Recent developments regarding the Fusion Nuclear Reactor has been very encouraging. If the project results in success, the next few decades will surely leapfrog humanity in achieving its energy needs. But until then, I believe, fission power can provide for a safe and efficient alternative to conventional and renewable sources of power. About 72% of Indian electricity is based on coal and gas. This simply means that most of the electricity we produce comes from the most hazardous sources. On the other hand, nuclear power has only 2% share in total energy supply of the country. In this piece, I argue, why the hate towards Fission Power is misguided and why India should make Fission based nuclear power a central part of her energy security policy.
It is human nature to resist change. Anything that tries to change our beliefs or puts us on the back foot is bound to attract opposition. In the case of energy, we can take the example of 16th century Britain as there was vehement opposition when firewood costs went up and people were practically forced to switch to coal.
Fast forward to the present day, nuclear-fission energy is analogous to the coal of 16th century. Environmentalists condemn nuclear energy on two grounds. It uses radioactive fuel and supposed problem of nuclear waste disposal. In my opinion, this overestimated risk assessment of nuclear fission is misplaced. Nuclear fission produces efficient and significantly low-carbon baseload energy and it should be humanity’s answer to the problems created by more environmentally calamitous energy production methods.
Now, I am not preaching nuclear fission-based energy as the ultimate panacea. It has its share of disadvantages, but the net benefits far outweigh the costs. The most pre-eminent among the benefits is the production of energy which is without any carbon burning. It is rather ironic, that on one hand we want to de-carbonise and bring down our emissions, and on the other, we oppose nuclear energy which has lower net carbon output than even renewable sources of energy. Firstly, if we try and dig deeper to understand these energy production processes we find that nuclear energy is the cleanest of them all. Its carbon production is lower than even solar-based power if we factor in solar-panel manufacture and the huge area any solar parks take up. India desperately needs better air quality; she also needs a lot of energy for her growth. If the current trend of energy production is to continue, we will not be doing justice to our future generations.
Secondly, operational capacity factor of nuclear plants is highest in comparison to any other energy source like renewables or fossil fuels. Simply put, capacity factor is a measurement of the actual energy production time of any power plant. There are clouds? No problem. There’s no wind? No worries. Not enough rain? A hydropower dam might reduce its power output in this case but nuclear plants have no issue.
To help elucidate the point, let us look at relevant data from USA from April 2020. An average nuclear plant in the USA had a mean capacity factor of 93.5%. On the other hand, hydroelectric plants were at 39.1%, solar at 24.5%, and wind at 34.8%. This means that for 341 out of 365 days in a year, nuclear plants were up and running whereas hydroelectric dams were running for just 141 days a year, and solar plants, owing to the varied availability of sunlight, for a mere 91 days in a year. Therefore, the case for nuclear energy’s stability and reliability is the strongest.
Thirdly, it releases significantly less radiation in environment compared to coal – which, to mention again, is the biggest energy source in India. At the outset, the above statement looks paradoxical to most, as it is not known nor is it generally taught. The fact is non-nuclear energy sources release radiations. In fact, coal is the worst offender. Since it is extracted from the earth, it contains substantial volume of the radioactive elements like uranium and thorium. What happens with burning coal is that most of the organic material gets gasified and the residual inorganic material, known as fly ash is generated. Now, India in 2019 burned 585,000,000 tonnes of coal. On the global level, 5,407,000,000 tonnes of coal was burned, which produced so much fly ash that coal, not nuclear fuel is the biggest source of radioactivity in the environment. And please keep in mind, that unlike spent nuclear fuel which is kept in safe facilities, many kilometres underground, most of the fly ash simply flies into the air.
To put into perspective, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s had the view that high-grade naturally occurring uranium mines might be in short supply in the country, and they actually considered extracting weapons grade uranium from the huge supply of fly ash produced by burning coal. In 2007, China did something similar in its Yunnan province thanks with about 5.3 million metric tons of brown-coal fly ash. If we dig deeper, the Chinese fly ash averages about 0.4 pounds of Triuranium Octoxide (U3O8) – a uranium compound – per metric ton. Simple arithmetic shows that this is about 953 Tonnes of Triuranium octoxide. Now, by employing high school-level chemistry with respect to their atomic weight, this results in about 807.5 tonnes of pure Uranium. A 1000 MWe pressurized water nuclear reactor requires just 27 Tonnes of Uranium every year. I would like you all to reflect on how much radioactive compounds we are emitting in the air, and how much cleaner, efficient and environmentally responsible nuclear fuel can be.
Now, let us look at the downsides – at least, what we ‘perceive’ as downsides. One relates to the risk of accidents and the other to nuclear waste disposal. Till date, there have been 3 large-scale nuclear-energy related accidents since the 1950s. They are: Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, USA.
Studies by NASA scientists suggest that even at the worst case, a nuclear plant accident is less destructive than other major industrial accidents. They go on to say that the total number of climate-change and pollution-related deaths that could be prevented by switching to nuclear power are immense. In fact if the reverse were to be true, that is, if we replace the current and forecasted world nuclear power capacity until 2050 with natural gas, it would cause an additional 420,000 deaths, and replacing it with coal will cause, a whopping 7 million additional deaths. Moreover, the study focused strictly on deaths, not long-term health issues that might shorten lives, and the authors did not attempt to estimate potential deaths tied to climate change.
Major Nuclear Accidents
Firstly, the 1979 Three-mile accident in Pennsylvania, officially caused no deaths. Though it did release some radiation in the surrounding population.
Approximately 2 million people around Three Mile Island Reactor 2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only about 0.01 millisievert above the usual background dose. Exposure from a chest X-ray is about 0.06 millisievert and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 1-1.25 millisievert per year… In spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Sivert (Sv) is a unit of measurement for radiation exposure. Its one-thousandth part is a millisievert. When someone undergoes a full body CT scan, they are exposed to about 10-30 mSv.
Secondly, the Chernobyl accident of 1986 can unarguably be called the worst nuclear accident in the history. Twenty-nine disaster relief workers died of profound radiation exposure in the immediate fallout of the accident. But in the subsequent 3 decades, UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) which has senior scientists of myriad scientific domains coming from the 27 member states assessed the effects on health from Chernobyl accident. They have identified no long-term health adversity to populations around Chernobyl, except for thyroid cancers in residents who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident and drank milk contaminated with Iodine-131 (131I), and were not evacuated. If we look at the 2008 report, UNSCEAR reports about 6,500 excess cases of thyroid cancer in the region of Chernobyl, with 15 deaths. There is no such increase in the adults. “The average effective doses”, the UNSCEAR goes on to say, “due to both external and internal exposures, received by members of the general public during 1986-2005 [were] about 30 mSv for the evacuees, 1 mSv for the residents of the former Soviet Union, and 0.3 mSv for the populations of the rest of Europe.”
For some of us, the statistics related to Chernobyl disaster mentioned in this article might seem intentionally curtailed. After all, the media coverage and the recent Netflix series portrayed it as an unparalleled catastrophe. Yet, all the data cited in this article comes from credible, peer-reviewed sources, and the international scientific agency of the United Nations. All these points to the fact that even in a worst-case scenario at a nuclear plant – when there is a complete meltdown and subsequent fallout of the radioactive material – it is by far less destructive than the other major industrial accidents. How can we forget the Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1984? 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a unit, making pesticides. About 3,800 people lost their lives. Yet, we do not see pesticide plants draw similar stigma. Then, the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure in China where 26,000 people lost their lives. “Measured as early deaths per electricity units produced, the Chernobyl facility (9 years of operation, total electricity production of 36 GWe-years, 31 early deaths) yields 0.86 death/GWe-year),” is what UNSCEAR’s the then (during 1986) chairman Dr Zbigniew Jaworowski concludes. He further goes on to add that, “This rate is lower than the average fatalities from [accidents involving] a majority of other energy sources. That is, the death rate at Chernobyl stands at 9 times less than liquefied gas… and a staggering 47 times less when compared to hydroelectric stations.”
Thirdly, shifting our focus to Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi accident in March 2011 was a result of a major earthquake and a subsequent tsunami. The meltdown of the 3 reactors at the plant can be attributed to the fact that the tsunami washed out the power supply and cooling systems thereby breaching the confinement of reactors. Even though 154,000 people were evacuated from about a 19 km perimeter around the power plant, radiation beyond the actual power station campus was limited. If we look at the report submitted by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), it mentions, “no early radiation induced health effects were observed among workers or members of the public that could be attributed to the accident…given the low levels of doses reported among members of the public, the conclusions of this report are in agreement with those of UNSCEAR to the United Nations General Assembly.” The report further quotes the UNSCEAR, where the UNSCEAR found that “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public and their descendants” (which was reported within the context of the health implications related to “levels and effects of radiation exposure due to the nuclear accident after the 2011 great east-Japan earthquake and tsunami”). When we look at the external radiation exposure from Fukushima, we find that 2/3rd residents received an external radiation dose within the normal internationally accepted limit of 1 mSv per year, 98% had an exposure of under 5 mSv/year, and just 10 people had an exposure in excess of 10 mSv.
On the aspect of nuclear waste disposal, I believe, given the current available technology it is more of a political problem than being a technological one.
The last complaint on nuclear energy is that it has high costs. I believe whether or not nuclear power will have high or low costs will ultimately depend on the aspect of economies-of-scale and markets. However, if we factor in the external costs of coal and natural gas with their air pollution and subsequent pulmonary problems, destruction of forests for mining or if we take into account the fact that solar panels are themselves non-recyclable and have huge carbon-footprint during production, we would find that nuclear energy is actually cheaper than them.
At last, I would like to say that Nuclear is not the only answer for a prosperous and sustainable world. New renewable methods have their place too. But nuclear energy deserves a better and higher place. We are a scientific civilisation, we should rise up from prejudices and fears, and embrace this clean, reliable and given the latest technology ‘safer’ fuel.
Astitav Khajuria is currently studying for his Master’s degree of Public Policy from National Law School, Bangalore. He has a background in Biotechnology from his undergraduate studies. Astitav likes to explore science and technology’s interplay with government and society at large. He can be reached at email@example.com
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of NLSIU, Lokniti or its members.