'Safety first and power later' is a fact that has been reinforced by the Supreme Court when giving a green signal to the continuation of the controversial Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu where two Russian-made 1000 MW nuclear reactors are under construction that are already delayed by over 5 years. The verdict means more power for the people of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Puducherry where power cuts are common.
This also comes as big morale booster for the Indian nuclear establishment which was off-late undoubtedly very jittery, worried that the apex court may put a moratorium on the Kudankulam start-up.
But some of that got dented when last month the Indian nuclear watchdog, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, for the first-time admitted that it had found four valves that were 'deficient' at Kudankulam; these have since been replaced. The anti-nuclear protestors have already rejected the SC judgement suggesting it is 'unjust' and say they will continue the fight in the people's court.
The verdict by the apex court comes as a 'great relief' to Ratan Kumar Sinha Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who said: 'I humbly welcome the judgement of the court, it should lay to rest all perceived doubts about the Kudankulam atomic reactor. The reactor is at an advanced stage of commissioning and criticality or the start of the nuclear chain reaction in the plant should happen soon.' Today, 99.66 per cent of all physical work at the first unit of the 1000 MW Russian technology is complete and could be operationalised in weeks and the second unit could come online before the end of the year, where 93% work is complete. According to the Department of Atomic Energy, 15 of the 17 additional safety steps that the court was deliberating upon have already been complied with.
India has big plans for nuclear energy. There are both opportunities for countries to sell nuclear technology and material to India and for smaller countries to buy reactor technology from India. India, being a founding member of the global nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, has had a 'spotless proliferation' record, so doing business with India is opportune in the 21st century.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has always strongly batted for use of nuclear energy, speaking at the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, West Bengal, Singh had said: 'I am convinced that nuclear energy will play an important role in our quest for a clean and environmentally friendly energy mix as a major locomotive to fuel our development processes.'
So after this verdict, and in a global landmark, probably the world's safest nuclear reactor at Kudankulam, that Indian experts say can never face a Fukushima type of disaster, since it can be cooled simply by air flow and gravity in times of emergency, will finally be commissioned. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited asserts that Kudankulam will be the world's first 'generation 3 plus' nuclear reactor, suggesting it is today the safest in the world.
India today has 20 operating nuclear power plants, all owned by the government, which generate about 4780 MW of power and in addition runs about half a dozen research reactors. The country has accumulated, according to the government, about 360 reactor years of experience and has an 'impeccable [safety] record.' Singh, a known votary of nuclear power, had staked the future of his own government in 2008 in favour of the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement that brought India back into the fold of global nuclear commerce. India now wants to ramp up its nuclear capacity to 63,000 MW by 2032, by importing reactors from France, Russia and USA.
India's nuclear energy program has been unique as it relies mostly on home grown technology and today the Department of Atomic Energy makes its own 700 MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors, while a smaller 220 MW reactor is being offered for export to countries who may seek the technology.
Nature unfortunately has been unkind to India as it is not well endowed with uranium and if all the resources are used a 10,000 MW nuclear program can be sustained only for 40 years. But on the other hand, since the Indian soils are rich in thorium, a globally unique nuclear energy development pathway called the three-stage nuclear grand plan has been put in place by the country.
The idea is to install small reactors that use natural uranium to generate power, the waste that emerges from this can then be used as fuel in so called 'fast breeder reactors.' And, finally, a completely new kind of reactor, the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, a plant that feeds on the abundant thorium reserves, could generate enough electricity to power the nation for 250 years, fulfilling India's quest for energy independence.
India had been under international sanctions ever since it exploded a nuclear device in 1974, which became stifling in 1998 after India tested nuclear weapons at Pokharan, in the deserts of Rajasthan. The sanctions were formally lifted in 2008, when the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency, suitably amended their rules to accommodate India into the nuclear commerce club in spite of the fact that India has still not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Impeccable behaviour was applauded and an exception made for India so that India's desire to provide clean carbon free energy to its vast 1.2 billion population could be satiated.
Today, India is ready to import 40,000 MW of installed capacity of nuclear reactors of which 20,000 MW may come from two American suppliers, General Electric and Westinghouse; another 10,000 MW may come from Russians and the rest 10,000 MW may be supplied by the French. Negotiations are at an advanced stage, efforts are on to find suitable solutions on how to accommodate the requirements of a people-centric nuclear liability regime that the Indian Parliament enacted recently.
In the last 2-3 years, India has been facing a new wave of protests, almost unheard off against the nuclear reactors. Take Jaitapur in western India, where imported French reactors are to be placed or the most consistent protests as seen at Kudankulam on the southern tip of India, where Russian made light water reactors are almost ready to be commissioned. 'Not in my back yard' was an issue that was almost unheard of in India, but in the 21st century, as people become more and more aware, questions will be asked, as they indeed are being asked, on the relevance and need for nuclear energy and they will have to be answered as there is a new groundswell of people's opinion certainly not charitable to the nuclear industry.
Nuclear power is no longer a 'holy cow' that the Indian prime minister's office protected under its fold. Such was the ignorance and arrogance of the plant engineers at the 1000 MW Kudankulam nuclear plant, that within weeks of the Fukushima disaster they tested the main pressure relief valve at the plant, in the middle of the night, without having had the basic courtesy of informing the locals of the test. The steam released from the plant made such a noise that it could be heard tens of kilometres away, not surprisingly the locals panicked and then rallied around to form a robust but small anti-nuclear movement. Later the then Indian nuclear chief Dr Srikumar Banerjee confessed and apologized to the people, but the seed of suspicion was sown. The only Indian nuclear utility the government owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited also acknowledged that they had failed in the out-reach program. Wining hearts and minds is critical if nuclear power has to play a big role in India's quest for energy independence.
If all goes as per plans, the world's single largest nuclear power park may come up at Jaitapur, a coastal site south of Mumbai where AREVA the French nuclear giant is getting ready to install 9900 MW of atomic reactors.
India is one of the few of a handful of countries that has end to end capabilities from mining of uranium, enrichment, using it in atomic power plants and then also has the capability to re-process the waste so that every drop of energy is squeezed out from the scarce uranium resource. Since the country believes that plutonium the so called 'long lived dirty by-product' of a nuclear program is also a rich source of energy, suitable highly modern reactors are being indigenously designed to harness all the energy. The world's only 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor is at an advanced stage of construction at Kalpakkam south of Chennai, a plant that will generate more fuel than it consumes.
Ratan Kumar Sinha, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Mumbai, India's highest decision making body on matters nuclear, says: 'India is deeply committed to increasing the role of nuclear energy while ensuring full safety of its citizens'.
Nuclear energy is like having a tiger by its tail, it is easy to get into and once countries install reactors, these facilities need to be nurtured for the working lives of at least 40-60 years, but beyond that once the plants have been decommissioned they need to be maintained and hence the challenge of constructive, effective, truthful communication would span many generations.
Pallava Bagla is Science Editor for New Delhi Television and Correspondent for SCIENCE magazine. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at Pallava.bagla AT gmail DOT com