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India’s N-Power Generation Drive Sparks Safety Fears

nuclear-commercexWith the Indian Government launching a massive drive for stepping up the country’s nuclear power generation capacity, the issue of nuclear safety has assumed great significance. Some analysts say there could be cause for alarm, given the non-transparent nature of India’s state-controlled nuclear energy sector – there is no way to estimate whether safety issues will be carefully followed.

India has embarked on a spending spree since a civilian nuclear deal with the United States last October removed sanctions that had long denied it access to the international atomic energy market. It has signed agreements with an array of nations to share and access nuclear fuel and technologies since the deal was completed. The most significant have been with Russia, the US and France.

The government recently allocated sites for Russian, French and American firms to build five new light-water reactors. French firm Areva is earmarked to build a reactor in Jaitapur in Maharashtra state; Russian firms will build two plants, in Kudankulam, Tamil
Nadu, and in Haripur, West Bengal; and US firms are set to build a plant in Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, and in Chayamithi Virdi, Gujarat.

“This important announcement [of the allocation of sites] comes in welcome recognition of the trust and confidence as well as the growing partnership between our two countries,” said United States ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer. He said the power plants would bring greater access to clean and affordable energy and electricity for all Indians as well as create business opportunities for India and the US.

Data on the sector are closely guarded by the nuclear establishment, which functions under the purview of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

The Indian chapter of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, in a 2008 survey, found that “sterility was found to be more common in people residing near uranium mining operations.” Birth defects and congenital deformities followed a similar pattern.

In the early 1990s, the Tarapur plant near Mumbai leaked radioactivity from faulty cooling systems. Incidents of genetic disorders have been recorded in populations at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan state and in the sea near Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, where nuclear power plants are located. In 2004, the Kakrapar-1 reactor in Gujarat was shut down.

In the 1990s, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A Gopalakrishnan, expressed fears about the safety status of some nuclear installations under the DAE.

The government has approved a total of 15 new nuclear plants to be built at eight different sites, with firms including GE Hitachi, Toshiba Westinghouse, Areva and Rosatom vying for contracts worth an estimated US$100 billion. India has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its plans and 14 of its  reactors will come under the nuclear watchdog’s ambit by 2014.

India has signed nuclear and technology deals with Namibia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, South Korea and Kazakhstan since October, and is close to signing an agreement with Canada. Argentina this month became the latest nation to sign a civil nuclear agreement after the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group lifted a 34-year-old ban on nuclear commerce with India, in September, 2008.

The chairman of the state-controlled Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, has announced plans to construct four 700-megawatt (MW) pressurized heavy water reactors that could run on indigenous natural uranium as well as imported low-enriched uranium. India’s present capacity of electricity production from nuclear power plants is 4,120 MW, but it has targeted 20,000 MW by 2020 and nearly 65,000 MW by 2032, according to the Planning Commission’s 2006 integrated energy policy report.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that India could increase its atomic electricity generation capacity to 470,000 MW by 2050, if new power plants and technologies were in place. This would translate into nuclear power contributing 40 percent of estimated total power, from 2.7 percent currently.

“This would not only sharply reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels but also contribute to global efforts to combat climate change,” Manmohan said.