India’s nuclear power failures warn against uranium exports

Protests over nuclear reactor sites show segments of the Indian population aren’t in favour of this potentially unsafe power source. AAP

Selling Australian uranium is reportedly at the top of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s priorities as she travels to India this week. Before she decides to do that, there are three facts she may want to consider.

First, despite all the hoopla about India’s nuclear ambitions, nuclear energy is unlikely to contribute more than a few percent of the country’s electricity capacity in the next several decades, if ever.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has always promised much and delivered little. In the early 1970s, for example, DAE projected that by 2000 there would be 43,000 MW of installed nuclear capacity. In 2000, that capacity was actually 2720 MW. Today, nuclear power constitutes barely 2% of the total electricity generation capacity.

There is at least one good technical reason why future targets are unlikely to be met: India is pursuing an unreliable technology. The DAE’s plans involve constructing hundreds of fast breeder reactors. Fast breeder reactors are so-called because they are based on energetic (fast) neutrons and because they produce (breed) more fissile material than they consume.

In the early decades of nuclear power, many countries pursued breeder programs. But practically all of them have given up on breeder reactors as unsafe and uneconomical. Relying on a technology shown to be unreliable makes it likely that nuclear power will never become a major source of electricity in India.

The failure to meet targets is not a result of lack of money. DAE has always been lavishly funded. Its proposed budget for 2011–12 was roughly $A1.7 billion; in comparison, the proposed 2011–12 budget of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy was $A0.22 billion. It’s testimony to the government’s priorities.

To put that in perspective, the total generating capacity of renewable energy projects was 22,233 MW, whereas the installed capacity of nuclear power was 4780 MW. Though almost all of the growth in modern renewable energy capacity has been over the last two decades, they already generate more electricity (in GWh) than all reactors put together.

Indians are concerned about nuclear accidents, and whether they get a say in the location of plants. AAP

Second, there are reasons to be worried about the risk of severe accidents at Indian nuclear facilities. Among all electricity generating technologies, nuclear power alone comes with the possibility of catastrophic accidents, with consequences spreading out across space and time. Despite improvements in reactor technology, the probability of such catastrophic accidents remains stubbornly greater than zero. This poses extreme organisational demands, and these demands have unfortunately not been met.

Most nuclear facilities in the country have experienced small or large accidents. Fortunately, none of these has been catastrophic. Many of these were caused by inattention to recurring problems or other warnings; to the extent that those responsible for safety have tried to fix them, they have not always been successful.

Compounding this state of affairs is the absurd confidence DAE leaders have publicly expressed — and have likely internalised — in the safety of nuclear facilities in the country. This has often taken the form of asserting that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero, something that was frequently heard in the aftermath of Fukushima.

Worse, on March 15, 2011, the Chairman of NPCIL reassured the public saying, “there is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan’s Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.”

Such denial would be laughable, but when the person opining is in charge of India’s power reactor fleet, it ceases to be amusing. It is well worth noting by anyone planning to supply uranium, especially Australia, given that Australian uranium was used as fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors.

Third, a large majority of the Indian public, particularly those living near proposed nuclear facilities, learned the obvious lesson from Fukushima: nuclear reactors are hazardous, and communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident. This is why there are ongoing protests at all new sites selected for nuclear plants. The protracted and intense protests over commissioning of the Koodankulam reactors in Tamil Nadu is just the most spectacular of these.

The risk of catastrophic accidents means that the pursuit of nuclear power is justified only if it is done democratically with the informed consent of the potentially affected populations. What the ongoing protests over Koodankulam and other reactor sites tells us is that these populations are not consenting to be subject to this risk.

They deserve to be listened to, including by Prime Minister Gillard.