hysteria.

It requires considerable political will and tenacity –both from the Central and the state governments-  to push through the ambitious plan for nuclear energy up to the last mile and I don’t see this happening. This will discourage investments in nuclear plants.

So, if nuclear energy is not allowed to live up to its potential, what are our options? I’ll discuss, in my next post, if natural gas can be our saviour.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.