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Thursday 08 August 2013
News updated at 9:38 AM IST
News of the death of nuclear energy is highly exaggerated
K S Parthasarathy
Some scientists have serious disagreements with nuclear power enthusiasts. A part of the disconnect is due to disinformation. Nuclear proponents must dispel it through healthy dialogue. Anti nuclear activists claim that the USA decided to halt the all-out nuclear programme after many Nobel laureates debated the issue. According to them, everyone started rethinking after the Three Mile Island (TMI – 1979) and Chernobyl (1986) accidents and that, post Fukushima (2011), most nations concluded ‘that nuclear energy is a risk not worthy of taking.’
These conclusions are wrong. In 1973, when the debate took place, US-companies operated 50 nuclear power reactors (NPPs). Now they operate 104. Notwithstanding the TMI accident, US companies installed 50 out of these after the accident; nineteen more after the Chernobyl accident. Canada installed 14 NPPs and France 53 of its 59 NPPs post TMI accident.
Post Fukushima accident, Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia have installed new reactors. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted combined construction and operation licences to four reactors. Construction of two have started. USA may not build more reactors as it has discovered plenty of shale gas which is cheaper now. In spite of setbacks in Germany, Switzerland and temporarily in Japan, nuclear programme progresses well in Russia, France, Finland, China and India. It is poised to start in 45 more countries. Beating US and French companies, South Korea won a contract to construct four nuclear reactors in UAE. It may be a game changer as South Korea has the technology, and UAE the funds. Saudi Arabia plans to install 16 reactors. Activists ignore these developments.
Contrary to what the anti nuclear activists want us to believe, there is universal consensus on disposal of high level nuclear waste in deep geological repositories; waste issues are political and not technological. Activists ignore the shining examples of Finland, Sweden and France which are ahead in solving the high level nuclear waste management problem. Some anti nuclear activists state that the USA has plans to vitrify (incorporating radioactive waste into glass) spent fuel. The USA has no such plan.
There are allegations that uranium mines are contaminated with radioactive argon; the actual contaminant is radon, a decay product of radium in the uranium series. Anti nuclear activists want Kudankulam reactors to be run on gas. “Convert all new reactors into steam turbines and coal fired boilers. Change to reactor-boilers when reactors are proved to be safe,” activists argue. But can these system be interchanged that easily?
Our railways may collapse if it has to handle an additional 86 million tonnes (MT) of coal needed by coal stations that replace new nuclear reactors. In 2011-2012, our ports barely managed to handle 135 MT of coal. Can it handle 86 MT more? “A 50 km x 50 km area in Rajasthan desert can produce 75,000 mw of solar power which can be fed into the national grid,” some activists say. Solar power generators cannot provide power night and day. Technology to store large quantities of power does not exist now. Solar power is expensive. It may become cheap only if solar panels and the auxiliary equipment to maintain the stability of large scale power networks remain cheap.
To those opposed to nuclear power, ‘fast breeder is a nasty piece of equipment’ and almost ‘all countries have lost hope in fast breeders.’ Nuclear opponents paint a dismal picture of fast breeder technology. Facts are otherwise. About 20 Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR) have already been operating, a few since the ’50s, accumulating over 400 reactor-years of experience. Some supplies electricity commercially. All advanced countries carry out research to overcome the challenges in technology. At present, fast reactors are not cheap; they cannot compete with current thermal reactors. As uranium is available, there is no incentive to invest in fast reactors.
Anti-nuclear activists habitually quote from ‘Poisoned Power’ (1971) and ‘Population Control Through Nuclear Pollution’ (1970), two anti nuclear books by John W Gofman and Arthur R Tamplin. Those who know the credentials of Dr Gofman will not touch these books! He was an expert witness in Johnston Vs United States (1984), a case in which four aircraft employees of Aircraft Instruments and Development Inc claimed personally or through representatives that their cancers were due to exposures to radium-containing luminous dials.
In his judgment, Judge Patrick F Kelly commented thus on Gofman: “Indeed, he is an alarmist, truly obsessed with the righteousness of his long espoused concerns regarding exposure to radiation in any setting…it is clear from the outset that this man enjoys the ‘limelight’ and is no stranger to courtroom,” Judge Kelley rejected Gofman’s testimony on 15 grounds. He called him unreliable as an expert witness. The activists’ allegation that prime minister Manmohan Singh gave natural uranium reactors a holiday is incorrect. Four pressurised heavy water reactors (Kakrapar 3&4 and Rajasthan 7&8) of 700 MWe are now under construction. Government has planned or firmly proposed 14 similar reactors at Kaiga, Kumharia, Chutka, Bheempur, Banswada, Rajouli and Nawada.
Regrettably, without verifying facts, even organisations such as the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishath, which promotes science and technology get carried away by disinformation campaigns.
(The writer is a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board)