‘If a tsunami strikes, chances of damage are extremely low in Koodankulam’

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EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW:

SS Bajaj, Chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board
SS Bajaj, Chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board

Opening a nuclear reactor involves implications over at least 50 years. Will India’s safety mechanisms last that long?
A nuclear plant usually has a design life of 40 years. It might extend to 60 also. Tarapur has been operating since 1969. The AERB has a set of 140 codes and guidelines, which serve as regulatory documents. In a plant, a ‘normal release’ has insignificant quantity of radiation. In an accident, we have layers of defence, which ensure that the release of radiation from the core to the environment is minimised. We give clearances to plants only after rigorous inspections. Even regular inspections are reviewed in great detail periodically.

The Tamil Nadu coast has been ravaged by a tsunami before. Are there any additional safety measures that you intend to introduce at the Koodankulam nuclear plant?
The original design itself requires considering quakes, cyclones and even tsunamis. With Koodankulam, we have set a large margin of anticipation of a disaster; worst quake or tsunami. Projection of the worst case of tsunami has been set at 4 metres, when the 2004 tsunami level was around 2m. Therefore, the possibility of damage in Koodankulam in the event of a tsunami is extremely low.

Any changes in Indian plans after the Fukushima accident?
The AERB had ordered a safety review of all our nuclear plants. We recommended additional provisions in all plants to be completely equipped for a disaster. Even in the event of a complete power failure like it happened in Fukushima, our plants will be able to cope with disaster for a prolonged period.

Many nations have begun to rethink, even reject reliance on nuclear energy. Why is India aggressively pursuing the option when questions of safety are being asked more than ever?
Different countries have different needs. Depending on their resources, they choose methods of procurement. Our per capita consumption of 700 units of electricity is one-tenth of several countries in the West. The demand is enormous, but consumption is too low. If we have to see reasonable development in standard of living, we will have to make choices. There’s coal, which comes with its own baggage. There are several renewable sources certainly. But largescale electricity production requires central electricity generation. Therefore, nuclear energy is definitely a choice. Setting up of a nuclear plant like Koodankulam with two reactors will cost around Rs 13,000 crore. Each unit has the potential to produce 1,000 MW, which means a million units of power every hour.

What about nuclear waste disposal? The Jaitapur project itself is predicted to have 300 metric tonnes of radioactive waste per annum. How will India deal with this?
Normal discharges of radiation through air and water have minuscule impact on people’s health and ecology. Solid radioactive wastes are managed within the plant through tile holes and trenches. The key issue is high-level waste that comes from the spent fuel. In India, we follow closed fuel cycle. We extract fissile material from the waste. After extraction, the quantity of waste is reduced, which of course needs to be stored for a long time as it radiates. Such waste is vitrified; we store it in a glass matrix covered by a steel canister, specially walled. We have a facility in Tarapur. Over the years, the quantity of the waste might increase, but we have the solutions.

How can a nuclear disaster be managed if there’s a power failure at the plant?
The idea is to introduce additional equipment and wherewithal which will withstand an earthquake or tsunami. We can even have mobile power packs that we can hook on to the equipment and the cooling pumps. These hook-up points are being engineered and have already been installed in some of the plants. Even if everything fails, the idea is to bring in these diesel-driven mobile power packs, which should take care of the cooling.

Scientists and NPCIL officials have given out statements rubbishing the possibility of nuclear disasters. Isn’t such overconfidence in the face of high risks dangerous?
All provisions are made to see that leaks will not occur. But you cannot give 100 percent guarantee to any activity in the world. The nuclear sector is as safe as it can be.

G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
vishnu@tehelka.com

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