Kudankulam reactors: nuclear myths

There is some delay in the commissioning of the two VVER 1000 reactors being set up in Kudankulam in the State of Tamil Nadu. Protests by activists in the aftermath of the nuclear accident at Fukushima nuclear power station, together with misinformation and misconcepts are causing apprehensions in a section of the public. The following  article is an attempt to correct the misinformation.


VOL NO XXVII(46)- 2011                                          November 12, 2011




Kudankulam Reactors: Nuclear Myths

By Dr K S Parthaarathy

Recently, an energy specialist showed that under realistic assumptions, India will not be able to maintain a modest  annual per capita power need of about 2000 kWh by 2070 by  renewable energy alone; the maximum potential for renewable will be 36.1%. (Current Science, Sept 10, 2011), Fossil fuel and nuclear will continue to play their role. He believes that hundred years later, India has to depend on nuclear power only.

Recently anti nuclear activists scored over staunch nuclear power proponents by planning a fast of infants against Kudankulam project! Infants cannot protest; parents forced them to fast. Mercifully it was only for one hour. I do not know whether it is legal or whether it may be considered as child abuse. It was a clever ploy to get publicity. Next, the activists may argue that reactors will kill babies and babies’ babies!

Misinformation, misconcepts and other issues are coming in the way of commissioning the first Generation 3+ advanced nuclear power reactor in India.

In an article titled “India: People power vs. nuclear power (The Daily Star, October 17, 2011), Praful Bidwai claimed that  Kudankulam reactors will daily draw in millions of litre of freshwater, and release it at a high temperature into the sea, affecting the fish catch on which lakhs of livelihoods depend.

The reactors will not use fresh water but water from a desalination plant erected at site. The temperature of water from the reactors discharged in to the sea will be in compliance with the stipulations of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India. This discharge will not affect fish catch nor will it adversely affect marine ecology.

Bidwai’s observation that the reactors are being built within a one-kilometre radius of major population-centres, violating the 1.6-km “nil-population” zone stipulation is not true.

Nuclear Power Corporation India Limited (NPCIL) keeps an area of 1.5 kilo-metre radius

around the reactors under its exclusive control as required by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) Code on Safety in Nuclear Power Plant Siting. The site satisfies other AERB stipulations.AERB allows the reactors to release effluents and emissions routinely. NPCIL ensures that the limits for releases prescribed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) are not exceeded.

Bidwai scares people by describing radioactivity as “a regular poison you can’t see, touch or smell”. He knows that these shortcomings have not come in the way of using radiation in medical, industrial and research applications. That we can measure radioactivity and radiation accurately at extremely low levels helps to enforce regulatory limits on releases and emissions.

Bidwai notes that scientific studies covering 136 nuclear sites in seven countries showed some adverse health effects. The reference is to a paper by Baker and Hoel in the European Journal of Cancer Care (2007). It offered some evidence of elevated leukemia rates among children living near nuclear facilities. The authors described the limitations of the study and also referred to studies which did not show any effect. They referred to studies in which leukemia effect was seen before the nuclear facilities started operation!

Specialists criticized the study for its methodological weaknesses, such as combining heterogeneous data (different age groups, sites that were not nuclear power plants, different zone definitions), arbitrary selection of 17 out of 37 individual studies, exclusion of sites with zero observed cases or deaths, etc (Wikipedia).

Though the paper deals with leukemia only and no other effects, Bidwai claimed that the study shows “abnormally high leukemia rates among children and higher incidence of cancers, congenital deformities, and immunity and organ damage”. Nuclear critics have a way of shaming epidemiologists and other specialists by cherry picking data and inventing conclusions!

The Chernobyl accident caused two deaths immediately and 28 deaths within a few months. According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (2011), there were 15 more deaths due to thyroid cancers. Opinions on number of potential deaths differ.

Bidwai claimed (34,000 to 95,000) deaths, lot less than one million predicted by a Greenpeace supported report. He claimed that the numbers of deaths are still “climbing”. Such myths cloud the reality that no such dramatic increases have been identified. Actually radiation scaremongers caused 100,000 to 200,000 abortions in Europe!

A nuclear reactor will not explode like a nuclear bomb as its fuel contains only less than 5% enriched uranium. This is a basic lesson in reactor physics. Bidwai’s argument that a reactor is a barely controlled nuclear bomb has no scientific basis.

Bidwai recommends that “there are perfectly sound, safe, cost-competitive renewable energy alternatives to nuclear power”. We do not now have the luxury to choose any mode of power generation. The Government’s programme to erect solar generating capacity of 20,000 MWe by 2020, equal to that of the then nuclear capacity may be seen in that context.. On a percentage basis, India now produces more renewable energy than Germany.

Ranked fifth in the world, India’s installed wind-power capacity is 14,158 MW, three times our nuclear power capacity.

Recently, an energy specialist showed that under realistic assumptions, India will not be able to maintain a modest  annual per capita power need of about 2000 kWh by 2070 by  renewable energy alone; the maximum potential for renewable will be 36.1%. (Current Science, Sept 10, 2011), Fossil fuel and nuclear will continue to play their role. He believes that hundred years later, India has to depend on nuclear power only.

A Mumbai daily quoted Dr M P Parameswaran, a DAE veteran (whatever that may mean) as saying that “No N-plant in India safe”-an opinion, not based on facts.

“We are yet to master the technology to decommission a reactor. That is why we keep on extending the life period of some of the reactors which have outlived their utilities”, he added another skewed opinion.

Like other anti nuclear activists, he believes that since 1977, USA has not built any new nuclear power plant. There is a little confusion here. It is true that USA has not issued any new licence to construct a nuclear power plant.

Electric companies connected 50 out of the 104 currently operating nuclear power plants in USA to the grid after 1979, the year in which the Three Mile Island accident occurred. Nineteen of them after 1986, the year in which the Chernobyl accident occurred. Fifty three out of the 59 French reactors came on line after 1979.

He says that in 1974, all US Nobel Prize winners were opposed to nuclear power plants. It is very unlikely. In spite of the “opposition”, nuclear electricity has increased over seven fold during 1974 to 2010.

The one Nobel Laureate, Roald Hoffmann, I interviewed a few years ago, supports nuclear power; he wanted nuclear proponents to highlight its environmental advantages. Currently, Steven Chu, a Nobel Laureate is the US Energy Secretary ; he consistently votes for nuclear power

Dr Parameswaran asks why the Indian nuclear establishment is silent about the pollution caused to the marine wealth of the country by the coolant water discharged to the sea-another misconception!

A thermo-ecology study carried out at Kalpakkam and Kaiga stations with several experts from institutions such as the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Central Electro Chemical Research Institute (CECRI) and several universities in the country did not reveal any adverse impact on marine ecology near nuclear power plant sites.

With the erection, commissioning and operation of the reactors at Kudankulam, Indian scientists and engineers will demonstrate how they can effortlessly absorb and master Generation 3+ nuclear power technology. This will enable the country to face the challenges in electrical capacity addition with renewed vigour and confidence.


About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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