M.V. Ramana on the Future of Nuclear Energy in India – Part 2 of 2

Chrestomather | October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)




The most disturbing sections of M.V. Ramana’s  Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India are those that relate to safety. Ramana describes two incidents that came fearsomely close to disaster. One occurred at the Narora reactor in Rajasthan on March 31 1993: ‘Early that morning, two blades of the turbine of the first unit at Narora broke off due to fatigue. They sliced through other blades, destabilizing the turbine and making it vibrate excessively. The vibrations caused the pipes carrying hydrogen gas that cool the turbine to break, releasing the hydrogen, which soon caught fire. Around the same time, lubricant oil too leaked. The fire spread to the oil and throughout the entire turbine building. Among the systems burnt by the fire were four cables that carried wires and electricity, which led to a general blackout in the plant. One set of cables supplied power to the secondary cooling systems, and when it got burnt those cooling systems were rendered inoperable. To make things worse, the control room was filled with smoke and the operators were forced to leave it about ten minutes after the blade failure. Prior to leaving, however, the operators manually actuated the primary shutdown system of the reactor… Fortunately, the reactor shutdown systems worked and control rods were inserted to stop the chain reaction. The problem then was something that was on display at Fukushima: the reactor went on generating heat because the fuel rods in a reactor accumulate fission products which continue to undergo radioactive decay.’

The situation was saved by some workers who ‘climbed on to the top of the reactor building, with the aid of battery-operated torches, and manually opened valves to release liquid boron into the core, further absorbing neutrons. Had these workers not acted as they did, it is possible … that there would have been a local core-melt and explosive fuel-coolant interaction… The names of those heroic workers have never been made public.’ (185)

But for a stroke of luck, another major disaster would have occurred at Kakrapar in Gujarat: ‘On 15 and 16 June 1994, there were heavy rains in South Gujarat and the water level of the lake began to rise. That resulted in the ducts that were meant to let out water becoming conduits for water to come in. Water began entering the turbine building on the night of 15 June … There were no arrangements either for sealing cable trenches and valve pits, both of which also allowed water to enter the reactor building. By the morning of 16 June, there was water not only in the turbine building but also in other parts of the reactor complex. The workers in the morning shift had to swim in chest-high water, and the control room was reportedly inaccessible for some time…  No action was taken till 11 a.m. on the 16th, when a site emergency was declared and workers were evacuated… [T]he gates of the Moticher Lake could not be opened, even after the … management requested help from the district and state authorities. Fortunately, villagers from the area, who were worried about the security of their own homes, made a breach in the embankment of the lake which allowed the waters to drain out.’

Fortunately ‘the reactor had been shut down for over four months at the time of the flooding [and] there was no great danger of an accident. Had it been functioning and there had been reason to issue an off-site emergency, the situation would have been desperate. In the words of Surendra and Sanghamitra Gadekar: ‘The scene … was one of utter devastation. A thousand houses were demolished in Bardoli alone, and many more elsewhere were damaged. Whole sections of roads, railway lines and bridges vanished into oblivion. Trees were laid low and farms turned into ponds. We were caught 100 km from home and had to trudge back through rivers and streams and making long detours’ (Gadekar 1994b). There was simply no way that people could have been evacuated on time.’ (188-9)

It is interesting to note that in both cases these great ‘temples of modernity’ owed their salvation to ordinary people, who remain unnamed.

Ramana’s review of preparedness training and safety precautions at the major nuclear sites leaves no doubt that it is luck alone that has spared India from a major accident. He concludes with this chilling passage: ‘There is one obvious question that this constellation of hazards—physical and institutional—provokes about nuclear power around the globe: Why are there not more accidents? One part of the answer is that, while the nature of the technology implies that there will be failures, there is nothing that determines the rate of failure as such. Therefore, the chances of an accident on any given day may be small but, sooner or later, there will be one. This parallels what happens in a lottery: ‘the odds of any given person winning are extremely remote, but the likelihood that someone is going to win, sooner or later, is certain’ (Chiles 2001, 286).’

Yet, the question remains: if not nuclear power, what?

This intractable issue has forced many environmentalists and climate activists to embrace nuclear technology as the last, best hope for cutting back on carbon emissions. James Hansen, the pioneering scientist who was among the first to alert the world to climate change, is one of them. In his book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity he makes a strong case for ‘fast-breeder’ nuclear reactors. ‘Fast reactors can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined, compared with less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors. So fast reactors increase the efficiency of fuel use by a factor of one hundred or more… Fast reactors also produce nuclear waste, but in volumes much less than slow (thermal) reactors. More important, the radioactivity becomes inconsequential in a few hundred years, rather than ten thousand years. The waste from a fast reactor can be vitrified – transformed into a glass-like substance – placed in a lead-lined steel casket and stored on-site or transported elsewhere. Plus, this waste material cannot be used to make explosive weapons…’[i]

These claims, if true, would amount to a compelling case in favour of fast-breeder reactors. But are they true?

After reading Hansen’s book I wrote to Ramana (I hadn’t yet read his Power of Promise): ‘I’ve been thinking of you recently while reading James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. He, like many other serious environmental scientists, makes the case that fast-breeder nuclear reactors are the only hope for the planet in the sense that they alone can replace coal-burning power plants. I’d be interested to know your views on this.’

This was Ramana’s reply:

Dear Amitav,

I have two responses, at different levels. In my ms, I argue against relying on nuclear power, especially fast breeder reactors, in India, not on ideological or moral lines, but based on an evaluation of the costs and the benefits. (I hope that comes through in my writing.) To some extent, that argument carries over globally, but I am uncomfortable making strong statements about other countries that I haven’t examined even cursorily, let alone at the level of detail I have done in the case of India.

The technical response is that while there may be a case for nuclear power as a means to mitigate climate change, the case for fast breeders doing that is weak. This is for two reasons. First, the type of FBRs that Hansen talks about (and I may be wrong because I haven’t read his book, but have heard him elsewhere on the subject), the integral fast reactors, have never been built. They involve not just a new kind of reactor, but also an associated new type of reprocessing technology called pyro-processing. Both breeders and reprocessing plants have been notoriously problematic, much more so than nuclear power in general. So any strategy based on rapid construction of these untested technologies is very likely to suffer from setbacks. Second, the problem that these breeders are meant to solve is an imagined one. The main case for breeders is that uranium is likely to run out. There is plenty of evidence from around the world that this is unlikely to happen for decades at the very least. In that case, even if one were to advocate nuclear power, it would be much better to rely on the relatively more proven light water reactors.

The sociological(?) response is that I have been thinking about climate change and attending many meetings and so on related to the subject for about a decade now. My sense is that many of the scientists who are involved in studying the subject are a depressed lot. (Of course, I use depressed in a loose sense rather than in a clinical diagnostic sense.) This is but natural, for every conference they attend and every paper they read, offers more evidence, not just of an inexorable descent into the abyss, but also of their sheer powerlessness to stop this descent. And one response that many of them have adopted is to put their hopes on some technological miracle, clutching onto such hopes in the face of all evidence. In that sense, I don’t consider that aspect of their argument as serious science, even though they may be completely rigorous in their analysis of, say, ice core data or hurricane intensity.

In The Power of Promise Ramana makes a persuasive case against pinning our hopes on fast breeder reactors. In sum ‘The bottom line on breeder reactors, therefore, is that they cannot be constructed at the pace envisioned by the Department of Atomic Energy, they will be susceptible to catastrophic accidents, and they will produce very expensive electricity.’

What then is the solution?

It has become customary nowadays for environmentalists and climate scientists to end their books on an upbeat note by suggesting various ‘fixes’. Not Ramana. He mentions the ideas of a few visionaries, like Amulya Reddy, but he does not suggest any ‘solutions’ as such. Why? Possibly because there are no quick fixes, no magic bullets. I suspect that Ramana knows that his arguments lead to a conclusion that is too bleak to be put into words.

The Power of Promise is as timely as it is important. I have no doubt that it will come to be regarded as a landmark, not only in the debates on nuclear and energy issues, but also in the history and sociology of Indian science.

[i] Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth of Our Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Bloomsbury (references are to the Kindle edition), location 3553.

2 Responses to “M.V. Ramana on the Future of Nuclear Energy in India – Part 2 of 2”

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  1. Comment by Sashi — October 25, 2012 at 10:52 am   Reply

    Interesting to read your review of Ramana’s upcoming book. I would still press Ramana and other critics of nuclear power for viable alternatives to meet India’s need for power. Ramana and I had a ‘vigorous’ discussion on this when he visited me last, which coincided with the time when of protests against the Kudankulam reactor reached fever pitch.
    For the record, I agree with his legitimate questions on the nuclear industry’s safety record, its confidence in the reliability of its technology and yet the seemingly illogical need for a cap on liability in the event of a catastrophic failure. To unequivocally prove that nuclear energy is indeed more economical, the industry needs to honestly include all life-cycle costs including people-displacement and relocation, decommissioning and disposal, and full liability, and weigh it against the value of electricity output. The Indian government has a huge burden of responsibility to the population in whose neighborhood these reactors are being built. The government’s assurances does not and should not inspire confidence given their appalling safety record less complicated realms, the railways for instance, and in how they reacted to and still continue to ill-treat and ignore the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
    Having said all that though, the government is forced to act by political, economic and developmental imperatives that an academic does not have to address. But it important that such a well-researched book on a topic that touches the ‘aam admi’ also suggest alternatives, regardless of how unpleasant they may be. I would hate to see a thought provoking book be set aside as just another academic exercise that is out of touch with the real needs of India today.

    • Comment by Chrestomather — October 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm   Reply

      Good points and some of them occurred to me too. I will draw Ramana’s attention to them.

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