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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nuclear Energy & Technology: many myths, some debunking

Over the past year or so, living in India, one has been reading & watching a steady stream of news reports of protests being undertaken against the use of Nuclear Energy for generating electricity. The actual construction process, itself, has not yet commenced in any of these areas & is sometime away, even going by official schedule. In general, only the necessary surveys have been carried out & the site evaluated to judge its suitability for construction & operation of the Nuclear power plant. Thus, a significant portion of the protest could be attributed to the consternation experienced by local inhabitants at the initial stages of any major project that involves substantial land reclamation. These things are eventually, inevitably, sorted out to the mutual agreement of all concerned, employing a concurrent approach involving raising awareness, negotiations & a degree of coercion too, if needed.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, Tamil Nadu, India

A significant exception to this situation is the Kudankulam Nuclear power plant, set up in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. One of the most advanced plant designs in the world, it employs the most contemporary safety systems, including a passive heat removal system that requires no power source at all to operate. The plant is also equipped with multiple levels of redundancies that would be set into motion, in the event of any divergence in designed operation. Construction work at the site had neared completion. In fact, by now, it should have begun operation, generating & supplying electricity to the state, that runs a power deficit of up to 5000 MWe & is being forced to endure daily load-shedding of up to more than one-third the day [9 hours]. However, the protests, that has seen the Church play an active role in marshaling the protestors, has brought all activities at the plant site to a complete standstill. Critical equipment that require specialized maintenance & monitoring1, aren't being adequately taken care of, running the risk of irreversibly damage2.

Allegations of individual motivations of those spearheading the protests are also being reported every now & then. However, bona fide of these allegations can not, yet, be be ascertained satisfactorily. What, on the other hand, has achieved broad-based consensus is the realization that Nuclear Energy is a much misunderstood & unjustifiably maligned Science. The fact that the weapon that eventually brought about a swift & sudden end to the World War II, albeit with disastrous, and highly visible consequences, was a nuclear devices, also does not help matters.

What is, therefore, needed is a constant, persistent effort towards a concerted attempt at generating awareness, clearing doubts & dispelling the innumerable myths surrounding the use of Nuclear energy. The Department of Atomic Energy [D.A.E], the highest decision making body in India on matters Nuclear, has a vital role to play in this effort. In accordance with a part of their mandate, these presentation slides below, were used in one such talk given by them.

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Another wonderful initiative towards this effort is the website of the Nuclear Friends Foundation [NFF]

An environmental study report released recently revealed that India has the poorest quality of air in the world. The finding, alarming that it is, must come as no real surprise though. More than 65% of India's energy requirements are met by hydrocarbon burning Thermal power plants. Burning fossil fuels to release energy also passes into the atmosphere,

  • Cancer-causing elements [carcinogens]
  • acid rain causing NOX, sulphurous by-products
  • Suspended Particulate Matter [S.P.M], that are responsible for respiratory disorders

Besides these, a host of other harmful pollutants are also released into the atmosphere in the course of the normal operation of such a plant. These pollutants, in quantities above permissible limits, can lead to severe degradation of environment, along with fatal health problems among those living in midst of this. Burning hydrocarbons also releases Carbon Dioxide [CO2], a Greenhouse gas. Scientists have concluded, such uncontrolled increase of CO2 into the atmosphere is leading to a rise in the average temperature of the earth, causing melting of the polar ice-caps, disrupting monsoon pattern, among others. This phenomena has been termed as the Greenhouse Effect.

India, with the current trajectory of growth of its economy & population, is the fourth largest consumer of energy in the world3. Yet, despite this large-scale consumption in absolute terms, India's per capita consumption is amongst the lowest in the world. Due to the improving economy, increasing number of Indians are being pulled out of their poverty, attaining prosperity & seeking better standards of living. This is leading to increased consumption of resources, including energy. It is estimated that, by 2052, electricity generation demand in India would have to rise to 1300 GWe annually, from the current capacity of 185 GWe, marking a 600% increase. If the demands, in India & elsewhere, are to be met by increased use of polluting fossil fuels only, it requires no elaboration to state that the spiraling increase in emission would lead to a catastrophic, debilitating deterioration of our environment.

Not just this, it has also been estimated that present known Hydrocarbon reserves on earth, like oil, would have become exhausted by around 20504. The very continuation of human existence calls for exploring & utilizing other sources of energy & diversifying our energy basket to prolong the use of hydrocarbons.

The nature of Nuclear energy is such that it plays no role at all in the 'Greenhouse Effect' phenomena. Neither does it generate any of the pollutants mentioned earlier. Amount of waste generated in a Nuclear power plant, too, is literally a fraction of that created in a conventional thermal power plant. This is because fissile materials used in Nuclear power plant are an extremely high density source of energy. Roughly speaking, 1 kg of enriched Uranium liberates more energy than 1160000 kgs of coal5. Thus mass & volume of fuel required to run a Nuclear power plant is fractions of that required in a conventional power plants to generate the same amount of electricity. Correspondingly, the waste product generated, too is a miniscule fraction of that produced in the conventional thermal power plant.

In fact, a study conducted by the US-based Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded that radioactivity released by a coal-powered thermal power plant is higher than that generated in a Nuclear power plant. Thus, with a robust & comprehensive set of guidelines & measures in place, it would be far more convenient to effectively & safely dispose by-products generated in a Nuclear power plant than that in a thermal power plants.

3-Stage-Nuclear-Energy-Programme-India

Moreover, hydrocarbon deficient India has to import nearly all of its oil & gas needed to run plants from autocratic kingdoms & theological Republics in the Middle-East, thereby tying us down to their unstable political affairs. On the other hand, once the third stage of India's Nuclear Power Programme has been perfected, India would be able to make use of Thorium to breed fissile material for use in its Nuclear power plant for electricity generation. India holds the world's largest reserves of Thorium in the world. On perfection of the third stage, nuclear power plants using fissile materials bred from Thorium would guarantee India's energy security, isolating it from the vagaries of Middle-East Geo-politics.

India's experimental Thorium Fuel Cycle Nuclear Reactor

Solution often put forth by anti-Nuclear activists to meet this growing energy demand is the adoption of the use of alternative sources of energy like solar & wind. While these solutions can meet modest requirements in limited areas, adopting them to meet any significant need is simply unfeasible & impractical, as none of them are scalable to meet commercial requirements. For starters, these sources of energy are extremely dilute. Therefore in order to generate any significant amounts of electricity, power plants using these methods must be spread over a vast stretches of landmass.

A rough calculation comparing area required to generate 1000 MWe of electricity using the different sources5,

Energy Source

Area required
[km2]

Nuclear 1-4
Wind 50-150
Solar 20-50

Thus, as evident a Wind farm would take up to 14900% more area than a Nuclear power plant to generate the same amount of electricity, while a Solar plant would take up to 4900% more area than the Nuclear plant. Not only would setting up a Solar-powered plant render vast stretches of land nearly unusable for any other practical purpose, any such land availability would also be much further away from population centers for whom the electricity is being generated. This would further add to Transmission & Distribution losses, increasing cost & reducing efficiency.

Moreover, all these alternate sources of energy are inherently fluctuating in nature. The amount of energy generated would vary widely depending upon the annual season & also the time of the day [think, town powered with Solar energy on a night in the monsoon season]. In order to ensure sufficient supply of electricity produced via the alternative route would mean one would have to invest in large storage batteries to store the energy for use at a later time. Use of storage batteries is nearly mandatory in such alternate systems of generation, if one were to use the energy for any practical purpose. If one were proposing use of alternate energy to stop pollution, such endeavors would automatically become self-defeating. Pollution caused while manufacturing solar panel & popular & low-cost lead-acid storage batteries is a cause of pollution whose consequences are just as toxic & harmful, even causing neurological disorders in the affected. Increased use of these would, therefore, lead to increased manufacturing, which in turn would cause even greater guaranteed pollution. So what essentially would happen is, in ones attempt to avert the remote possibility of harm caused by Nuclear power, one would end up exposing oneself to the guaranteed pollution caused by its alternative. Hardly a wise choice, wouldn't you agree?

While the above were some of the technological & ecological factors that would preclude any large-scale adoption of alternate sources of energy to meet commercial requirement, the most critical factor is that of economy.

click on the picture to read the accompanying write-up

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Thus, as seen wind energy would be 100% more expensive while Solar energy would be 450% more expensive than Nuclear energy. It therefore needs no elaboration, to state that a country like India , if it adopts a path of meeting energy demands using predominantly alternate sources, the electricity generated would be unaffordable to the majority of India's population, leaving it under-developed & poverty-stricken. India would end up living in darkness, quite literally.

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While the issue of myths & misconceptions pertaining to radiation have been addressed in the presentation slides above, it needs to be put in perspective. While increased use of Nuclear Technology, in event of a improper operation, remote, if plants operated as per guidelines, would cause death & other damages to those living the the effected zone, increased use of fossil fuels to meet our demands would be guaranteed to cause harm, damage, leading to death to those effected, even when the plants is functioning normally. How about that?

Godspeed

1 - http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/tamil-nadu/article2622335.ece

2 - http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/delay-in-operations-at-kudankulam-n-plant-could-damage-reactors-russian-engineer-148487

3 - Fifth, if the European Nation is considered as a single entity. USA, Russia, China being the countries with a greater consumption than India.

4 - Though the year quoted is debatable, what is not debatable is the fact that oil reserves are not infinite, and the rate of consumption are increasing. Put them together, you still will have a crisis of exhausted reserves looming over the horizon.

5 - Source. Uranium, while an extremely high density source of energy, is also scarce. Therefore, much greater energy is utilised in mining and processing the fuel than that needed for coal. In spite of this, the energy balance is overwhelmingly in favor of fissile materials like Uranium as a fuel.

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