It might seem perverse to raise questions about a large industrial project that will bring ‘state-of-the-art’ nuclear technology to the country, will add 10,000MW to Maharashtra’s power generation capacity, and which, moreover, has been cleared by the recently cautious environment ministry in double-quick time.
But when one takes even a cursory look at the proposed nuclear power project at Jaitapur on the Konkan coast, south of Ratnagiri, one is confronted by unnerving facts.
The French company Areva will construct and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) will operate six reactors, each with a capacity of 1,650MW. It involves an untested and problematic design, is the highest costing power project so far, the risk of nuclear radiation is considerable, and the possible damage to a fragile ecosystem is immense.
The French have the most experience in operating nuclear power reactors and the 59 reactors there account for most of their power generating capacity. Their standard workhorse is the 1,000MW N4 reactor, whose design has been proven over several decades of operation.
The 1,650MW European Pressure Reactor, or EPR, is their new baby. Two plants are being built, one in Finland and another in France, and another two have been ordered by the Chinese.
The EPR in Finland is having cost over-runs, its cost almost doubling from Euro3 billion to Euro5.7 billion, is behind schedule and has faced many quality and regulatory problems. The largely state-owned Areva suffered a setback earlier this year when it lost a $40 billion contract in the UAE to a South Korean consortium.
In June a government-sponsored report revealed that Areva needed about Euro2 billion more capital to stay in the game. France thus needs the big Indian order amounting to nearly Euro35 billion, to save its nuclear industry.
There is a risk that safety issues are being bypassed. First, there is no redundancy in the instrumentation and control systems of the EPR. This raises the chance of failure since there is no sufficient backup.
The higher burnup may result in a thinning of the fuel cladding, making it prone to early failure. A study by the French power utility EDF has reported that the toxicity from the radioactive waste of the EPR is four times that of ordinary reactors, and is especially high in radioactive iodine and bromine, which stay at dangerous levels of radioactivity for over a million years.
The costs of the EPR are also very high. While a tight wrap has been kept on costs in India, drawing from the Finnish experience, the cost per mega watt of installed capacity for the EPR is over Rs 20 crore, compared to Rs4 crore to Rs5 crore for a coal-based plant and Rs7-8 crore for Indian-designed reactors.
The cost of power generated is also over Rs7 per unit for the EPR, compared to Rs1.50-2.50 for a coal-based plant and Rs3.50-4.50 for an Indian reactor. After transmission distribution costs and losses, the consumer would pay another 50% more.
If the government wants to encourage zero-carbon technologies, it owes it to the citizens to explain just what the tradeoff is with a working of its cost to us. What has been totally missed out in the environment impact assessment (EIA) done by the ministry of environment is the risk of radiation.
The 10,000MW Jaitapur project, located in seismic zone III, is the first step in the plan to take a jump in nuclear power generation, from 4120MW to 63,000MW by 2032.
For a nuclear power plant, the dangers of radioactive contamination are central. These can arise from acts of terrorism or from accidents. The EIA has passed the project without taking the radioactive risk into consideration, leaving it to be determined later by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
In a memorandum to the ministry of environment, the Konkan Bachao Samiti has said: “Safety audit is a rigorous, scientific process. A mere formal exercise is not a bonafide safety audit.… The AERB is the only authorised body to certify safety in regard to radioactivity”, and without its approval there should be no environmental clearance.
There are further issues regarding the transport and disposal of high-level radioactive wastes after reprocessing which are missing in the EIA.
Nuclear waste remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and so far no country has succeeded in building a permanent storage for high-level nuclear waste so that ground water is not contaminated.
Of more immediate concern to local residents is the disruption in their living environment and the protests near Jaitapur reflect that.
The Madhban plateau on which the giant nuclear plants will be built is the largest coastal plateau in the Konkan with a unique biodiversity. This will be lost.
If the government continues with its hasty plans without a proper safety audit, the residents of the Konkan will pay the price at some later time.