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Inaugural Lecture: S A Bhardwaj, DAE- Homi Bhabha Chair, Retired Director (Tech) NPCIL

posted Mar 13, 2014, 8:40 AM by Administrator NLA   [ updated Mar 15, 2014, 10:49 AM ]
Third NLA Annual Meet
Nuclear Energy and Indian Society: Public Engagement, Risk Assessment and Legal Frameworks
01 March 2014, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi

Good Morning and thank you Dr Ram Mohan for the kind invitation.

Let me first touch upon the subject of RISK ASSESSMENT which is one of the prominent among the frequently asked questions on “nuclear”, both during Public Engagement and also in expert gatherings like today of you associated with the Legal Framework issues.

Risk assessment requires estimation of the two components, one – the magnitude of the potential harmful consequence of an accident happening and second – the probability of that the accident might happen. In statistical terms the level of risk is stated as the product of the probability that an accident or harmful event might occur multiplied by the potential consequence of that event.  All manmade technologies continue their efforts to reduce both, the potential harmful consequences of likely incidents as well as the likelihood of their occurrence.

In nuclear technology, Enrico Fermi who made beginning of nuclear reactor concept at the famous Chicago Pile way back in 1942 had given due consideration to what needs to be done in case any harmful event happens during the experiment. He had thought of a SCRAM feature to promptly shut down the reaction in case it is required. Ever since that day, the scientists and technologists associated with nuclear facilities pay highest attention to safety of nuclear power plants by making improvements in new designs and back fitting improvements in older plants, so that risk from it can be minimised.

Well, in spite of high order of attention paid to safety, there have been three serious accidents in some old design nuclear power plants – at Three Mile Island in U S, at Chernobyl in what was earlier USSR and in recent times at Fukushima in Japan. Two of these, at Chernobyl and that at Fukushima, resulted in very large consequences of releasing radioactivity to the environment. Among these certain number of fatalities or risk to health of surrounding population happened only at Chernobyl where certain 60 to 70 fatalities are reported by different international agencies, some of these happened while fighting fire during the accident. ( Background information from WNA web site – The accident destroyed the Chernobyl 4 reactor, killing 30 operators and firemen within three months and several further deaths later. One person was killed immediately and a second died in hospital soon after as a result of injuries received. Another person is reported to have died at the time from a coronary thrombosis. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was originally diagnosed in 237 people on-site and involved with the clean-up and it was later confirmed in 134 cases. Of these, 28 people died as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more subsequently died between 1987 and 2004 but their deaths cannot necessarily be attributed to radiation exposure. Nobody off-site suffered from acute radiation effects although a large proportion of childhood thyroid cancers diagnosed since the accident is likely to be due to intake of radioactive iodine fallout. Furthermore, large areas of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and beyond were contaminated in varying degrees).

Even these fatalities are far below when compared to those which continue to happen with any other man made technology. For example, transport sector continues to make advances in terms of safety for all modes of transport but the human fatalities associated to accidents stand in no comparison with the low numbers achieved in nuclear industry since its first commercial deployment.

Nuclear industry is able to achieve such remarkably low fatality number in extremely severe accidents like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, essentially because the progression and effects of nuclear incident even at its worst generally provide you sufficient time to act and move personnel to safe space. This was demonstrated at Fukushima. Emergency plans for such events are proactively developed for all plants and are rehearsed at regular intervals to determine readiness of State to handle the unlikely condition requiring evacuation.

The safety criterion is now further tightened by designers of new plants. The design objective of new plants is that even in a credible severe accident scenario ‘practically eliminate any requirement of long term displacement of people’. I must add here that the safety performance at 20 operating units in India recording a combined operational length of over 370 years is a testimony to the care taken in all areas of design, construction and operation.

If the safety performance of nuclear facilities are comparatively far better than other man made technologies and the fatalities from nuclear are so low, then why concern of public about nuclear power is disproportionately high! I will like to come to this subject a bit later, but before that let me dwell on other general related risks with regard to power availability today.

In our existing shortage of electricity, shortage of coal, our main major source of fuel for power in India, is a primary cause. Limitations on other sources of power in oil/gas/ hydro are also bottlenecks to our growth path. These are aptly covered in various forecasts and analyses, like ‘The Integrated Policy of Energy 2006’ Planning Commission report. The continued shortages of coal from national resources and constraints from import are becoming increasingly evident. This limitation risks our growth.

While talking of coal, we should also not remain oblivious to the global warming cry resonating at the international level. Carbon dioxide or coal use is being questioned. Norms are being negotiated at international forums putting pressure on gradual reduction of coal use for power production. For example  in U.S because of the new emission standards, the forecasts are that 90 percent of the power plants expected to shut down by 2020 will actually be shut down by 2016. Those new standards include coal-fired power plants likely having to install flue gas desulfurization equipment, or “scrubbers,” which cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, depending on the size of the plant. (Coal plant operators are planning to retire 175 coal-fired generators, or 8.5 percent of the total coal-fired capacity in the United States, according to an analysis by the Energy Information Administration (EIA)).

The U S Environmental Protection Agency  has further proposed new regulations aiming to curb carbon emissions from future coal-fired power plants and is in the process of proposing similar regulations governing existing coal power plants.

The Operators in U S have an economic alternative of natural gas at low prices resulting from the shale gas boom for new plants. In fact plans to reduce coal use are being evolved world over by various countries.

For a highly populated country like India deploying all sources of energy are vital for our growth. Nuclear power reduces the risk of the greenhouse gas producing options. The limitation on coal due to its shortage and international commitments to reduce its use in coming years is putting at risk the availability of power from this major contributor of electricity. In this background Nuclear Power is one of the important options for a developing economy like ours. The three stage programme of the Department of Atomic Energy promises to the country bountiful of power for a few centuries through use of available thorium. DAE is making steady progress in this goal. The first stage programme which is well matured and a commercial success has been achieved through Indian R&D efforts and the support provided by Indian industry for supply of high quality nuclear grade equipment. The first stage uses uranium as fuel. The spent fuel is reprocessed to separate out Plutonium which is another nuclear fuel formed during use of uranium in the reactors. Reprocessing technology, which is also operational as a result of development done with in the country, separates out the plutonium and unused uranium  which are put to reuse.  In the process of reprocessing the radioactive waste products which are small in quantity are also separated for convenient storage. I will come back to the waste handling a bit later. The Plutonium and the unused uranium thus recovered from spent fuel of first stage reactors can be put to use again as fuel in reactors. In India this combination becomes fuel for the second stage reactors called Fast Breeder Reactors, so called because they have potential to deliver a bit more plutonium than they consume. We have been operating a Fast Breeder Test Reactor for the last over 28 years at Kalapakam in Tamil Nadu. This experience has been extended to construct a 500 MWe Fast Breeder Reactor based Power Plant unit at Kalapakam. The commissioning of this unit by end of this year puts us on to a growth trajectory in coming decades.  Thorium, not a fuel itself, will be subsequently converted to Uranium 233 fuel in these fast reactors. Uranium 233 in combination with thorium will be used later during third stage of Indian nuclear power programme in sustaining the nuclear power capacity achieved further for a few centuries. Certain primary experience on science and engineering related to thorium has been already obtained by its limited use in the present plants. Its large scale use which will be in third stage of the programme will need commercial level deployment of the technologies for use of thorium. These include the challenges in fuel reprocessing and remote handling. The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor designed by BARC is a proactive step in demonstrating these technologies ahead of their large scale deployment later in third stage programme of the Department of Atomic Energy.

The Nuclear Power Programme of India will in the coming decades contribute to reduce the existing and oncoming risk of energy shortages. Nuclear Power is environmental friendly non green house gas producing option and a safe means for providing energy security to the country.

Public Engagement

The application of nuclear technology was visible to public first time as an instrument of war and it was only later that it came to be known for other services, like as a source of energy to produce electricity. It is the first impression of ‘Nuclear’ as a destructive means that has carried forward itself and embedded itself deep in public psyche in general. Although nuclear power reactors do have a good safety record, the distrust and fear associated with radiation make most people sensitive to the word nuclear. Not surprisingly therefore, most people perceive that any small nuclear/radiation-related incident will lead to a situation like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The fear has not disappeared even after having an accumulated experience of about 15500 years of operation in about 430 nuclear power plants with over 370,000 MWe of total capacity around the world.  About 70 more reactors are under construction. In addition around 180 nuclear reactors power some 150 ships and submarines around the world. In spite of this large scale experience, the equilibrium of public acceptance of nuclear power achieved through public engagement gets often disturbed by any nuclear accident or a one sided news commentary in media.

Our experience is that a continuous engagement to educate the people about the beneficial aspects of nuclear radiation and to remove their misgivings about it is very necessary. Department of Atomic Energy and its various units are well engaged in this regard. These efforts have been significantly intensified in the last few years. The role of Atomic Energy and its contributions in delivering benefits which are of general public interest like in agriculture, clean potable water, health, security, education, power etc. are widely communicated in these public engagements. Regarding fear of radiation, a regular campaign on educating particularly our neighbours at plants about the existence of the God given natural background radiation which is on an average 2400 micro Seiverts in a year, its variations from place to place or even when you move indoor from outdoor, make use of materials like granite in your homes has seen wide appreciation. Coupled to this the radiations received in certain routine medical checkups like x-rays, or sophisticated tests like CAT scan etc has been a subject of interest in general public. We have seen that through such education now there is a growing appreciation that persons living even in immediate vicinity of a nuclear Power plant receive practically nil radiations when compared to that from the natural background and its local variations.

Nuclear power stations in particular, are actively involved in carrying out regular public awareness programmes for people living in the vicinity of these facilities. People are invited and taken on guided tours of the nuclear power stations, made conversant with the basics of radiation protection, safety practices, and the do’s and don’ts during a nuclear emergency. The station authorities also make visits to the surrounding villages and population centers to create awareness of the same. The NPCIL web page has an open invitation to people to know more about nuclear power through visit to power station or answering their questions. Just to give you a glimpse last year over 63,000 visitors in 1234 groups visited nuclear power plants. During the year, over 10 lakh persons were reached through exhibitions and lectures/ presentations organised in schools/ colleges/ forums.  Over 8.3 lakh printed materials were distributed. Rural outreach was enhanced during the year and more than a lakh villagers reached out through various initiatives.  Fatehpur in Haryana is a new site where NPCIL is initiating construction of two units of 700 MWe. A large scale programme has been going on at around this site. The major programmes  were Exhibition on wheels (mobile van), Farmers Integration Programme around Haryana site in association with a local university & Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Street Plays for rural outreach and educational programmes Edu-Sat (educational programme on TV) in collaboration with Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Newspaper in Education (NIE) programme in collaboration with a national daily (the Times of India) and Media Students Adaptation Programme (M-SAP). Earlier a visit was organised for group of farmers from neighbouring villages to Narora Atomic Power Station near Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh. The farmers from Haryana could interact with local population near NARORA plant to familiarise themselves with their impressions. During the event of foundation laying of the Gorakhpur Haryana Anu Vidyut Pariyojana, last month by honourable Prime Minister, about 24,000 villagers were imparted awareness about nuclear power and the project.

Interaction with public indicates that they have two major concerns- personal safety and waste management. Safety is given highest priority during all activities of fuel cycle from mining activities of uranium to its use in reactors and later during reprocessing of spent fuel.  The regulatory limits for radiation exposure for protection of workers, public and environment are set at conservative low levels. These as set by the AERB and are in line with international norms specified by ICRP(International Commission on Radiological Protection).

In addition to safety a genuine concern of public is regarding radioactive waste management. I will like to briefly dwell on the status in this regard. The nuclear fission process produces many types of radioactive isotopes which decay with time. Some of the isotopes take rather very long time to decay or have long half-lives. Generally radioactive isotopes decay to sufficiently safe levels only after ten half-lives, which presents a problem when dealing with certain waste products contained in spent nuclear fuel. Spent fuel quantity from a 1000 MWe unit as at Kudan kulam is about 25 tonnes in a year. As I referred earlier, spent nuclear fuel discharged from the reactor contains materials like plutonium and unused uranium suitable for recycling and hence could be reused to produce electricity. For example the spent fuel from reactors at Kudankulam will have left over about 96% uranium and 1% plutonium and this 97% fraction is recyclable again as fuel material. The remaining 3% is the radioactive waste including a very small fraction of these isotopes called minor actinides which have a very long half-life. It is generally this long life and high level waste which is of concern.  While DAE has in operation a facility for embedding this 3% waste in vitrified form in glass matrix for its safe storage, R&D work on further separation of these long lived minor actinides during fuel reprocessing has now been completed. It shall be now further possible to partition the waste to separate these minor actinides. These can be “transmuted” or burnt and could practically get eliminated by inducing fission in Fast Breeder Reactors or other reactors of second and third stage of the programme. I must as well add here that Thorium based fuels of third stage will produce negligible minor actinides.

The vitrified high level volumes currently stored in Vitrified Waste Storage Facility are very small in the country. The partitioning of waste and burning it will further bring down high level waste. The remaining waste will have a half life of about 30 years, and would decay in 300 years.

Legal Fame work

While the advances in science and technology continues to make this necessary technology of nuclear safer and acceptable to public, a robust Legal Fame work   has its own  contribution to sustain public confidence in the elements of public safety.

Atomic Energy Act 1962 and rules framed there under provide the main legislative and regulatory framework pertaining to atomic energy in the country. The Act was enacted to provide for the development, control and use of atomic energy for the welfare of the people of India and for other peaceful purposes and for matters connected therewith. The Act also provides Central Government with the powers to frame rules and issue notifications to implement the provisions of the Act. In addition to the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the provisions of several other legislations related to environment, land use, etc have also to be met for locating and operating Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs).

Among the important Rules Framed under the Atomic Energy Act, Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules 2004, give requirement of consent for carrying out any activities for nuclear fuel cycle facilities and use of radiation for the purpose of industry, research, medicine, etc.  Similarly Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987, establish the requirements for the disposal of radioactive waste in the country.  Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines, Minerals and Handling of Prescribed Substances) Rules, 1984, regulate the activities pertaining to mining, milling, processing and/or handling of prescribed substance.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the regulator, ensures that the above rules are observed and use of ionising radiation and nuclear energy in India does not cause unacceptable impact on workers, members of the public and to the environment. One of the mandates of the AERB is to formulate safety requirements for nuclear and radiation facilities. For NPPs, AERB has issued Safety Codes for Regulation, Siting, Design, Operation, Radiation Protection and Quality Assurance and also several safety guides and manuals under these Codes. Safety codes establish objectives and set minimum requirements that have to be fulfilled to provide adequate assurance for safety in nuclear and radiation facilities. Safety Guides provide guidelines and indicate methods for implementing specific requirements of the codes.

All of you, the experts gathered here are all well informed about the existing legal framework and activities under consideration by Government to further strengthen it. There is a general admiration of the expertise available in the legal and judicial fraternity of the country. Some land mark arguments and judgments in honourable courts in many matters of public interest including those raised regarding nuclear facilities demonstrate this. I would like to conclude here quoting a few lines from a judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of India last year; and I quote:

“Power generation through a nuclear plant set up after following all safety standards, rules and regulations, is for the welfare of the people and for the economic growth of the country, which is the object and purpose of the Atomic Energy Act. Nuclear energy assumes as an important element in India’s energy mix for sustaining economic growth of natural and domestic use which in future has to replace a significant part of fossil fuel like coal, oil, gas etc. Electricity is the heart and soul of modern life, a life meant not for the rich and famous alone but also for the poor and down trodden. (…) Power generation with the traditional means, through hydro, thermal electric project, coal etc are not effective substitution to the power generation through Nuclear Plant. (…) Energy tariff is also increasing; nuclear power in the long run will be much cheaper than other forms of energy.” Unquote