The nuclear industry in India is growing and as a result of the initiatives being taken at the political and technological level, it is expected to form an important part and contribute a large component to the present energy-mix of the country. Nuclear power in itself is a powerful stimulator of fear, suspicion and hope in the minds of people today. The fear of unwarranted accidents, the suspicion of its opaque management and handling and the hope of a future with abundant access to energy along with the security of a clean energy which will form a solution to the current day plague of Climate Change. A lot has been said about the Indian ‘fantasy’ of being able to generate 43GW of nuclear energy by the year 2030 and a lot of criticism and flak has been put on the Central Government and the Department of Atomic Energy for failing to meet these ambitious targets. The article, aims to address some of the pressing issues which may shed some light on the reasons as to why nuclear energy is still an emerging source of carbon-free power in India, and has not been able to establish itself securely so as to become the answer to the woes of energy security in the twenty-first century.
India’s population has grown from 350 million from the time of Independence to 1.33 billion till 2018 . This rise in population has very naturally increased the people’s basic infrastructure demands phenomenally over the period. Starting from the requirement for increased agriculture to housing, commercialization, transport, and the basic increase in the standard of living, the one sector which provides for it all, is the Energy Sector. All these years, this sector has grown substantially, and only because of this, the other sectors have been able to expand to meet the needs of the population . The acceptable fact here is that all development comes with a certain cost and so does the development of infrastructure. It puts stress on the planet’s natural resources, and due to the significant changes being made in the natural environment without considering the implications, it is the existing life on the planet that gets threatened.
In today’s time, the biggest issue that has plagued mankind and all life forms is that of Global Warming and the resultant climate change. This phenomenon came to light in the late 1960s, when the ice caps started melting and the sea levels started increasing . The oceans being largely affected drew the attention of the developed western countries, which in turn then started to get together to devise methods, to curb this climate change. Several global conventions and meetings have often discussed and accepted the fact that it is indeed the callous misuse of coal and fossil fuel, which is not only depleting the natural resources but is also harming the planet with the noxious emissions which is only aiding in the heating up of the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1991, when the world’s greatest Convention, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed,  a mechanism was developed to curb these carbon emissions and the sector identified was the Energy Sector, as the major player in these carbon emissions. Burning of coal, across the world, in tens of thousands of thermal plants releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which in turn is causing global warming . Hence, if this sector is revamped, the issue at hand may be resolved. Thus, several countries implemented plans and actions and invested in technologies that started giving prominence to other sources of generating electricity such as renewable sources like solar, wind, hydropower, natural gas, nuclear energy and so on. The cost of developing the renewable energy sector is much more, as it requires a parallel infrastructure to be built for it to store this electricity and then transmit it to the end-users. The developing countries of the third world were able to develop non-conventional sources after a significant amount of time . Unlike India, this already had its plans and research to start investing into one such source of energy, which would later become the beacon of hope for the world, as the only source of energy generation, with a “Zero Carbon Footprint” .
Nuclear Energy and its Effects on the Environment
Ever since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world comprehended the destruction a single small atomic bomb can make. Japan, to date, reports deaths and unnatural genetic deficiencies in their population, owing to the exposure to harmful radiations . The vegetation, flora, and fauna of the place has changed and shall stay polluted for hundreds of years . However, the learning experience from this tragedy was the push towards peaceful uses of this potent source of energy, and instead of making bombs, the same must be used to address the energy paucity of the world and eliminate the insecurity of power generation.
The concept of using nuclear energy within the vibrant energy mix was a policy started by the United States of America, followed by the Soviet Union. European countries, China and India followed soon after and established their nuclear energy programs, catering to their country’s unique requirements. However, the worst tragedy of all times struck in Ukraine, when the Russian operated nuclear reactor at Chernobyl suffered a technical mishap, and there was a terrible explosion at the site, exposing the area with nine percent of the core, and letting out in the atmosphere, a substantial amount of radiation, which instantly as well as over some time, killed hundreds of people and maimed many hundreds more . The environmental pollution that has occurred in Chernobyl and neighbouring countries is irreversible and is understood to continue polluting for another century. However, it would not be entirely incorrect to say that the global community did not learn and evolve its civil nuclear industry after this accident. The environmental norms, both domestic and international, became more substantial, and the safety provisions regarding the information on the leak of radioactive material and transboundary pollution awareness became much more prominent. The technology being used to operate and construct these nuclear reactors became more accurate and safer.
India, the country that evolved its own Three Stage Nuclear Energy Programme,  was faced with international sanctions  after testing a nuclear bomb without giving information to the international community. It resulted in the complete cessation of international collaboration and cooperation in developing the civil nuclear program. The scientists then, despite the financial crunch, developed a system very ingenious for the needs of our country, constructed and commercialized a specific type of reactor, the Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) which has been commissioned in India which is very low in its output, which does not exist anywhere else in the world, and owing to its smaller quantity of output, is considered to be less harmful to the environment.
Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh have some of the country’s significant reactors . The significance of this is that the state of the environment in these areas has reported no leakage or adverse effect on the flora, fauna, or anthropology. Interestingly, the cost of electricity in the Tarapur plant is as low as 0.89/kilowatt hour .
Effects on the Marine Ecosystems
Many of the Indian Nuclear Plants are along the vast coastline. According to India’s applicable environmental law and norms, the project proponents, that is, the Government of India, through the Department of Atomic Energy and NPCIL, have taken caution not to harm the marine ecosystem as prevails. The environmental impact assessment reports, which have been made public, incorporate all such precautionary measures as would be required to maintain the sanctity of the delicate environment. Frequent and regular inspections of the neighbouring environment also reveal that nuclear plant activities are not affecting the environment’s normalcy.
An exciting development, however, which has come into light recently was the declaration of the scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay and those at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, in Tamil Nadu, is that the very first commercialized and Hybrid Seawater Desalination Plant at Kalpakkam, near Chennai , has been inaugurated. In the perspective of the environment, this is a significant achievement and success with the promise of a better and more sustainable environment as the scientific understanding of the desalination plant’s working is that the plant uses the excessive heat produced within the nuclear reactor, known as Latent Heat, to desalinate the seawater and convert it into sweet potable water. To note here is that in all previous nuclear accidents, it was this unutilized Latent Heat that caused accidents and core meltdowns. India thus became the second country in the world , after Taiwan, to have commercialized this type of plant. Such plants are now proposed to be made at various other civil nuclear facilities in India in the coming few years. This development means that there would not be “dumping” of excess heat into the seawater, as is done by some power generation plants [thermal] in India, and other parts of the world, which gravely affects flora and fauna of the marine ecosystem.
Effects on the Atmosphere
Directly addressing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in generating nuclear energy, the answer is already known. With India’s rising population and development, the result of which has been that today, India is the world’s third most highly polluting country . Others are United States of America and China. Recent studies have indicated that the states in America that have shut down their nuclear reactors, the carbon imprint has been much higher than the states that have not. China has accelerated its construction and dependence on nuclear energy and is now efficiently contributing to a lesser carbon emission from its energy sector. The environmental norms regulating the nuclear industry in these countries has been laid down effectively and unambiguously, unlike in India, where the legislation for civil liability and the environmental norms are not upto the international standards and obsolete respectively. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s former directors and officials believe  that unless the political will and the legislative intent of our country’s governance do not come together, the development of nuclear energy would not be able to reach its full potential. Important facts such as that the Kaiga Nuclear Plant in India’s Karnataka has set a world record  on safety of operations for running continuously for 941 days without any glitch have been unreported also, that the International Atomic Energy Agency which recently conducted safety and security inspections of the plants across.
The Indian Fantasy of Nuclear Energy – The Roadblocks
Nuclear Energy, today in the way it is developing in India, must be validated from an environmental point of view to reach the set ambitious targets of reducing carbon emissions and lowering the Earth’s temperature. A very conclusive change in the energy mix is required and expediently. Apart from coal, which gives energy supply security, it is only nuclear energy, which can sustain the security of providing a substantial amount of electricity from a relatively less fuel source and for a continuous period, owing to the vast reserves as found. The greatest challenge is to ensure that the environmental norms and regulations are not allowed to become obsolete and are always up to date to cater to the developing times and technological advances.
Moving on from environmental challenges, nuclear energy in India has been projected more ambitiously than practically. The Supreme Court while passing its judgment in the case of G. Sunderrajan v. Union of India  the Judges seconded the view of the High Court and gave conditional permission to the Nuclear Plant. The Supreme Court in its judgment made some very novel observations, understanding the importance of Nuclear Energy in the current times of Climate Change. It said that in order to comply with the National Commitment to reduce Carbon Footprint, it is expedient to develop such sources of power generation which are Clean. The fact that one cannot dwell in the past and hope only for the worst, the Supreme Court highlighted that once sure of the Project Proponents taking full precautions and following all safety measures, it is impossible to keep foresight of what calamity may strike . The apprehension towards the development of nuclear power plants in India has always been the fear of an accident or an untoward incident, which may or may not happen, and if it does happen would jeopardize the lives of hundreds of people by radiation poisoning.
With bilateral treaties and memorandum of understandings with foreign countries, there are promises and hopes tied to broaden the capacity of nuclear energy. What has consistently been lacking is a policy directive. With the Government of India coming out with policies concerning the development of solar energy, wind energy, and even a renewable energy direction document , but on the other hand, coming to nuclear energy’s proposed advancement, there still is no policy incentive or directive to guide its future development. The difference it makes is that currently, the institutional mechanism which has been in place for the administration and regularization of atomic energy is controlled directly by the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO oversees the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) , and it is the authority that regulates the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and many other verticals. The DAE consists of bureaucrats and few scientists, making the administration of this highly scientific and sensitive area under the control of people who are not from a scientific background.
There also happens to be no provision for the induction of experts with a legal background, thus pushing back further on the prospect of legal preparedness. Since the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 , the most recent legislation to have brought in force has been the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 . The Act has been in controversy since the beginning as it happens to be a parliamentary law, strict and stringent in its provisions for ensuring liability in case of an accident, but at the same time, it contains a provision for the “right of recourse”  which in a nutshell means that the operator after paying the initial compensation can opt for a right to recourse if “the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services” . Though stated to be in line and conformation with the recently ratified CSC,  the Act so far only follows through on the application of Absolute Liability to the operator. It so seems from the analysis of the CLND Act, 2010 that the Indian Parliamentarians are still haunted by the ghosts of the Bhopal Gas fiasco and did everything to ensure that in case of a nuclear accident , those mistakes regarding channelling of liability were not repeated. It however, took a toll on building of confidence in the foreign counterparts and investors who were to invest in the Indian Nuclear Energy Programme.
Another challenge that needs understanding is the continuous comparison of the Indian Nuclear Plants with the ones existing worldwide and the biggest apprehension of having another Fukushima or Chernobyl type of accident in India. It must be stated that upon a thorough analysis of the published Environmental Impact Assessments of the nuclear power plants in India, there are particular design-based technologies which have been furnished, making the indigenous reactors safer than most reactor systems in the world. International standards for nuclear reactor safety and security have been followed and the same has been acknowledged by the IAEA’s 2016 safety audit  which was conducted in nuclear power plants in India . Not only are Indian reactors safe, but India happens to be the only developing country with indigenously built reactors that have withstood earthquakes, floods, fire and internal malfunctions which have not only been encountered but no environmental or radioactive damage has been recorded.
When in 2004, the Tsunami hit the coast , the crisis was averted and managed by the Department as a warning had been given in prior by the Kalpakkam control room as the system triggered a tsunami warning before the waves hit the mainland. All emergency procedures were immediately activated. The operating procedures were in place if there was any damage done by the tsunami . The Narora Atomic Power Station underwent a complete blackout when the blades broke and caused additional damage to the turbines, causing a hydrogen leak resulting in a major fire. This incident occurred two decades ago, when India was much under the blockade of the international community’s sanctions, and the accident was handled and managed in a manner, which led to no leakage and exposure to radiation. The fire caused much damage to the facility, but with the physical intervention of the crew and the firemen present on the site, the fire was controlled, a total cool-down of the reactor was initiated and the cause of all previous accidents, the ‘latent heat’ was effectively removed from the passive cooling mechanism of the reactor, leading to the incident being categorized at a point 3 on the INES, internationally. This example has been quoted by two major international agencies, the IAEA  and the OECD-NEA  as successful studies on accident management on site.
Lastly, why nuclear energy remains on the apprehension list of the public is due to the chain of present information. We live in times of continuous media presence and coverage. Before the authorities can clarify the program’s situation and impending status, the media has already covered the situation and passed information that the disaster is around the curb. As researchers, the only task at our hands is to give impetus to government records, reports, and determinations. In nuclear energy, the Government of India takes expert help from nuclear physicists and scientists . Simultaneously, the media persons still rely on NGO workers and social activists’ opinions and statements, which do not precisely provide correct technical and scientific information . The question remains to be debated as “food for thought” that we choose to believe while forming an opinion, science versus stigma.
Nuclear energy is not one hundred percent safe. It contains hazardous materials, and if exposed to the environment, it can cause a catastrophe. Issues such as government expenditure on nuclear plants being excessive and a load on the tax-payer should be weighed out with the times where Tehri and Sardar Sarovar projects which were started at a meagre budget of 64 billion INR but by the time they were finished, the total cost was up to 400 billion INR . The growth rate of solar energy in India causes a pileup of excessive amounts of solar panel waste, which is still unclassified and the disposal of which is still not covered under any waste management rule.
With the life span of a solar panel being 25 years, India will have accumulated solar waste of enormous quantities, with no mechanism to dispose it. The lifecycle assessment of a solar panel states that to manufacture a solar panel requires three tonnes of coal-fired energy and that panel, in its lifetime capacity cannot generate the equivalent of that energy spent to manufacture it . Why nuclear energy could not be strengthened in India according to the ambitious plans of the Government, is a lot less to do with fallacies but much more to do with a lack of administrative and institutional framework. While scientists could produce technology, the law and policy-makers could not catch up. To date, the AERB’s safety codes and guides are much more capable than the legal rules and regulations which are in place.
One of the most important lessons to observe and learn from the Fukushima Disaster is the separation of the Nuclear Regulatory Body from the bureaucracy. The AERB in India, unlike the nuclear regulators in the United States of America, France, United Kingdom among others, is not an independent body. When the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill of 2011 failed to pass in the House of the Parliament in India, and still does not form a part of the emergent reforms required, India has not learnt from the mistakes of Fukushima . The Jaitapur plant which has become exemplary for the wrong reasons of government incapacities is actually in limbo as the reactor design is a generation three European Pressurized reactor that is not being commissioned anywhere else in the world. Thus, to take stock of its functioning and safety, the Government of India has decided for it to be commercialised in Flamanville, France first and then incorporate the same in India .
To conclude, the effort is steering the debate of the future of Nuclear Energy in India to a more legal and policy base and away from newspaper intellectualism. To generate public confidence must rework and strengthen its media and press outreach to justify and reason its delay, than allow the vote of no-confidence to manifest amongst the public. The scientists who have strived to make this program unique and very differently abled from the developed countries must be brought forth to put their side of the story.
About the Author
Raagya Priya Zadu is an alumni of the Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU), Raipur and the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. She is currently Doctoral Researcher at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore specialising in Energy and Environmental Law.
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Raagya Priya Zadu, Doctoral Scholar ([Energy and Environmental Law], National Law School of India University, Bangalore) ‘Nuclear Energy: A Feasible Option for Indian Energy Sector’ (IJPIEL, 2 December 2020)
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