Saturday, 12 May 2012

Response to MRS

 MR Srinivasan(MRS), the ex-chief of atomic energy commission, has recently attempted to re-persuade the public that there really is no alternative to a nuclear power plant at Koodankulam. To this end, he resorts to sweeping generalities, inappropriate distractions and deliberate falsehoods to prop up his arguments – and cleverly side steps the real issues and concerns of people who oppose this nuclear plant.

All proposed nuclear plants in India, like those at Jaitapur, Kovvada, Gorakhpur, Haripur, etc., are sites of intense public opposition due to their inherent risks, even during normal operations. Risks of a serious accident, whether natural, man-made, or of technical origin, further compound the resistance in vulnerable communities near the plants. Thus, there is a real need to address the viability of energy alternatives for India’s rising demands. This write up offers a point wise rebuttal to MR Srinivasan’s many wrong contentions, and also serves as a reminder to a few of the lesser known facts about a nuclear-India.

Natural Gas: Currently, natural gas accounts for more than 10% of India’s installed electricity generations – this despite its other uses as feedstock, domestic and transport fuel. A recent report on the natural gas capacity in India places it amongst the fastest growing conventional options, and recommends that India take advantage of the excess global availability of the fuel and its green advantages. In a similar vein, India’s oil ministry is targeting a tripling in the pipeline capacity for gas distribution. Natural gas is expected to feature increasingly in India’s demand to generate electricity. The cost of natural gas has already fallen by 60% from 2011, and is at a 16 year minimum, due to oversupply in the market; its value currently stands at $2.45/million BTU; MRS uses an unrealistic value of $8-9/million BTU which was last seen in 2007-08 period, to imply a per unit cost which is twice that of nuclear energy!

Wind Energy: A recent assessment by Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory places the wind potential of India at 2000-3000 GW, much higher than the government estimate of 102 GW. This enormous potential requires an estimated  0.05% of India’s land; only 3% of that land is used for power generation, so most of the land in a wind farm is still available for traditional or other uses. Suzlon has recently announced that it has crossed a 1GW mark wind capacity at Jaisalmer, indicative of the practicality of wind as a potential component to India’s energy solutions. Tamil Nadu state itself currently has an installed wind capacity of over 6 GW. It is true that wind power generation happens only part of the time; however in peninsular India, this luckily happens during the monsoon months, when the solar generation is low.

Solar energy: might be diffuse, but its potential, especially in India, is virtually limitless. The solar global market is expected to witness a rise of 200-400% over the next five years with Asia taking a lead.
Furthermore, the scope of meeting the needs of our millions, who are without power, become feasible with ideas of rooftop solar panels for households. This idea was recently examined by Prof. Chokshi at IISc., and shown to have a potential for meeting distributed energy needs  without needing any 100MW photovoltaic solar plants considered by MRS. This has an additional advantage of cutting down enormously on transmission and distribution losses – which in India are  27% of total electricity produced.  While the per unit cost of solar energy is high compared to conventional fuels, in Dec. 2011, its cost fell below the cost of power generated from a diesel source to Rs. 7.49/unit, far below Rs.20/unit quoted by MRS;  and a further drop by 40% is expected by 2015.

Hydro-Power: While MRS limits himself to large hydro projects and its associated human and environmental damages, small hydro electric projects have a potential for renewable and distributed energy generation while also avoiding the large scale damages. Their potential as an integral part of a multi-pronged and green energy approach has yet to be fully explored, and exploited. A feasibility study of mini, micro and small hydro power plants has been carried out at IISc. along the Bedthi and Aghanashini rivers in Uttara Kanara district of Karnataka. It has been estimated that the energy harnessed from streams would provide, respectively, 720, and 510 million unitsof electricity! Grossest estimates for electricity generation from small hydro projects, based on currently available data, suggests a potential of 15 GW –  with likelihood that this number might vastly increase.

Coal: is an unfortunate and a major provider of India’s power needs – and the sooner we wean ourselves – the better.

Nuclear Energy: Contributes about 2.7% to India’s current electricity production with 20 operating nuclear reactors. Koodankulam nuclear Power plant, at the verge of criticality, cost Rs.13,000 crores and almost ten years to build. It has an expected potential of 2 GW, at full capacity. India proposes that by 2032, the national nuclear capacity will increase to 63 GW from a current capacity of 4.8 GW.

MRS grossly underplays deaths and damages in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear disasters, while underscoring that lessons have been learnt. The disaster at Chernobyl has left a legacy of wastelands far beyond regional and national boundaries and mutated the genetic pool of all living matter, plant, animal or human for generations to come. Only the nuclear establishment can callously dismiss the living tragedy of the post-Chernobyl generations and count death with only the handfuls that immediately died. The latest estimate by Union of Concerned Scientists places the casualties of Chernobyldisaster at 25,000, with approximately double of that for radiation induced cancer [ Also see this]

It would be un-scientific to call any nuclear reactor ‘fully-safe’. WANO certificate on technical safety can be accepted – at face value – as only that. Safety of any nuclear plant can be compromised by human error or sabotage, or caused by freak natural occurrences, and human inability to respond appropriately to these during crisis. Fukushima only resulted in our nuclear establishment declaring our 100% safe plants – more 100% safe.

Now a few points that have escaped public attention: In an independent study funded by DAE on the health effects around the Kalpakkam nuclear facility, Dr. Manjula Datta found that cancer cases in nearby villages were seven times higher than in control samples. A 2005 UNSCEAR study found Kalpakkam to have the highest Tritium releases in the world; Tritium is a carcinogen and a mutagen.

Tell a lie often enough, and it becomes truth. MRS concludes by urging confidence in our nuclear engineers who have operated India’s power plants safely for last 40 years – that is, if we choose to ignore the  major reported incidences at Kalpakkam and other facilities; the fire in Narora facility in 1993 being the most serious of all Indian nuclear accidents.Having confidence in our nuclear engineers does not rule out  nuclear accidents or catastrophe. 

So, we can either live in the make believe world of MRS to perpetuate his unnecessary, expensive and hazardous nuclear fantasy. Or, we could do one or both of the following -immediately: (1)Cut down on transmission and distribution losses with insulated wires buried underground and immediately enjoy a whopping ten times our current nuclear capacity.(2) Convert from incandescent to CFL (or LEDs) bulbs to save an estimated 10 GW - without constructing a nuclear plant.

Finally, let us remember that a nation is made of its people; and national development has to be people based. It cannot be dictated from top - it must necessarily involve consensual approach, especially of those people who have most to lose.

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