Considerations for safer and less costly nuclear energy

Continuing with the focus on nuclear energy while the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rages across the globe, highlighting starkly, at the same time, the implications of climate change, the point of departure here is that nuclear is the only clean energy source that generates electricity 24X7. A single uranium fuel pellet contains the energy equivalent of 1 tonne of coal or around 150 gallons of oil. Besides, nuclear power is also sustainable energy given that there is enough uranium available worldwide to fuel reactors for more than a century.

The first consideration in setting up a nuclear power plant (NPP) is that it operate subsequently in a totally safe manner, as ensured by its design. Major accidents like at Three Mile Island in the US (1979), Chernobyl in the ex-USSR (1986), the fire at Narora (1993) and the impact of the 2004 tsunami at the Madras atomic power station, both these in India, and at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, have all resulted in safety reviews leading to augmentation of safety measures as well as regulatory requirements in the matter.

Following the major disaster at Fukushima, the nuclear industry worldwide began implementing safety enhancement measures to ensure that NPPs have the additional capacity to respond to natural calamities like the tsunami that hit the coast of Japan. As part of the enhanced safety startegy, the nuclear industry made provisions for additional sources of water and power to keep the reactor cool in case of electricity failure as it occured at Fukushima following the tsunami.

Moreover, additional generators, batteries, water pumps and other equipment have been provided at NPPs to respond to emergencies. Also, regional emergency response centres maintain equipment that can be quickly despatched to any nuclear unit in case of emergencies.

In fact, the putting in place of these safety enhancements after Fukushima has led to sustained high levels of safety everywhere, and which are a continuous ongoing process under the close supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The inextricable linkage between climate change and clean sustainable energy has been pointed out by the International Energy Agency (IEA), according to which the global nuclear capacity needs to more than double by 2050 to reach 25 per cent if the world has to stay within 2 degrees Centigrade of warming. It is at this point of the link that there appears the crucial block of the high costs of building conventional nuclear reactors, and throws up the challenge to look for designing less expensive alternatives like reactors based on thorium fuel, of which India, for instance, has abundant reserves.

Conventional NPPs require a huge core, expensive containment vessels as well as extensive cooling systems to ensure that the solid fuel core does not overheat leading to a runaway reaction and eventual disastrous meltown. These are all components of a technology that make it hugely expensive, unlike, for instance, solar and wind energy where costs have reduced over time leading to their widespread diffusion.

In the case of India’s experience with safety measures, the Kudankulam NPP in Tamil Nadu state, constructed in agreement with the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, is equipped with state-of-the-art safety mechanisms with unque features that make the reactors foolproof. The AES 92 reactors installed at Kudankulam, with a modern design developed by Russia over a period lasting more than a decade, have an optimised balance of both active and passive safety systems to provide a double layer of protection. According to Rosatom, who are the equipment suppliers, the key to preventing an apocalypse in the event of a core meltdown is the ‘molten core catcher’ – a mandatory safety system included in the Kudankulam project’s basic supply package.