A report by Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the United States published in 1993 had stated categorically that chronic radiation exposure, heat fatigue and corrosive chemistry could damage or destroy vital safety related components inside the reactor vessel before the expiry of 40 year plant operating licence.1
Technology which promises abundance also provides ways and means to manage the risk.
And yet Tarapur BWR which went critical in 1969 has been given a lease of life until 2030. In an article published in Frontline magazine in Mar1999, Mr A. Gopalakrishnan (ex Chairman of the AERB with inside information of the state of India’s nuclear installations) had put the spotlight on several safety related deficiencies in our nuclear establishments.2 12 years later no authoritative response is available in the public domain. That is not to suggest that DAE or NPCIL has been indifferent to safety concerns. But just as the shortcomings remained under the wraps until revealed by an insider, what the authorities have done also remains obscure. What is the public to believe?
India’s energy demands are set to multiply several fold if it is to sustain its ambitious growth rate. Its hydrocarbon resources are meager. Coal reserves though considerable, are of poor quality and there are major pollution related concerns attached to coal fired plants. Hydroelectric energy though potentially plentiful, yet remains mired in political and environmental controversies. Nonconventional sources i.e. solar, wind, wave and tidal etc. do look promising but they have yet to reach commercial viability on a large scale.
But it does point to the absolute necessity of instituting an extremely stringent, transparent and rigorous watchdog regime to ensure that safety bar is set appropriately high and expedience does not allow any substandard material, procedure or process to slip from underneath.
Therefore in its energy mix, India has opted for massive increase in nuclear power. From an installed capacity of about 6000 MW in 2010, by 2020 it is set to increase to 20,000 MW and to 40,000 MW by 2030. The augmentation of capacity is to be achieved both through imported reactors as well as by indigenous designs.
The latter would adopt the ‘Fast Breeder Route’ to sidestep constraints imposed by very limited indigenous uranium resources. Fast breeders will use the abundantly available Thorium as feedstock. The chosen strategy carries the promise of unlimited raw material for power production. Although immensely promising, the technology involved is saddled with some serious risks too. Unlike all other reactors which use water jn one form or another (Boiling, Pressurized heavy water, or light water) for cooling, fast breeders would use Sodium to extract excess heat released by radioactive processes in the reactor. Sodium reacts violently with both air and water.
Therefore any leakage or breakage in the cooling system which allows Sodium to come in contact with air or water can have potentially disastrous consequences. It also means that abundantly available natural coolant, i.e. water can not be used to tackle any potential overheating emergencies. This is not to suggest that DAE’s well conceived plans to bolster India’s energy security should be abandoned because of the risks involved.
Technology which promises abundance also provides ways and means to manage the risk. But it does point to the absolute necessity of instituting an extremely stringent, transparent and rigorous watchdog regime to ensure that safety bar is set appropriately high and expedience does not allow any substandard material, procedure or process to slip from underneath. That is the only way both to ensure safety as well as to assure the public of its interest being placed at the very heart of India’s nuclear power programme.
- http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article1585746.ece Front Line Vol 16: no. 06 Mar 13-26, 1999