The Atomic Energy Act of 1962 specifically empowers the central government not to divulge information regarding “An existing or proposed plant used or proposed to be used for the purpose of producing, developing or using atomic energy.”

This draconian law has deterred many campaigners from exposing chinks in the nuclear power industry. One of the leading activists on this front was the journalist Praful Bidwai, who tragically passed away last year. He was a founding member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP). He wrote a series of articles in the Times of India in 1982, exposing how workers at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) received dosages of radiation over 5 rads a year – a limit imposed by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) itself. His articles were based on confidential documents and investigations of the DAE. However, the DAE Chairman held a press conference where he didn’t deny the radiation hazards but argued that they didn’t have any harmful health impacts.

A distinguished precursor was a long article by the American journalist and anti-nuclear activist Paul Jacobs, who visited India during the emergency in 1976. He was the co-founder of Mother Jones journal, which still exists and his article in the inaugural issue that year was titled “What You Don’t Know May Hurt You”. It was also about the shoddy operation of the Tarapur plant. (Disclosure: I helped Jacob speak to India’s nuclear experts.)

He was tipped off at home when an anonymous employee of General Electric dropped off a dossier at his house containing details of the defective US reactor design at TAPS. The most shocking revelation was his description of how workers were stirring radioactive waste with long bamboo poles, fully exposed to radiation. Since it appeared during the emergency, it was all the more sensational. Pro-DAE hacks, including a senior editor at the Times of India, wrote articles denying that Jacobs had even visited the plant.

Jacobs died two years later. He was the subject of the 1980 documentary titled Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, which investigated the health impact on residents of reckless nuclear tests by the US in the Nevada desert. He believed his cancer, which would claim his life during the making of the documentary, had been caused by his work around exposing the dangers of nuclear power and weapons.

This March, David Schlissel, Director of Resource Planning Analysis of the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis  (IEEFA), published his scathing report titled Bad Choice: The Risks, Costs and Viability of Proposed US Nuclear Reactors in India.

In an article based on it, he first dealt with the Kovvada project in Andhra Pradesh, which employs a new, untested Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor or ESBWR design from General Electric-Hitachi. It has never been used at a commercial nuclear plant and isn’t being built anywhere else.

Experience with such one-off plants shows that they end up costing much more than anticipated and encounter problems during construction and operation.

He lists difficulties with such technologies in the US and Europe:

  • The estimated cost of the four new design Westinghouse A1000 reactors under construction in the US has increased by more than 20 per cent since construction began three years ago, and the reactors’ estimated in-service dates have slipped by about three years.  Additional cost increases and schedule delays at these projects are likely, if not certain.
  • Even more striking is that the estimated costs of building the new design European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs) in Finland and France have more than tripled since construction began. The scheduled completion of the plant in Finland has slipped by nine years, from 2009 to 2018, while the scheduled opening of the EPR in France has slipped by six years.

(On May 3 according to the Telegraph, France's ailing nuclear giant, Areva, faced a major scandal after the country’s nuclear watchdog confirmed there have been “irregularities” in 400 parts produced in its reactors since 1965, and that “around 50 are currently in service in France’s nuclear power plant fleet”.

France’s independent Nuclear Safety Authority said the “irregularities” were listed in an audit it had ordered from Areva after it detected a “very serious anomaly" in a reactor vessel in the country’s Flamanville European [internationally known as Evolutionary] Pressurised Reactor (EPR) nuclear plant, the same model Britain plans to use for two new plants at Hinkley Point.)

Schlissel’s first conclusion is that the Kovvada plant will prove very expensive and the first units are unlikely to generate electricity on a commercial scale till 2031. Land acquisition hasn’t even begun yet. Meanwhile, the bugbear of the US-India nuclear accord – the waiver of liability on the part of US suppliers of technology for nuclear accidents – is deterring GE from investing in India.

Secondly, without very large subsidies, the price of power at Kovvada in the first year of operation will range between Rs 19.80 to Rs 32.77 per kilowatt hour, kWh, a unit of power). This is some five to nine times the current cost of power in India.

Thirdly, the total investment will be between Rs 4 lakh crores ($60 billion) and Rs 6.8 lakh crores ($100 billion). As Schlissel states, “It is questionable as to whether the Indian government will be able to finance such a project (along with the one at Mithi Virdi in Gujarat) while continuing to pursue its current investments in coal mines, coal-rail freight, renewable resources and energy efficiency.”

Lastly, it carries a high degree of operational risk since there is no previous experience of running an ESBWR plant. There is no telling how well the reactors will operate and how much power they will actually generate. These unknowns will impact the cost of such electricity.

The Mithi Virdi project poses similar risks since it envisages building six reactors, once again not using a design which is yet in use anywhere in the world. This design has faced significant cost escalations and construction delays when reactors were being built in the US and China.

According to Schlissel, Mithi Virdi, which employs an untried Westinghouse A1000 design, will be very expensive to build and its first unit is unlikely to go on stream before 2029. Considering that the land hasn’t been acquired yet and a contract hasn’t been signed, that looks unlikely.

He believes that the cost will be between Rs 11.18 to Rs 22.12 per kWh, or three to five times the current cost of generating power in India from coal. Its construction will cost somewhere between Rs 2.4 lakh crore ($34 billion) to Rs 4.5 lakh crore ($68 billion).

He notes that in contrast to the cost of building new reactors, solar tariffs in India have declined by 65 per cent just since 2010, and further steep declines are expected in the years ahead. Already, costs have dropped to around Rs 4.50 a unit.  IEEFA sees solar costing less than Rs 3 by the time the first units at Mithi Virdi will be on stream.

“The main conclusion of our report,” concludes Schlissel, “is that neither nuclear power project is economically or financially viable, both would take much longer than expected to build, both would result in higher bills for ratepayers, and both—if they are built—might not work as advertised.

“Investing in new solar photovoltaic capacity would be a much lower-cost option, would be significantly less harmful to the environmental, and would be a far more sustainable alternative to Mithi Virdi and Kovvada.”

Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana, who are with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and members of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, broadly concur with this view in this article.

They point out how India’s DAE  is committed to the separation of plutonium from the spent fuel from nuclear reactors (dubbed “reprocessing”). “It has also pursued the construction of a special kind of nuclear power plant called a fast breeder reactor that makes more plutonium than it consumes as fuel. Most countries with nuclear energy have never gone down this route; of the few countries that have tried, most have abandoned it.

“Nonetheless, India continues to pursue this goal despite the fact that the two technologies underlying this way of generating nuclear energy, reprocessing and fast breeder reactors, have proven hugely expensive and highly problematic.”

In the last of a four-part article in in December 2015,   investigative reporter Adrian Levy  and R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington  caution against the lax security around India’s nuclear power plants. 

At the Kalpakkam plant in Tamil Nadu in October 2014, a head constable from the Central Industrial Security Force opened fire on his colleagues, killing three of them. He was disturbed, but the episode demonstrated what officials inside and outside India “depict as serious shortcomings in the country’s nuclear guard force, tasked with defending one of the world’s largest stockpiles of fissile material and nuclear explosives.”

In 2007, similar lapses had occurred when an employee at the Kaiga nuclear reactor deliberately poisoned several others, subjecting them to a radiation dose 150 times that in a chest x-ray. The authors believe that an estimated 90 to 110 Indian nuclear bombs are stored in six or so government-run sites patrolled by the same security force, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent think-tank, and Indian officials.

Within the next two decades, as many as 57 reactors could also be operating under the force’s protection, along with the four plants where the spent nuclear fuel is dissolved in chemicals to separate out plutonium to make new fuel or be used in nuclear bombs.

When US officials made their first-ever visit to the restricted Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, where  India makes plutonium for its nuclear weapons, their observations about its security practices were unsettling. “Security at the site was moderate,” a cable from November 2008, approved by embassy Chargé d’Affaires Stephen White, told officials in Washington.
Identification checks at the front gate were “quick but not thorough”, and visitor badges lacked photographs, meaning they were easy to replicate or pass around. A security unit at the centre’s main gate appeared to be armed with shotguns or semi-automatic Russian-style rifles, the cable noted, but as the US delegation moved towards the Dhruva reactor, where the nuclear explosive material is actually produced, there were no “visible external security systems”.

The authors report how an industrialist who provides regular private advice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about domestic and foreign strategic issues said in an interview that due to India’s poor roads and rail links, “our nuclear sector is especially vulnerable. How can we safely transport anything, when we cannot say for certain that it will get to where it should, when it should”.

The adviser said that as a result, fissile materials in India have been moved around in unmarked trucks that “look like milk tankers”, without obvious armed escorts, to avoid the consternation that would ensue if a security convoy attempted to navigate traffic-choked roads.

The authors interviewed a British Foreign Office official, who describing the current American mindset, said: “Nothing can be allowed to get in the way of investment in the capacious Indian market. India has effectively bought itself breathing space over a lot of concerning issues, especially nuclear security, by opening itself up for the first time to significant trades with the US and Europe.”  The financial gains, he said, are “eye-watering”.

According to the US Commerce Department, trade with India grew from $19 billion in 2000 to more than $100 billion in 2014. US exports exceeded $38 billion — including substantial new US arms shipments — supporting 181,000 American  jobs. Indian direct investment in the US totalled $7.8 billion while US investments in India reached $28 billion.
Washington, the British official explained, does not wish to provoke a spat over nuclear security simply because doing so could threaten this lucrative trade, which benefits many US companies.

PS: On May 12, Reuters reported that the French nuclear power company EDF will deliver a proposal to the Indian government by year's end to build six nuclear reactors in what could be the world's biggest nuclear deal.

EDF in January announced a preliminary agreement with the Nuclear Power Corp of India Ltd to build six EPR nuclear reactors at Jaitapur in western India.