In this period of ever-increasing Climate Crisis, when many voices pushing nuclear fission power as a supposedly zero-carbon safe’ energy are being heard, it is fitting to remember some of the catastrophic disasters of the nuclear power industry. Particularly when we are standing close to 11th March 2023, when one of the worst disasters took place in the Fukushima prefecture, in Japan 12 years ago. Just about 37 years ago, on April 26, 1986, in the then Soviet Union, one of the four 1000 MW nuclear fission reactors in the Chernobyl nuclear power station started to go out of control, becoming possibly the worst industrial disaster in human history, in terms of its toll on human lives and health. Ironically, the plant operators were trying to demonstrate one of the claimed ‘safety features’ of using the inertial energy of the spinning systems to supply crucial cooling power during the transition due to a power failure and switchover to backup power. Instead, all hell broke loose. The complex control systems comprising the graphite moderators, boron carbide control rods, Xenon 135 build up and decay, unexpected power fluctuations quickly took all means of control out of the hands of the desperate crew. The rest is disastrous history. The radioactive fallout spread quickly throughout Europe and beyond. There is no exact or agreed upon figure of human costs in terms of deaths and serious diseases like cancer, but a study by three scientists published in 2009, by the New York Academy of Sciences, estimated the total death figures in those years to be about 985,000! No one is sure how close or off that mark is, but it brings home the point about the massive risks.
Twelve years ago, on the 11th of March 2011, ‘all hell broke loose, again’ in the Pacific coast of Japan. A huge Tsunami, triggered by the gigantic Tohuku earthquake, which swept away towns and villages, also hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants on the coast, overwhelming the defensive sea walls. What followed is now well known to the whole world, as the live television coverage of the apocalyptic events streamed into all homes across the globe. Three of the six boiling-water nuclear reactors went completely out of control into meltdown, spreading deadly radioactive materials. Lakhs of people were evacuated, huge areas became uninhabitable for decades or even centuries, massive radioactive water was (and is still being) dumped into the Pacific Ocean, causing untold damage to marine life. And that disaster is still unfolding 12 years down the line, with no certainty about when the technologically and financially sound Japanese government and the corporate world (TEPCO owns and ran the Fukushima Daiichi NPP) will be able to fully contain and decommission these reactors.
One was reminded of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as the only comparably horrendous nuclear disaster, both being classified at the highest rank of Level-7 in the deceptively named “International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale INES”. These are not events, these are apocalyptic events. Many such nuclear disasters happen every decade in many countries operating nuclear power projects, at various smaller scales. And it’s better not to forget the cataclysmic nuclear bombings of Hiroshima (over 1200,000 dead from one small fission bomb) and Nagasaki. That’s not the end of nuclear bombs destructive story, though, as the ‘nuclear powers’ have tested over 2000 of these nuclear weapons of mass destruction in several designated areas of the world. The tales of the major US testing site, the Marshal Islands and how its unsuspecting citizens were used as nuclear-exposure guinea pigs, is another horror story. Similar but lesser known stories exist in the Soviet nuclear test sites of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, Novaya Zemlya and others, the French nuclear test sites of Reggane & Akker in Algeria and the Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific, the British test sites in the Australian territories of Monte Bello, Maralinga, Emu Field, and the Chinese test site of Lop Nur in the Uygur Autonomous region.
But where and how does the story of nuclear bombs and energy start?
There is a millennia long fascination with the atom and its secrets, that began about 2500 years ago, with the Greek philosopher Liucippus being credited with the origin of the ‘atomic philosophy’, and his student Democritus naming the smallest unit of matter as ‘atom’ (meaning indivisible) around 430 BCE (roughly around that same times, Indian philosopher Kanada was also proposing a somewhat similar idea). The modern era of experiments with the innards of the atom – particularly the atomic nucleus, began in the early years of the 20th century, with Ernest Rutherford in Britain experimenting with changing the nucleus (and thus, very properties of the original matter) by bombarding them with energetic ions. After about 40 years of scientific investigations by many scientists, into the secrets of large energy release by radioactive atoms and their nucleus, the four European scientists Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch collectively discovered and understood the process of induced Nuclear Fission in 1938. This was facilitated by Enrico Fermi’s 1934 discovery that neutrons can split the nucleus of atoms. They discovered how to split open the very nucleus of the heaviest radioactive atoms that releases a huge amount of energy and calculated the amount of energy released. In 1942, a team led by the American scientist Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago, first demonstrated the process of slow-neutron induced Nuclear Chain Reaction with Uranium235 (one of the 3 isotopes of Uranium), the basis of all operating nuclear-fission power reactors today. The first human-made self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction based nuclear reactor stared on December 2, 1942. And thus began the so-called Nuclear Age. Simultaneously, the massive US government program to get highly enriched Uranium 235 (the fissile or fissionable isotope of Uranium) from natural Uranium (which has only 0.7% of U-235) and the task of building an atomic bomb (starting from the beginning and continuing today, atomic bomb/power and nuclear bomb/power has been – though wrongly – used synonymously) continued at full speed, resulting in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at first, and then a global nuclear arms race that continues today, including in our own countries in South-Asia.
One has to recollect the historical perspective of the 1930s. All around the world, political tensions were building up dangerously and the second World War was looming on the horizon, with a host of dictatorial and fascist powers trying to change the then established (not just by any means) global order, established after the defeat of Germany in the first world war. So obviously, this new and massively energetic physical process of Nuclear Fission attracted much more than scientific interest. Within a year, the World War broke out, and it was no surprise that the first efforts of this massive new energy release mechanism were targeted towards developing weapons of unimaginable mass destruction. That discovery turned to a curse, and is still hanging over all our heads like a proverbial Damocles’ sword. Today, the world stockpile (from estimates of stocks of the nine nuclear armed countries) of destructive nuclear bombs are about 14,000, with about 10,000 actively deployed by their militaries. More than enough to destroy all life on Earth many times over. A miniature demonstration of that destructive power has been Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Era of honeymoon with Nuclear Power (about 1960—1990)
Even during the war, many scientists, political leaders and others realised the enormous potential of this new energy source, as a large supply of energy to energy hungry industries and societies. Once the War was over, this new fascination with atomic energy started peaking and the experiments to harness the power of the nuclear fission started in victorious allied power countries, particularly in the USSR, the US and the UK. The world’s first commercial nuclear power reactor generating electricity was opened in the erstwhile Soviet Union, in June 1954 in Obninsk, then in the UK at Calder Hall in 1956, followed by the US opening its first commercial power reactor at Shipping port in May 1958. Even before the first nuclear plant became operational, a dream was sold to the people of the Earth, that “Nuclear power will be too cheap to meter” (Lewis Strauss, then chairman of US Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954). This, ironically, now is a recurring taunt to the hugely expensive, controversial and risky nuclear power industry.
The three decades of 1960s to 1980s were called the golden age of nuclear power, and one needs to put that in perspective, too, to understand ‘why’. The world was coming out from the ravages of the second World War. Infrastructure in the developed world were devastated (except in the US), needing massive rebuilding efforts all around, with the Marshall Plan being implemented in Europe. The US became the dominant world power, with the Soviets leading the opposition camp. And both these sides were thoroughly convinced of the ‘huge potential and benefits’ of ‘abundant and cheap’ nuclear power, and were equally convinced that nuclear weapons will determine the power structure of the world from now on. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Europe (also North America to a lesser extent) faced massive air pollution problems due mainly to the huge amounts of coal being burned for electricity and industrial production, also due to the rapidly increasing petroleum burning for transport and heating. The infamous London Smog of December 1952 killed over 12000 residents, and was a haunting recent memory then. The first and second world faced huge air pollution and acid rains, with solar and wind power or any other clean source of power nowhere in sight. So it was no wonder that the apparently clean nuclear power was seen as the solution to both the rising energy needs and the problems of air pollution.
In terms of energy availability too, the whole world faced two big oil shocks during the 1970s Arab-Israel wars, in 1973 and again in 1979. Oil or petroleum, which by then had become a large source of essential energy, became unaffordable, hitting economies all around the globe. Nuclear power was seen as a stable source, as countries in the developed world, like Canada, Australia, US etc had huge reserves of Uranium. Thus, following the mid-1950s first nuclear power plants in Europe and North America, the 1960s and 70s saw an explosion of such NPPs being built all over their territories. Thus, global installed nuclear power capacity reached about 136,000 MW by 1980 (about 7% of global total electricity capacity), rapidly increased to 310,000 MW (11%) in 1985 and then to 458,000 MW (13%) by early 1990. Then Three Mile Island happened in the USA in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster in the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1986, and the nuclear power honeymoon started unravelling.
The winding down process has started
The problems and dangers of nuclear power were evident from the beginning, no less from its intricate association with nuclear bombs. But in the early decades, scientists were confident that these problems can be tackled in time, with new research and developments. Reactors had supposedly ‘fail-safe safety systems’, the radioactive releases were small to begin with, and the occasional accidents were either hidden or underreported by both the governments and the companies involved. Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in March 1979 started changing all that. There were several ‘nuclear accidents’ reported to and listed in the International Atomic Energy Agency database before this, but this was the first reported and recorded case of a feared Core melt-down. The core of Reactor-2 at TMI partially melted but only a small amount of radioactive gases were released, as reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA. One thing is worth noting – all reporting to the IAEA INES are voluntary, meaning whatever and to what extent the accidents will be reported, and their impacts recorded, depends on what the member country (where the accident occurred) choose to report – a very tricky arrangement indeed. And then came the mega accident of Chernobyl in 1986. It needs to be noted that studies of the IAEA INES shows that about 100 significant accidents happened in world’s NPPs from mid-1950s to 2010, before Fukushima happened. And these started right from the dawn of the nuclear age, in 1957, with the Mayak, Kysthym disaster in the erstwhile Soviet Union, in the fuel reprocessing plant. India is also not spared – the Narora near accident, the Rawatbhata accidents point to our vulnerabilities, and the disastrous project of Koodankulam is a ticking (nuclear) time bomb.
With nuclear reactors, it’s not just the major problem of accidents (which can be catastrophic, like Chernobyl or Fukushima), but also the regular release of radioactive contaminants into the environment. Any operating reactor will – in the very process of Uranium fission – generate radioactive by-products in the form of gases and solid particles. This happens throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, from Uranium mining and processing to reactor operation, venting and generation of spent fuel. Millions of tons of comparatively low level radioactive mine tailings and radioactive process liquids are left after the mining, as the occurrence of Uranium in ores is generally a low percentage. Though of low level radioactivity, these can and do have serious impacts on surrounding populations and animals & plants, as anyone can verify in India, by the Examples of Jaduguda, Turamdih (both in Jharkhand), Tummalapalle, KK Kottala, Mabbuchintalpalle (in Andhra Pradesh) etc. The Uranium fission process generates radioactive gases like Iodine 131, Caesium 137 etc that have ‘half-lives’ (by what time the radioactivity level drops to half) of hours and days to dozens of years. Considering that at least five half-lives (ten is the conservative opinion) are needed for these to become of an ‘acceptable’ level of radiation exposure, the surrounding populations of any NPP are regularly exposed to unacceptable levels. Breathing these highly radioactive gases and the fine radioactive particulates (generally, the shorter the half-life, the stronger is the radiation level) causes the inside tissues of our bodies to get exposed to these dangerous radiations, which can cause a host of serious diseases and even genetic mutations.
On top of all that, the biggest radioactive contaminant is the spent fuel, where both highly radioactive and long-lived contaminants are concentrated. And some of these, like all the Plutomnium239 generated in the world’s approximately 430 nuclear reactors, will remain dangerously radioactive for well over a hundred thousand years, with a half life of about 24,000 years. After about six decades of research and spending many billions of dollars, scientists have not yet found a safe and feasible solution to the mounting problem of safe disposal of radioactive spent fuel. Nor are they any closer to any perceived technological solution than they were 50 or 40 years ago. In the meantime, the world of energy has changed, and changed dramatically in some of its aspects.
Nuclear power has other serious limitations of geography, politics and economics. With its better quality indigenous Uranium ores already exploited or in difficult to access areas, the cost of extracting, refining and fabricating fuel rods have gone up. As per some estimates, India’s indigenous fuel resources cannot run a single-use (breeder reactors are as yet far off) nuclear power program much bigger than 10,000—12,000 MW. This will necessitate importing uranium, as we are already doing in substantial scale. India is already dependent on Russia, Canada, France, Kazakhstan, Australia etc, for nuclear fuel for its operational power plants. Nothing concrete has been done to tackle, even in the medium term, the mounting stockpile of nuclear wastes, particularly the highly radioactive (for a very long time) spent fuel stocks. With additional safety features required as a result of flaws exposed by the massive nuclear accidents, the costs of building new nuclear reactors is going up, and will continue to go up for some time, making these economically uncompetitive by a large margin, while the costs of solar and wind energy keeps falling. Meanwhile, the fears of an ‘Indian Fukushima’ will keep haunting us all.
Society needs Energy, Not nuclear-fission technologies. There are safer choices today.
The world today is very different from what we had in the 1960s and 1970s. We are now well aware of the enormous dangers of the nuclear fission route to power. We have faced two mega nuclear disasters, and have seen that in spite of their huge financial, technological and managerial capacities, neither the Soviet Union nor Japan or the US, have been able to control these nuclear catastrophes. And it’s now clear, that no conceivable near-future technology exists to do that kind of work. We have also arrived at a very different techno-economic reality in terms of renewable power and energy sources. The technical capability of commercially available Solar photo-voltaic panels today gives us about 20% efficiency, compared to 8-10% a decade or so ago. And poised to grow quickly to over 25%. The cost of solar PV generated electricity has dropped over 16 times over the last 15 years. Today Solar PV generated electricity in good solar areas cost about Rs.2.60 to 2.90 Kwh/unit, compared to Rs.3.50-4.50 from new coal power projects and anywhere between Rs.6-9 from new nuclear power projects (if all subsidies are calculated). Wind power from good sites also cost around Rs.3.00—3.50 per unit. Both solar PV and wind power has some small adverse impacts on the local ecology, and for the centralized models – on local populace. But none of these are inherent to the technology or pose any technological challenges, though social reorientation is needed to include communities in the benefits, which is not possible with nuclear or coal power. And neither Solar nor wind energy plants will explode, spreading radioactive contaminants or toxic chemicals over tens of thousands of square kilometres, forcing lakhs of people to be evacuated or thousands to be killed by cancer or other deadly diseases.
How critically dependent is the world, and India in particular, on the available nuclear power today? The total installed electricity generating capacity in the world, at the end of 2021, was about 10,865 GW. Out of this, installed nuclear power capacity was around 375 GW, or about 3.45%, while total installed capacity of Renewables was about 1,842 GW (including about 1,186 GW of hydropower, this will rise to about 3028 GW, or 8 times that of nuclear fission power capacity). While fossil fuel based power capacity still making up over 40% of the total, at around 4,437 GW. The share of total generated nuclear power is a little higher than this, though, compared to total power generated. We in India have a total installed electricity capacity (of all types) of around 411 GW, of which all the 22 operating nuclear reactors contribute a paltry 6.78 GW, or about 1.65%. About 2000 MW of this nuclear power is the on-now-off-again Koodankulam power plant. In the year 2019 (pre-pandemic and lockdowns), these nuclear power plants produced about 43 billion units (each unit being a KWhr), compared to the total commercial generation of about 1390 billion units, thus contributing to about 3.1% of the generation, with roughly 1.8% of the country-wide installed capacity. At the same time, dozens of existing grid-connected power units had been shut down for lack of demand of electricity, the peak demand at around 200 GW being roughly half of the total installed capacity. At the same time, all renewable energy sources taken together (excluding big hydropower) has produced about 10% of the total generation. And once you consider that nuclear-fission energy is being aggressively promoted in India from the early 1960s, with the first power plant –Tarapur-1, coming online in 1969, this dismal performance over such a long period of time becomes even more pathetic. In contrast, the first large commercial wind power projects in India began in the late 1980s, with an installed capacity by end-2022, of about 42 GW. The first commercial solar power project (just 2 MW capacity) in India began operation in late 2000s in Punjab. In just 15 odd years, India’s installed commercial solar power capacity has reached about 65 GW. Both recent commercial wind and solar power plants are generating power at less than Rs.3.00 per KWHr cost, often less than artificially depressed coal power prices.
In conclusion :
- India now has more installed capacity and generation than is presently in demand, even considering lower Plant Load factors of renewable power, and likely to be surplus for the next 4-5 years’ peak demand as well.
- Nuclear (fission) power generation contributes a small fraction (just over 2%) of our current power consumption.
- Nuclear power has limitations in terms of the availability of Uranium, and the dreamed Breeder cycle of reactors, are still decades away. No one knows if they will be fully safe, cost effective etc.
- Nuclear power has several serious associated radiological pollution threats – both short, long and very long terms, that do not seem to have ready answers, even after 65 years of nuclear power (50 years in India).
- The threat of a nuclear reactor disaster cannot be eliminated, nor can it be managed once it happens, as shown by experiences of ‘advanced countries’.
- Nuclear power currently is one of the most expensive to build, and if all subsidies are taken into account, much costlier than either Solar PV or Wind power. This cost is likely to increase with needed additional safety features.
- Society needs energy, Not new nuclear technologies. Better choices are available;
- Coal has to be phased out in a planned manner, as early as possible, to avoid the worst impacts of – not only climate change, but also of critical air pollution and water shortage.
- In today’s commercial energy market in India, Solar PV is the cheapest and easiest option for any new power capacity, and costs about half the amount of per MW installed cost than new nuclear. Wind power too is close to this lowest price.
- Both solar and Wind power has some environmental and social impacts, but these are policy and implementation issues, not technological challenges. By all studies, Solar and wind power also has the least external cost now.
- Solar and wind power do not have any catastrophic accident risks. The greatest risks are limited to some possible bird hits, mild local temperature variations, at its rare worst – a few people getting hit by a torn wind turbine blade. Almost all these small risk factors can be minimised.
- Unlike nuclear (and coal or big hydropower), solar, wind, micro-hydro, small biomass etc power systems are modular, and are very amenable to community (or even family) owned and controlled power systems, that can be integrated with the power grids. These can revitalise stagnating rural incomes and economies.
So, let’s learn from Fukushima, and Chernobyl, adapt to the 21st century world and abandon the tried and failed 20th century nuclear-fission power system, and transition to a cleaner, safer, cheaper renewable power world. The world will be much better off without the ever-present threats of other Fukushimas.
Soumya Dutta, works with MAUSAM (Movement for Advancing Understanding on Sustainability And Mutuality), and SAPACC (South Asian Peoples’ Action on Climate Crisis)
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