Anti Nuke protests at Kudamkulam – Lessons for Nuclear Establishment

It is instructive to follow the public protest at Kudamkulam (KK) against nuclear power plant during past few weeks. The great irony was that VVER technology was accepted for KK after Chernobyl reactor accident took place in 1986 in  Russian backyard. Following this accident the then Prime Minster Mr Rajiv Gandhi wanted to stop negotiations with USSR but he was persuaded to sign agreement with  the President Gorbachev to import 2×1000 MW nuclear power plants to be built by Russians. KK  plant is now ready for commissioning when Fukushima accident in Japan took place in 2011. In one project development & construction  life time of the  Kudamkulam power plant, two most serious nuclear accidents occurred that shook the very foundations of nuclear industry worldwide. It is natural that people would question the wisdom of DAE in the aftermath of such cataclysmic events to proceed with KK commissioning. My views on the way forward for DAE/NPC are summed up as lessons and I hope that the nuclear establishment would welcome constructive criticism .

Lesson 1: If Fukushima was first generation reactor design and “Kudamkulam ( KK) “ the Russian supplied nuclear power plant is 3rd generation design then why DAE would be operating Fukushima type 1st generation BWR located in Tarapur near Mumbai any more? Tarapur is already over 40 years old, put in operation in 1969 onwards and should now be quietly shut down. Tarapur does not have double containment, no core catcher as in KK and If it is not up to the safety standards of 3rd generation features and if KK is any benchmark, DAE should stick to reactors equal in technology& safety features and nothing less. Praising KK deferential safety features between old and new reactor designs will hoist DAE on its own petard.

Lesson 2: Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) reports to AEC. AEC should have taken the lead and shown the way by de-linking itself and got the law passed to set up independent statutory commission on the lines of CERC in India, paid for by Consolidated Fund of India, 20 years ago. We understand “Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) 2011 Bill” is to be tabled in Parliament, but only after Fukushima when DAE/ NPC were not receiving support to keep AERB under AEC wrap. I hope new Bill will allow interdisciplinary experts from Finance, Law, Sociology, Environment, and Technology and not necessarily source them from DAE and its constituent wings along with the retired government servants from bureaucracy. A stitch in time could have saved nine. Push for NSRA now for credibility reasons and be eclectic in recruiting its Members.

Lesson 3: Whatever the Pro-Nukes may say against promotion of Solar, Wind etc. in place of Nuclear, there are few incontrovertible facts to be appreciated by DAE mandarins. Renewable Energy in India has come up on its own. Total of 18000 MW by June 2011 was installed in less than 15 years with over 85% capacity commissioned from private investments. Why dumb down Solar, Wind, and Bio Mass, something which is driven by Venture Capitals, Hedge Funds, Bank Loans, and Private Equity money, never experienced by DAE / NPC for their projects, till date. A level of due diligence, transparent and open process by the Financial pundits imposed on the Renewable Energy projects in India is world class. In contrast the whole DAE, NPC and BARC are built brick by brick from Tax Payers money for over 5 decades. In my view Renewable Energy has earned the global respect for innovation, progress and fulfilling its promises to reach commercial viability goal on its own merit. The challenges of  adverse grid impact due to variable and uncertain outputs etc. are purely technology issues that could be fully overcome in coming years. Nuclear power proponents should not grudge if it is over taken in India by Wind, Solar and Bio Mass installed capacities by an order of magnitude in next 5 years or so. This lead will only grow and not reduce over time. Once gird parity is achieved by Solar , the relevance of Nuclear generation could fall by way side. It will be seen as necessary evil required from military & to some extent energy security point of view in USA, Europe, India and China. Renewable Energy which has worldwide acceptance, practices transparent economics and enjoys greater political & public support than Nuclear power can ever attain.

Lesson 4: Here is the economics of renewable energy today in India. Wind power generation cost is about INR 3.0 to 4 per unit, allowing about 12-15 % Internal Rate of Return (IRR). Solar power generation costs about INR 14-16 per Kwhr, will go down in the coming years.  Grid parity will come faster once some emerging disruptive solar technologies will attain commercial scale. There is no substitute for renewable for decentralized and also grid connected supplies for a power hungry nation like India. Renewable is the answer in terms of thousands of MW installed capacity strewn across country. Nuclear power had 50 years lead over Renewable Energy in India. If it could add only 4500 MW by 2012, it is their problem. Renewable may reach over 20,000 MW by the end of this plan period ( 2007 – 2012) , producing more Kwhr on per annum basis than Nuclear power plants put together in the country. Do not bother on commenting on Renewable economics, just do one’s own job well to prove relevance.

Lesson 5: If KK generation cost is claimed as under INR 3 per Kwhr, what is the European Power Reactor (EPR) generation cost that will be set up at Jaitapur in future? In any case the logic of scale should apply here and EPR (1600 MW) compared to KK (1000 MW). Whatever, one cardinal error of judgment that DAE is making is not having public debate on imported reactor economics. DAE should disclose these numbers as public is a key stake holder in all nuclear business of this country. KK protest has proven this point once again where even a fully completed plant can be stalled or shut down. When things go wrong, DAE is rendered helpless and starts counting on PMO. What happens if tomorrow PM is not in love with nuclear power in India? If new PM or political party alliance at Centre would not care to support it to the hilt than it will drive away vendors and suppliers in no time. Intellectuals, think tanks, independent research institutes, writers, influence peddlers were never allowed to flourish who could have been a great source of moral support . Nuclear Liability Bill is an example of what could happen when political support starts dwindling in Parliament.


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