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India must reject imported technology to ensure the safety of new nuclear power stations, says A. Gopalakrishnan.

Four of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan seem to be steadily moving towards progressive core melting.

If sizeable core melt occurs, very dangerous species of radioactive fission products in the form of gases, micro-dust and droplets could spread to large areas, depending on wind conditions.

This inevitably raises real concerns for other countries, such as India, that have nuclear facilities of their own.

It is unlikely that the kind of devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan will strike any of the Indian nuclear plants. But the earthquake-resistant designs and tsunami abatement measures we have taken in India's nuclear plants need a high-level, in-depth review by an independent expert group.

And in view of the vast nuclear devastation we are observing in Japan, I strongly urge the Indian government not to proceed with plans to import reactors from France, Russia and the United States, including the evolutionary pressurized reactors (EPRs) from France that are planned for the Jaitapur Project.

Lessons for India

India has built 18 pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) on its own over the past four decades. We have mastered the design by learning from the mistakes of the past and are currently planning to build 700-megawatt (MWe) units of this type. And we have three generations of Indian engineers who are familiar with the PHWR.

If we need more nuclear power, the safest route is to consolidate and expand on our PHWR experience, import natural uranium and build more PHWRs. We can move on to 1,000-MWe PHWRs once we have built and gained experience with the 700-MWe units.

If a major accident occurs, Indian engineers and scientists will be totally familiar with the details of a PHWR and can rapidly bring the situation under control.

Instead, the government is scattering our energies and talent in getting imported reactors such as the French EPRs in Jaitapur, light water reactors which neither India nor France know much about.

For Indian engineering teams to react in a similarly timely and effective manner against an accident in one of the planned imported reactors will be next to impossible for decades to come.

I therefore urge the government to place all actions related to the import of reactors on hold and proceed gradually forward by building just PHWRs, if nuclear power expansion is urgently needed.

Implications for Jaitapur

The first objection is that EPRs to be built in Jaitapur, having not been commissioned anywhere else in the world, are largely an untested technology. The potential problems are totally unknown even to Areva, its developer — let alone India's Nuclear Power Corporation.

The reliability and safety of EPR will be extremely low and unknown until, through different stages of operation and testing over a period of years, all problems which may show up are rectified.

Why should the people of Jaitapur be subjected to the high risk of proving out an unknown, foreign reactor in their backyard?

Second, the promoters of the imported reactors — India's Nuclear Power Corporation and Areva — are silent about the serious problems which India, and especially the local community, has to face after operations start and the spent fuel starts accumulating at the site.

The high burn-up spent fuel from EPRs relative to PHWRs has its own unique hazards at the storage and transportation stages, unlike in the case of current light water reactors which use lower burn-ups.

The reprocessing of such fuel will be extremely complex, the per MWe production of usable plutonium from this plant will be low, and these two reasons combined will make EPRs least useful for producing enough plutonium to meet India's future strategy of building indigenous thorium-based fast-breeder reactors.

Finally, we are buying into all these high risks at an enormous cost to the tax payers. Each MWe produced by an EPR will cost roughly two-and-a-half times as much as it would if produced by an indigenous PHWR.

Lack of public trust

Today, Indians have very little trust in the country's various atomic-energy institutions and leaders. Ethical standards in the prime minister's office and other relevant government and scientific departments have fallen considerably in recent years.

Even in the evaluations and negotiations of the cost, safety and liability of imported reactors, the official nuclear agencies are operating hand-in-glove with their friends in the corporate business houses and federations.

This close relationship is distorting and damaging the government decisions that should be objectively taken in the public interest. 

This is certainly fast leading this country towards a sharp increase in the potential for hazardous nuclear reactor accidents and enormous financial losses.

Under the circumstances, these government agencies must be visibly uncoupled from corporate influences first, and made truly independent, before the public can be expected to believe any of their assertions. 

It will be best if a high-level national review commission on nuclear power is appointed to review India's nuclear power policies at the earliest.

The members of this commission must be people of high ethical standards, with expertise in  matters of nuclear power, safety and economics — preferably non-government officials and not connected with business houses or federations.

A. Gopalakrishnan is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Read all our coverage about the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster here.