by Raj Chengappa, Editor-in-Chief

‘We are for an independent nuclear safety body. We have nothing to hide’
— Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission 

uneasy lies the crown on the head of any atomic energy chief across the world after the Fukushima nuclear complex incident in Japan in March this year. Triggered by a combination of an earthquake and a tsunami that resulted in a partial meltdown of its reactor core, Fukushima is now regarded as among the world’s worst nuclear power incidents. Feeling the heat is the czar of India's nuclear energy establishment, Dr Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

In recent years India had signed a major nuclear deal with the US that enabled it to import nuclear fuel and technology ending an embargo that had lasted over three decades. India was poised to exponentially expand its nuclear power capacity by importing reactors from France, Russia and USA and also by building indigenous plants. But the Fukushima episode has not only forced India's nuclear establishment to review the safety of its existing nuclear power plants but also raised questions about the viability of its entire power programme. In an exclusive interview with Editor-in-Chief Raj Chengappa at the famed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay, the AEC Chief Banerjee candidly discussed a range of vital issues confronting nuclear power in India and stoutly defended India's decision to go ahead with its rapid expansion. Excerpts:

After the Fukushima nuclear complex incident in Japan in March this year in which its reactors suffered a dangerous meltdown under the combined impact of an earthquake and tsunami, there are valid concerns being raised about the safety of nuclear plants worldwide including those located in India. Just how safe are Indian nuclear reactors and what are the chances of a Fukushima happening here?

As regards the nuclear safety record of India we have what we call 335 reactor years of experience. There has not been a single major incident. People say that the Narora event (in 1993) was the most serious. At Narora, there was a fire (in the non-nuclear turbine section) which was completely contained, and there was no radioactivity release. Now, 335 reactor years is not a short time. So our safety record has been impeccable.

We did have a tsunami hit India's East coast in 2004 and strike the Kalpakkam nuclear reactor complex which is close to Chennai causing some damage.

Yes the tsunami hit our Kalpakkam complex then and unfortunately 25 of our colleagues living in the colony nearby there died. But when it came up to the reactor complex, the reactor immediately shut down safely without any problems. And within three days we were back to full operation. Since then we have taken further safety precautions including constructing a structure that would act as a barrier or tsunami wall to prevent any chance of flooding. Apart from that there are also mini wave breakers. All these would ensure that the tsunami waves will be dissipated even before it reaches the complex.

In 2001, there was a major earthquake in Bhuj measuring 6.9 in the Richter scale which was close to the Kakrapar reactor in Gujarat. What was the impact?

It didn't have any impact. The reactor continued working without any difficulty.

What are the chances of an earthquake that struck Fukushima happening in India and can our reactors with stand it?

First of all, we live in a region that has a tectonically active area in the Himalayas. Very large scale earthquakes measuring 9 on the Richter scale as in Japan can happen. So the site selection process for our nuclear reactors takes a couple of years and is only done after a very thorough analysis of the geotectonic investigation to make sure these are located in areas that are not prone to major earthquakes. Also, we have recorded history that shows the number and magnitude of the earthquakes and what is their return probability. But those are only statistical figures and I do not trust those numbers. All our reactors are designed to withstand any seismic activity while they are being built. The maximum seismic activity in the zone has been taken into account and the plant has been designed to take the dynamic load that comes onto it when an earthquake happens and withstand the pressure. A Fukushima kind of incident happening here is almost impossible.

After Fukushima, have you undertaken a safety review of the 20 reactors that India has and what are the results?

In Fukushima, the problem was that while the nuclear reactors shut down after the quake and the tsunami, there was the residual decay heat from the nuclear fuel rods that needed to be evacuated. But the plant experienced a total power black-out with even the back-up generators failing. There was no energy available to pump in water to cool the rods. It was the hydrogen produced as a result of excessive heat that caused the explosions that blew the containment roofs apart. After Fukushima, we undertook a thorough review of our nuclear plants. One was done by the Nuclear Power Corporation, the other by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the third by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) so that we could get expert opinion from different institutions and then implement the recommendations.

How did these institutions go about evaluating our existing reactors for safety?

Each reactor was grouped into classes based on their technology. For the two boiling water reactors, as they are known, we formed a separate committee which came out with some specific recommendations. Some of these have already been implemented and others are waiting for the approval of the AERB. The remaining 18 reactors are pressurised heavy water reactors which also depending on the particular sort of vintage, we have grouped into three and have got committees to make specific recommendation for each of them. Those that could be implemented without any consultation have been done and the others we are waiting for clearance from the AERB.

What were the major things that were done or are being done regarding safety?

The focus was particularly on redundancy in power supply and augmenting water supply for cooling. In most reactors there is already a four-tier power supply as back up. But we have now also introduced mobile generator sets which can be brought to play immediately. We have taken or taking steps to have a larger inventory of water to take out the heat if needed.

There is concern that there is no real independent nuclear safety regulatory authority with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) currently reporting to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). What has been done to address it?

The Union government has already announced that there will be an independent nuclear regulatory authority. I am not saying that the AERB is not independent; it is independent. But the AERB is created by an executive order. Now it is important that it should get a statutory status. That it is formed by an Act of Parliament. The Prime Minister has announced that a new Act would be introduced in the forthcoming monsoon session to facilitate this. It is an important step because apart from the legal status it will be broadening its activity and can receive technical support from different organisations. We are working on the draft to ensure that it will be totally independent and will not report to the AEC but some institution outside its ambit. Its activities will be transparent. We have nothing to hide. Let it be out in the open.

There is growing protest about locating the giant 1,650 MW nuclear reactor being built by a French consortium in Jaitapur in Maharastra. Many are saying that it is an untested reactor. What have you done to assuage the concerns being raised?

There are few real scientific issues being raised. One is of it being an untested reactor. Today there is no European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) of the 1650 MW capacity running anywhere in the world. The answer to that is that this is a revolutionary design based on reactors running earlier with very good performance. There is one in France, one in Finland and two in China that are being constructed. Also countries like the UK are seriously considering purchasing EPR reactors. There are many more new safety features that went into its designing and it has qualified as a safe and efficient reactor which is expected to have a very high plant load factor.

But there are worries about the site itself saying that Jaitapur is next to the sea coast and it is both vulnerable to tsunamis and earthquakes?

Jaitapur is a really favourable site because though it is on the sea coast, it is 20 meters higher than the sea level. It is a kind of plateau. The seismicity in the area is put at level 3 compared to Fukushima which is in a level 5 zone. The chance of a tsunami striking the Western coast of India is rather low. The last time it happened was in 1946 and came from a fault near Karachi which is almost 900 kms away. It was rather feeble. We have had independent expert committees go into the safety and other aspects. Their reports are being examined and if there are any changes we would have it implemented after the AERB clears it. We will also make their report public.

After the Fukushima incident, there is a perception that it is the beginning of the end of nuclear power in the world. Germany even announced that it was going to phase out all its reactors. What's the rationale for India not only continuing its programme but expanding it?

Yes the sentiment that Fukushima spells the beginning of the end to nuclear power is being expressed. But the important issue is: Where is India going to get the energy it requires from? In Western Europe and America they average ˝ to 1 per cent growth in their economy and so there is not much growth in energy requirement of these countries. Their population has stabilised. Also let me say that Germany had said they would phase out their nuclear plants almost 40 years ago but haven't done it so far. They can also import power from Eastern Europe which has plenty of nuclear plants. UK is seriously expanding their nuclear power capacity after North Sea oil production has dipped. Even Saudi Arabia is planning to set up nuclear plants. We don't have too many options. Against the Indian per capita consumption of 600 kilowatt hour (kWh), the world average is 2500 kWh including Africa. Many OECD countries have 8000-9000 kWh and the US is even higher.

So what does that mean for India?

Today 40 per cent of our homes don't have access to electricity and the quality of access is sketchy. It is a serious issue. Who will provide the energy? In terms of power production Indian will have to exploit all forms of energy to sustain the 8 to 10 per cent economic growth. By 2050 our coal reserves will almost be exhausted. Also, while now we contribute 5 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, if we rely on coal that would grow to almost 40 to 50 per cent of the world's CO2 emission. We will need to reduce our emissions. Apart from that the huge bill for importing coal to meet our needs could cripple our economy. Solar fuel is okay for distributed energy needs for villages and agriculture but cannot support a metropolitan grid requirement or for manufacturing industry. Let's not forget that manufacturing industry is shifting in a big way to China and India. If we want economic growth, we can't escape energy growth. We have absolutely no other option.

What about cost of nuclear power? Isn't it higher?

There is no doubt that the nuclear capital cost per MW is currently higher than thermal or hydro-electric power. But the fuel cost for nuclear is low, the life of the plant is longer and taking into account all these things, the costs would come down considerably. If we take environmental and emission issues, that are also very important, into consideration, in terms of nuclear power plants, it has tremendous advantages. Another factor is rapid urbanisation. People are moving from rural areas to urban areas because there is no employment in rural areas. There is a power shortage of 15 per cent. So, power is being bought by some for Rs 10 and Rs 12 a unit. While nuclear power is between Rs 2.50 per unit, somewhat the same when compared to thermal.

But will nuclear power assure India self-sufficiency in energy?

Currently we have 20 reactors generating 5,000 MW which is around three per cent of our total. I am not saying that we are jumping 100 per cent onto nuclear power. We are going in stages. By 2020 we plan to generate 20,000 MW of power from nuclear reactors and by 2032 around 60,000 MW. Even then it will meet only 10 to 15 per cent of our total power needs. If we miss that opportunity, we will not be able to catch up. We will be a perennially energy importing country and if we do not improve upon it, the country will be lacking in self-sufficiency. But if we move down the nuclear power path and exploit our thorium reserves then in the latter half of the century nuclear power could provide the energy security we are looking for.

We are in the process of importing a vast number of reactors from Russia, France and the US. With our indigenous uranium resources only able to support 10,000 MW of power how are we going to meet the additional requirements?

Uranium is such a commodity that unless you have an assurance for supply you cannot build the nuclear reactors. So one of the key factors during negotiations with Russia, France and USA is that they are in a position to assure us fuel supply of uranium for the reactors that we buy. Meanwhile we are indigenously developing our fast breeder reactors that would generate more fuel than it consumes which would enable us to finally exploit our huge thorium reserves and give us self sufficiency in nuclear power. That is our overall plan.

So far, how has the US nuclear deal helped in terms of India's power programme?

So far what it has done is that it has enabled us to import some uranium. Now you may ask while we say that our technology is good why then do we need to import reactors from other countries? The answer is that if you want to have the kind of growth in energy supply needed, you cannot do that purely on the basis of indigenous capability because the Indian industry capacity is not there. There is a misconception that it is a deal with only the USA. It is not so. It's more an opening up of the nuclear commerce for India. Before the deal there was a total embargo. There was no technology, no material, no exchanges right from 1974. (After India's first nuclear explosion). Sometimes these countries used to say that you cannot get even a paper clip from us. We have suffered for 35 years in complete isolation. Now that isolation is broken by the nuclear pact without sacrificing our strategic programme. This was a major achievement of the nuclear deal.

Does the deal also allow us to import enrichment and reprocessing technology from these countries?

Strictly speaking there is a catch in that. In some of the bilateral documents, it is said that yes, we can get technology in all areas. But then there are some discussions and disputes going on in some countries about this. We are not very keen on cent per cent technology from the outside. Our own technology is there. But as it has been mentioned in some bilateral documents that we are enjoying a full-fledged technology partnership in all areas then why should we not be allowed to have it? But otherwise in terms of both for reprocessing and enrichment technology, India has its own and we can depend on our own. 





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