Opinion

A step towards nuclear safety

M.SOMASEKHAR | Updated on May 07, 2011

The Tarapur Atomic Power Station in Maharashtra…The decision to import foreign reactors has brought to the fore the need for greater emphasis on security, environmental safety and financial accountability.

Mr M.SOMASEKHAR

The move to set up a new watchdog is long overdue. The DAE exercises overriding powers without being transparent or accountable to the public.

The Government's move to create a Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India with statutory powers is a bold and pragmatic one. For nearly half a century, the Atomic Energy Department has exercised control over all nuclear-power-related activities. It enjoys a measure of legal protection and works under the direct supervision of the PMO.

The events in Fukushima, Japan, and the protests in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, have pushed the Centre to undertake some scrutiny of nuclear power and research activities.

The proposed Authority is expected to replace the existing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which has been unable to break its umbilical cord with the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy). Though the AERB was conceived of as an independent identity, it lacked teeth in decision-making and was forced to fall back on the DAE.

Given the sensitivity of atomic energy, the DAE was given virtual immunity, under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 (undergoing changes of late). The watchdog role of the AERB was a small step in bringing in some transparency; public interest litigations and environmentalists' protests failed to make much headway in the past as the Department enjoyed protection on the pretext of national security issues.

SAFETY AMIDST EXPANSION

The Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) has set its sights on pushing the installed capacity of nuclear power to 40,000 MW by 2030, from the present 4,700 MW. The decision to go in for import of foreign reactors, especially from France and the US, has brought to the fore the need for greater emphasis on security, environmental safety and financial accountability.

With the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal and slow easing of nuclear isolation, the Department is optimistic of a surge with access to both technology and fuel.

Another boost to its plans is that, after decades, the NPC has also been able to identify new sites to locate the large capacity reactors. These include Koodangulam (Tamil Nadu); Jaitapur (Maharashtra); and Kovvada and Kadapa, in Andhra Pradesh.

Though, credit should be given to the DAE and the NPC for running the existing 18 nuclear reactors with very few significant mishaps, issues of safety (in scores) have been raised by former AERB Chief, Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, in a report that was submitted to the Government over a decade ago. The Atomic Energy establishment maintains that it has stepped up safety measuresin all the reactors.

Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) constitute the mainstay of nuclear power today. The technology is proven and and operational aspects mastered. However, in its ambition to hike the proportion of nuclear power in the overall energy mix to at least 4 per cent, the NPC has upped its stake. It has decided to set up 700 MW units and 1000 MW units, and has opted to import French pressurised light water reactors (LWRs).

Talks are on with Areva of France to have two European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) reactors with 1,650 MW capacity each at Jaitapur initially, and then a cluster of six totally with total capacity of 9,900 MW. NPC is also negotiating with GE and Westinghouse of the US for the latest reactors.

The cluster of 1,000 MW reactors being set up with Russian collaboration at Koodangulam are in an advanced stage of construction. If the wishes of the NPC materialise, the country would have at least 20,000 MW capacity by 2020 itself with more than a dozen new units joining the existing PHWRs. However, the mix would be disproportionately in favour of imported reactors. Though these are advanced reactors with the latest safety features, the concerns of environmentalists cannot be brushed aside.

ALL-POWERFUL DAE

Critics of the AERB, including Dr Gopalakrishnan, describe the organisation as subservient to the Secretary, DAE. Even the NPC, which has raised funds from outside through bonds, reports to the DAE. There is no separation of regulatory and promotional activities of nuclear power, as required by the Convention of Nuclear Safety, which India ratified in 2005. DAE enjoys a degree of legal immunity, which allows it to keep deficiencies in nuclear power stations under wraps by quoting the Official Secrets Act. The AERB is not in a position to push the Department towards transparency. The AERB has, however, put in place several safety-related issues, and has been training personnel over the years.





RIGHT MOVES



The Nuclear Power Corporation has been creating awareness about safety, and is agreeing to public hearings in some places where it is setting up facilities. In public, the NPC and DAE scientists have been upbeat on the safety of nuclear power stations. However, opposition from environmental groups and local people on safety and displacement is bound to gain ground, as in Jaitapur.

It is in the fitness of things that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Environment and Forests have taken some steps to create the nuclear regulator. India is an energy-starved country, and needs safe and economical energy forms to sustain high growth.





Published on April 29, 2011

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