ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF NUCLEAR PLANT


Prof.T.Shivaji Rao,

Director, Centre for Environmental Studies,

                                          Gitam University, Visakhapatnam-530 045

 1) Nuclear Power – Fatal to our Civilization:

U.S. Supreme Court Judges Douglas and Black described Nuclear Power as  “a most deadly, a most dangerous process that man has ever conceived”. In fact the radioactive pollutants are a million to billion times more toxic than many chemical poisons.  Many experts emphasise that nuclear power proliferation is a serious threat to mankind meriting comparison with nuclear war.  But some people believe that it holds the key to national energy and defence problems and is clean, safe and cheap.  However, the former head of US Nuclear establishment David Lilienthal Belatedly admitted in 1981 that “nuclear technology is not really so advanced; it is not dependable enough, it is not safe enough”.

Even the Russian expert Legasov posed the questions: “Is not the development of nuclear energy on an industrial scale premature? Will it not be fatal to our civilization, to the eco-system of our plant? We must work for the creation of anti-accident centres and centres devoting themselves to compensating for the losses to the environment. The upgrading of the industrial level of safety and the solution of the problem of the relations between man and machine would be a lot more natural thing to do than concentrating the efforts on only one element of the energy structure in the world.  This would benefit the whole of humanity”. The Chernobyl disaster actually proved that even a highly disciplined developed nation like Russia could destroy its own human and natural resources and those of other neighbouring nations without a war just by accidental mismanagement of the so called peaceful uses of the atom.

In the light of the harrowing experiences from Chernobyl disaster most of the countries have decided against nuclear power and some have chosen to close down the existing reactors in a phased programme.  Austria, Denmark and Norway rejected nuclear power before Chernobyl.  Sweden plans to phase out nuclear power by 2010.  Two-thirds of the people inmost of the developed countries are opposed to nuclear power.  Although experts estimated in 1973-74 that 1000 M.W capacity plants will touch 1000 mark in USA and 4500 mark in the world by the turn of the century, the present level of 420 plants in the world indicates a short-fall of 90% in the target set for 2000 AD.  Even the Soviet Union has recently cancelled six nuclear plants because of doubts about their safety.  Additional units planned for existing plants in Armenia and Georgia were scrapped and work on a third reactor in Lithuania was suspended.  In USA orders placed for more than 100 reactors were cancelled. Since 1978 no American company has placed an order for a new reactor.

2. Abandon unsafe Reactors:

The three Mile Island accident proved that no matter how extensive the safety measures are the reactor machines are disasters waiting in the wings.  Pollard of the Union of concerned scientists aptly criticized that it is bad energy policy to rely on reactors that have a great potential for accidents with enormous off-site consequences on the plea that the probability for such accidents is low.  Experts told the industry to abandon the current generation of inherently unsafe reactors.  In fact Dr.Lilienthal proposed that inherently safe be designed so that the reactor safety depend not on mechanical or human intervention but upon immutable physical principles that even in an emergency could not be abrogated.

Today the experts have succeeded in producing the safe reactor models (i.e) process Inherent Ultimately Safe Reactor (PIUS), Modular High Temperature Gas Reactor (MHTGR) and the Metal Fueled Sodium-Cooled Breeder (MFSCB).  All the three designs introduce new inherent elements of safety that had not been incorporated in the current generation of inherently unsafe reactors! General Atomics of USA proposes to build the Modular High Temperature Gas Cooled reactor in Idaho falls soon.  At this Juncture, the Government of India proposes to expand nuclear power programs by using the inherently unsafe reactors!

3. Reactor Safety Problems:

The defence in depth philosophy has its own limitations.  According to Lidsky of Massachusetts institute of Technology, complexity is the reason light-water reactors are so hideously expensive and hard to run.  The complexity and expense of safety systems have forced the authorities to plan for large plants that produce not only more electricity and revenue but also pollution.  Many reactor accidents including the three Mile Island disaster amply proved that inspite of all the precautions taken, accidents do occur because of some known and many unknown causes.

Since the containments are not usually designed to withstand some of the worst case accidents involving large scale zirconium-stream reactions, hydrogen and vapour explosions, common mode rupture of primary and secondary coolant systems inside the containment, human failures, sabotage, missile-hits terrorism, bombing, massive aeroplane crashes etc., it is highly improper to emphasise that unclear power is absolutely safe.

Safety cannot be engineered in.  According to Dr.Hannes Alfven, a nobel laureate, “although the nuclear experts devote more effort to safety problems than others, the real question is whether their blue-prints will work as expected by them in the real world and not only in their technological paradise”.  A number of incidents show that it is impossible to ensure complete safety.  A cyclonic storm that hit one of the reactors destroyed five separate emergency power lines, a mathematical impossibility! A research reactor experienced a series of twenty-one sequential failures at the rate of seven failures and three identical channel-systems and surprisingly it was saved by one other system that was not being used because of unreliability! A series of six fatal mistakes made by the Russian experts at their Chernobyl plant proved that even with the best safety systems in the world, no reactor can be considered to be fool proof for all time and that safety ultimately lies in the constant supervision of the safety officers and the undiminished competence of the operators of the Nuclear plant.

In fact the Tarapur plant is said to have fuel failure as high as 20% to 35%.  Among the prominent failures at Tarapur are there circulation pumps, control rod drives, electronic monitoring and control systems, instrumentation, cracks in system piping, feed water pumps, leaks in condenser tubes, control valves, steam generator tubes control valves, water lines and extensive corrosion.  Because of the defects in design, operation and maintenance, about 350 unusual occurrences are reported to have occurred by 1980 at the Tarapur plant.

4. Radiation Hazards

With the Splitting (fission of the atoms) of the fuel in its core a nuclear reactor produces abundant heat and many fission products of lighter elements most of which are radioactive.  In an additional reaction, atoms heavier than Uranium such as plutonium, Americium, Curium and other Trans-Uranic elements that are also radioactive are produced.

The radio-active substances from a Nuclear Plant can be broadly divided into alpha and beta particles, gamma rays and neutrons.  Alpha particles travel for one or two inches in the air.  If they get into the human body, they ionize the cells in organs like the nose, eyes and tongue and harm the normal growth of cells.  Even the beta particles destroy the cells in various organs of man.  When the cells in the blood are thus destroyed, cancer will occur.  The radioactive substances may directly get into man by being inhaled along with air.  The radioactive dust in the air may settle over the land from where it can reach man through the vegetables and fruits.  When the grass over such contaminated pastures is eaten by the cattle the pollutants get concentrated in man through the consumption of milk and meat from such animals.  Similarly the radioactive substances that get into the prawns and fishes from the contaminated tanks, rivers and lakes get into man.  Thus the radioactive substances gradually build up in man through the consumption of contaminated air, water and food and cause slow but serious damage to different organs in the body even at very low doses! (APPENDIX)

Some people may become impotent.  The nucleides penetrate the embryo of pregnant women who consequently may deliver deformed babies.  Because of their continuous disintegration, the radioactive substances will undergo many changes and ultimately become stable substances. The time taken by such a substance to decay by 50% of its original weight is known as its “Half life”.  The half lives of some of the pollutants are 5 days for xenon-133; 8 days for Iodine-131; 10 days for Krypton-85; 28 years for Strontium-90 and 30 years for caesium-137; 25,000 years for plutonium and crores of years for Uranium-238.  Being chemically similar to calcium, strontium gets into the muscular cells.  Unlike the common food substances like sugars, the radioactive substances are not amenable for digestion and hence accumulate in critical organs like gonads, breasts, bone-marrow, lungs and thyroid glands.  Administration of 1 to 5 milli-curies of Iodine-131 corresponding to thyroid doses of 1000 to 10,000 rads causes serious damage.  The hazards at lower exposure are enhanced by synergy with other common or unusual co-factors (APPEXDIX)

MONUMENTS OF SHOCK TO MANKIND

A study conducted by the Human Interference Task Force of the US Government, proposed to construct 25 granite monoliths seven meters high, each weighing 25 tonnes to mark the boundaries of the waste storage sites.

A series of pictures should be carved into the markers so that whatever the future level of understanding about radiation and whatever be the level of advancement in nuclear technology of that age, the danger of bio-hazardous waste buried is conveyed.  These monuments will be the legacy of the cheap, safe and peaceful nuclear power” reactors which are proposed to be constructed at Kaiga (Karnataka), Narora (UP), Kakrapara (Gujarat) and Koodankulam (Tamil Nadu)

                                                                    - Dhirendra Sharma – Hindu, 14th March 1989

5. Pollution:

The radioactive pollutants like iodine and caesium from the Chernobyl  disaster of April 26, 1986 have created a terror not only I the East European countries but also in other distant places.  The dust reached Japan and India as well and contaminated the soil, water, air and food.  While the children were kept indoors in Austria the sale of milk was stopped in Poland.  Sweden has prohibited the import of foods from European countries.  In some countries they are planning to destroy the cattle and crops exposed to the radiation.  People in the productive age group are adopting birth control methods.  Some women in their youth are prepared to sacrifice both normal family-life and mother-hood.  The educated youth are agitating that their elders who have kept silent at the time of establishing these nuclear plants have foreclosed their options and their rights for better quality of life to the present population and their progeny.  Annual production of liquid wastes from a 1000 MW plant is estimated at 4000m3 with low radioactivity of 1 curie/m3.  Similarly, the annual discharge of radioactive materials into the atmosphere for a similar reactor are estimated at 12 curies for Tritium and 6curies for Carbon-14, Discharges from the reators into the atmosphere may include Argon-41 (from irradiation of air).  Kryption-35 (fission product), Xenon-133 and isotopes of iodine-131 and Carbon-14 from irradiation of reactor materials.  From a public health view point, in addition to the above isotopes Tellurium, Ruthenium and Caesium are also harmful.  Exposure of man is due to fission products discharged into the atmosphere.  Smaller amounts of radioactive materials (from induced activity in corrosion products etc) may be discharged with liquid effluents.  Pressurised water reactors release mainly xenon-133, the exposure within 80KM being estimated at 0.01 manrems per MW per year.  In the USSR, the emissions of radioactive substances from the Chimney stacks of Nuclear power plants per day are limited to 1 milli-curie for strontium-90 and strontium-80: 100 milli curies for Iodine-131: 500 milli-curies for the sum of Beta and Gamma aerosols besides the strontium and Iodine and 3500 curies for the sum of the radioactive inert gaseous Isotopes of krypton, xenon and Argon.  All these substances get into man either through the air he breathes, the water he drinks or the food he eats.  Often they get into the food chains and food webs in nature, get biologically magnified many thousands fold and cause slow poisoning effects in man 20 to 30 years subsequent to his first exposure.  In the water of Columbia river Zn-65 was found at a concentration of only 25 thousandths of pico-curie (pc) per gram.  Yet local inhabitants contained 4000 PC in their bodies through bio-magnification.

The hot effluents from the condenser of reactor are bound to have adverse impact on all biological activity, varying from feeding habits and reproductive rates of fish to the changes in the nutrient levels, photo synthesis, Eutrophication, Oxygen transfer, metabolism and degradationof organic material.  Since the summer temperatures of water will be high, this additional thermal input from the condensers may be very harmful to fisheries when the quantities of natural water get diminished during lean periods.  The oxygen content will get reduced and the aquatic life will be under great stress.  Sometimes the fish, their larva and eggs will be damaged while passing through pumps and condensers.  The chemicals used intermittently for defouling the condensers will adversely affect the fish and the fish-food organisms.  The higher temperature enhance the solution of chemicals and the rate of biochemical reactions and this may prove fatal to different forms of life in the presence of detergents, algicides, corrosion-inhibiters and low-level radio active wastes discharged along with the condenser coolant.

The most treacherous aspect of radio-active pollution is that it cannot be detacted by physical senses of man such as sight, smell, taste, touch or hearing; that is why any increase in radio-activity beyond the natural back ground level is considered harmful to man and international organizations insist on As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) dose to man, such low dose of radioactivity is possible only if the reactors are located under ground or in rock caverns in Islands or coastal areas.

Vested Interests Lend Money for Nuclear Plants?

Nuclear Plants are synonymous with nuclear weapons.  Nuclear power plants are becoming unpopular in this country for obvious reasons.  People are saying, “I don’t want one in my city”.  But GE and Westinghouse keep making them: you know, if you have a product, you’ve got to sell it.  So they’re saying to the Third World countries, “Say, would you like to buy a nice nuclear power plant?” And they say, “Well, we don’t have enough money.” And the companies say “We’ll lend you the money”. The more countries that get nuclear power plants, the greater chance that there will be a limited nuclear war somewhere in the world and that could precipitate a global confirmation.

                                                                                                                - Helen Caldicott

6) Socio-economic costs:

a) Law of accidents US and UK experiences:  According to US and British experts, nuclear accidents will continue to follow the general sequence of wind-scale, Three-mile Island and Chernobyl, the frequency of accident being once in every 4 or 5 years, a partial release of the gaseous and volatile fraction of the core according to estimates made by Brook haven national laboratory in 1956 would produce 3400 deaths, 43,000 injuries and property damage of 7000 million dollars (at 1956 prices) and contamination of land area the size of Maryland.  It is said that people will die upto 15 miles and injured upto 45 miles away from the reactor.  When this report was revised in 1965 , the worst imaginable accident was reported to cause 45,000 deaths, 1,00,000 injuries and property damage of  $17,000 million (at 1965 prices).  According to a British study of 1973 the costs of damage due to an accident was estimated at 600 million pounds (at 1973 prices).

After the Three-Mile-Island accident, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission got a study made by the Sandi National Laboratories on the possible accident sequences for each of the 80 sites with different procedures.  For the worst accident the damage cost was estimated at $ 3,14,000 million.  The emergency evacuation must be implemented for 10 miles around the reactor and may be extended upto about 50 miles in the sectors down-wind depending upon weather conditions.

b) Law to compensate the victims:  In the light of the high economic costs for accidents the US Government recently revised the compensate under the price Anderson Act to be paid to victims of nuclear accidents to  $7000 million from the earlier figure of 560 million.  If the lives of Indians are considered to be as important as those of the Americans the Union Government must enact a law similar to the Price Anderson Act, with financial provision of Rs.10,000 crores to defry the cost of damage due to inevitable accidents in nuclear plants.

c) Unbearable Burden on the State Governments: Since the State Governments have to save lives of people and their properties and provide for emergency evacuation, rehabilitation and health care during accidents, they must be prepared to earmark at least Rs.5,000 crores to be kept in deposit with the State Bank for emergency use.  The State Government should not think that since it gets only ten per cent power from the reactors in addition to its normal quota they cannot undertake the burden of protecting the people and their properties due to accidents in reactors!

d) Nuclear Power is uneconomical: The claim that Nuclear energy is cheap is not correct.  According to the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission one unit of electricity is supplied at 48 paise while the coal-based power plants price is 58 paise.  But according to Dr.Raja Ramanna, a unit of electricity from a 2 x235 MW Nuclear plant estimated at Rs.530 crores costs 65 paise including a paltry sum of one paisa for decommissioning after 25 years of its life span, as published in the Nov-Dec 1984 issue of the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.  This Journal in its previous issue published that a unit of electricity is estimated in UP at 35 paise at the Tanakpur Banbasa hydel scheme on river Sarada, 37 paise at the Annapara thermal power plant in Mirzapur and 85 paise at the Dharchula Diesel power station in Pitthoragarh.  In fact, the latest estimates on decommissioning indicate that for the Berkeley Nuclear Plant constructed in 1957-61 at a cost of about $70 million the Government is going to spend $600 million today.  If the growing costs of heavy water and Nuclear plant construction are taken into consideration, Nuclear energy is going to cost 1.5 to 2 times the cost of coal based thermal power.  Hence Nuclear power is not at all cheap as claimed by its proponents.   (vide Appendix –III)

 

NUCLEAR MISHAPS: THE GRIM LIST

 October 7, 1957, Sellafield England: Reactor fire spread radiation clouds through Cumbria. At least 39 victims of cancer

1957, Kusli, USSR: Tanks containing radioactive waste from weapons explodes.  Deaths not known.

January 3, 1961, Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA:  Reactor goes out of control. Three killed

October 5, 1966. Detroit, Michigan, USA:  Core meltdown, after coolant malfunction. No casualties.

January 21, 1969. Lucens Vad, Switzerland:  Reactor malfunction.  Heavy radiation leak into underground caverns.  No casualties.

October 17, 1969. Saint Laurent, France: Partial meltdown.  No casualties.

1974, Shevchenko, USSR:  Reactor explosion, Details not known.

March 22, 1975. Decatur, Alabama, USA:  Fire in reactor controls. No casualties.

March 28, 1979. Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, USA:  Core meltdown Decontamination of reactor still continuing.

August 7, 1979. Erwin, Tennessa, USA: Reactor malfunction and uranium leaks. Almost 1000 persons contaminated.

April 25, 1981. Tsuruga, Japan:  Reactor malfunction.  About 45 persons contaminated.

September 23, 1983. Constituents, Argentina: Reactor accident. One person killed.

January 6, 1986. Core, Oklahoma, USA:  Cylinder containing nuclear fuel explodes. One person killed, 100 injured.

April 26, 1986. Chernobyl USSR:  Coolant malfunction leading to core meltdown and fire belching radioactive wastes all over Europe.  At least 31 persons killed, thousands of food contaminated and more than 1000 square miles of land made unfit for cultivation.

 7) Alternatives to unsafe reactors and sites:

Dr.Alving Weinberg, a long time supporter of Nuclear power has recently admitted that Rasmassens’ famous risk assessment did not take into account the social costs of Nuclear accidents.  The Chernobyl accident proved that accidents are inevitable; nuclear hazard is somehow different from traffic accidents and the like, the notion of interedioting land with an unseen agent is now viewed by the public as particularly threatening.  Dr.Winberg admitted that it would be claiming too much to insist on the impossibility of an accident that breaches the containment vessel. “The Chance of a melt-down in a US reactor by 2000 is estimated at one in 12. can reactors be designed for which the probability of a serious accident is zero (i.e.) a reactor whose safety depends not on the active intervention of safety systems but on the physical principals of  its inability to fail?  The Uranium fuel is automatically cooled in the inherently safe reactors known as “Modular High Temperature Gas Reactor” “(MHTGR)” and “Process Inherent Ultimately Safe Reactor” (PIUS).  Instead of planning for the conventional reactors, all the experts must concentrate their efforts on developing these reactors as early as possible.

In the meantime, if conventional reactors are to be built, they can be processed only through public support.  It must be justly stated that current conditional assurances on reactor safety exclude the possibility of human failure, sabotage, terrorist and enemy attacks.  Hence nuclear safety has become a matter of faith.  Since the claims of the proponents of Nuclear power failed to ensure absolute safety at many plants there is an urgent need for new strategies that provide additional and that too design-in-dependent margins of safety.  Buffer zones provide one of the alternatives.  They not only minimize the residual health risks from accidents but also eliminate the danger that a future change in public perception might demand for closure of the reactors on grounds of safety.  In selecting alternate sites for the reactors if people are not taken into confidence the authorities will be simply gambling with public funds and lives of the people yet to be borne!

A 15 MWe inherently safe reactor, a high-temperature, gas-cooled one, worked successfully for two decades in West Germany.  Based on its extensive test results, the US Secretary of Energy proposed in August that a Commercial safe reactor be built with a few modules at Idaho falls.  Instead of relying on the inherently unsafe reactors for its nuclear expansion programmes, the Government must plan to utilize the inherently safe reactors to protect public health and environment.  Since reactor  accidents are expected once in every 4 or 5 years in case of the present generation of reactors whose safety can not be guaranteed against sabotage, human errors, missile-hits etc. the light water reactors must be located underground as suggested by the Scandinavian experts on the sea-coasts to ensure safety of public health and environment and to be in conformity with the ALARA  principle for ensuring minimal dose of radiation exposure since Koodankulam lies in proximity to Sri Lanka that abounds in terrorist activities, it is very difficult to ensure the safety of the reactors.  Under the circumstances the people in most of the adjoining districts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala cannot live in peace.

8) Public debate needed:  In USA for instance, the decisions on safety aspects of reactor siting are made not on the basis of the enormous costs involved but only from the stand point of protection of public health and environment.  In fact, the sponsors of the nuclear plants, in countries like USA and Japan hold public hearings before finalizing the most appropriate site among the different alternates for which environmental impact statements are prepared and circulated among people one month in advance of such a public debate. Unfortunately the atomic energy commission in India plays an apparently self contradictory dual role not only as the promoter of Atomic Energy  but also as its regulator and there by yields to expediency.  Hence its views must be taken with a pinch of salt!

In participatory democracy the people for whose benefit the energy is intended must have a say to determine which alternate source of energy or which alternate location for a reactor would be in the best interests of the nation.  Intellectuals all over the world argue that what degree of nuclear risk can be tolerated by a society in relation to the alternate sources of energy and alternate locations for reactors is a political decision and such risk assessment is a not just a technical matter to be decided by the nuclear scientists alone!  Some environmental experts believe that while the application of ecologically sound principles ensures proper siting of the reactor as an asset to society, wrong siting of the reactor based upon purely economic considerations can often make the reactor a Neutron bomb, atleast in its damaging consequences during incredible accidents.

Under these circumstances, it is incumbent on the people to exercise their right to information and decision-making on the siting of nuclear power plants so that development takes place without destruction of human and naturl resources.  In the wake of Chernobyl disaster the Prime Minister has demanded for a public debate on the safety problems of Nuclear plants.  Hence it is necessary that experts and general public discuss about the siting of the proposed Nuclear reactor at different places.

9) Conclusion: Under articles 48 (A) and 51 (A) of the constitution on environment both the citizens and the Government have duty to protect the environment of man.  On a complaint from the citizens the Union Ministry of Environment can prohibit the siting of hazardous industries in the ecologically sensitive areas.  The site selection committee for Nuclear plants might have not prepared the environmental impact analysis reports for making a comparative study of the costs and benefits for different sites.  In countries like Japan and USA such reports are placed before the public for their constructive suggestions before a final decision is taken in the matter by the Government.  Unfortunately neither the people nor the concerned environmental experts from the Universities are taken into confidence in India.  In the present case, the request of the Government for a Nuclear power plant in the state and their demand for locating the same at a particular place is not only suicidal but also violates the constitution.  In the absence of statesmen people must work as the ears and eyes of a democratic Government so that leaders would not unknowingly pledge the health and welfare of the present and future generations of people in a Faustian bargain and that too without holding a public debate on the advantages and disadvantages of Nuclear plants and their siting in different places.

ECONOMICS OF NUCLEAR ENERGY PLATNS

Bombay, Oct 24 (Unifin):  Regarding the economics of nuclear power for future plants in India, the following table gives the estimated cost per KW installed and cost of generation based on 1988 prices and also for completion by 1997-98 taking into account escalation.

Particulars

500 MW sites

235 MW sites

1988 Prices

Cost per KW installed

Unit generation cost

 

Rs.15,600

Rs.0.80

 

Rs. 17,000

Rs.0.85

For 1997-98 completion:

Cost per KW installed

Unit generation cost

 

Rs. 20,500

Rs.1.30

 

Rs.22,800

Rs.1.35

Prices are indicated by Department of Atomic Energy

References:

  1. Proceedings of the Int. Conf. on peaceful uses of Atomic Energy. IAEA Vienna (1972)
  2. Principles and Standards of Reactor Safety, Int. Atom. Energy Agency Vienna (1973)
  3. Priest. J.”Problems of our Physical Environment” Addison-Wesley, London (1973)
  4. Wilson, R and Jones, W.J. “Energy, Ecology and The Environment”, Academic Press, N.Y. (1974)
  5. Lewis, EE Nuclear Power Reactor Safety, Johnwiley (1977)
  6. Health implications of Nuclear power production, WHO Copenhagen (1978)
  7. The Environmental Impacts of Production and use of Energy Nuclear Energy, UNEP, Nairobi (1979)
  8. Environmental Impact Assessment Review (Special issue on Nuclear fuel cycle) vol.3 No.s 2 and 3 Plenum publishing corpn.
  9. Openshaw, S. “Nuclear power-siting and safety”, A British publication (1984)
  10. Glasstone, S, and Sesonke, A “Nuclear Reactor Engineering van Nostrand (1986)
  11. Size-well.B Probabilistic safety study by westing house corpn (1982)
  12. MARC the NRPB methodology for assessing the radiological consequences of accidental releases of activity, by Clarke & Kelly, HMSO (1981)