Nuclear Energy, its importance to India and World and Liability Law
Every single atom in the universe carries an unimaginably powerful battery within its heart, called the nucleus. This form of energy, often called Type-1 fuel, is hundreds of thousands, if not million, times more powerful than the conventional Type-0 fuels, which are basically dead plants and animals existing in the form of coal, petroleum, natural gas and other forms of fossil fuel.
- Nuclear fission– splitting of atoms to produce energy in the form of heat. Uranium a naturally occurring radioactive metal – only element in which fission (splitting off nucleus) can take place easily, setting off a chain reaction or a self-sustained splitting of atoms. The atoms of Uranium are the largest and the heaviest known on earth so its nucleus is unstable. Besides uranium, plutonium can undergo fission.
- Nuclear Fusion- It is a nuclear process, where energy is produced by smashing together light atoms. It is the opposite reaction of fission, where heavy isotopes are split apart. Fusion is the process by which the sun and other stars generate light and heat.
- Fertile material – composed of atoms which do not undergo induced fission themselves but fissile material can be generated from them by irradiation in a nuclear reactor. E.g. U 238 gives plutonium 239, TH-232 gives U-233, and U-234 gives U-235.
- Criticality – When the chain reaction takes place for the first time in a nuclear electricity reactor, it means the reactor has reached its first criticality.
- Moderator – used to slowdown neutrons surrounding the fuel core of the reactor, e.g. Light water, heavy water (D2O).
- Pressurised Heavy Water reactor (PWHR)– Fuel used is natural uranium. Heavy water is both coolant and reactor and is kept under high pressure. Natural Uranium has 2 kinds of isotopes – 99.3 % U-238 and 0.7 % U-235. Former is not fissile. LWR – Light water is used eg. Kundankulam
- Enriched Uranium – when non fissile material is removed from natural uranium. It is achieved by a series of chemical and physical processes in centrifuges. In India it is done at Rare Materials plant, Mysore.
- Nuclear Energy on the Globe –
Currently, there are 443 nuclear reactors in operation in some 30 countries around the world. The largest plant under the construction as of 2021, is situated in Finland with a gross electricity generation capacity of 1,720 megawatts, with a total capacity of about 375 GW (e). The industry now has more than 14,000 reactor-years of experience. Sixty more units, with a total target capacity of 58.6 GW under construction.
- Global Nuclear Power generation- By 2010, global nuclear power generation had reached 2,630 terawatt hours. However, the following year saw output drop due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. Generation continued to decline in the following year but has since recovered. With annual growth, nuclear power generation reached 2,586 terawatt hours in 2019. Currently, nuclear power accounts for roughly 10 percent of global electricity generation.
Meanwhile, the country with highest total electric capacity of nuclear reactors under construction worldwide is China, where almost 16 gigawatts of nuclear reactors were being built.
After Fukushima countries commit to reduce would reduce nuclear energy dependence
|France||78||50(in quick time)|
|Japan||40||0 (by 2040)|
|Germany||18||0 (by 2022)|
Can Japan really turn off its nuclear power?
- Japan got around 30% of its electricity from nuclear power before Fukushima, and was planning to raise that to 50%. Now Japan, a resource-poor nation will be importing 96% of its energy from overseas, mainly fossil fuels. This is expensive, not to speak of ruining all environmental standards.
- Almost all of Japan’s oil and gas is sourced from West Asia, and all of those super tankers traverse the difficult waters of Straits of Hormuz, South and East China Seas having geo-strategic limitations given trust-deficit with China.
- Japan is not an overt nuclear weapons state, but it’s famously known as being a screwdriver’s turn away from being one. It could become a costly security mistake.
Germany’s alternatives are a little better. Moving to fossil fuels will hit at the heart of the green movement which wants Germany to slash its carbon emissions by 2020 to 40% below 1990 levels. Germany already leads in solar panels and wind turbines. But wind turbines are deterrent to wildlife conservationists; they want turbines offshore thus expensive. One needs around 2,000 giant turbines, covering over 350 square miles to generate equivalent power as a 1,154 MW nuclear reactor.
While some other countries are progressing with nuclear power. The UAE plans to build four nuclear power plants of a total 5,600 MW at $20 billion, the first of which will roll out in 2017. South Korea won this contract from under the noses of the market leader, France.
Nuclear Advantages –
- Energy from fossil fuels brought many benefits it unfortunately also has major negative consequences. There are three main categories of negative consequences.
- The first is air pollution: at least five million people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution.
- Fossil fuels and the burning of biomass – wood, dung, and charcoal – are responsible for most of those deaths. Eliminating fossil fuels could cut premature deaths from air pollution by around two-thirds. That’s three to four million deaths per year.
- The second is accidents. This includes accidents that happen in the mining and extraction of the fuels (coal, uranium, rare metals, oil and gas) and it includes accidents that occur in the transport of raw materials and infrastructure, the construction of the power plant, or their deployment.
- For Example: The Kyshtym accident in fuel reprocessing in 1957, the relatively smaller Three Mile Island meltdown (United States), the much bigger Chernobyl accident (USSR, 1986) and the recent Japanese incident at Fukushima. The first accident was purely due to underdeveloped technology, and much of the blame for the next two disasters is attributed to human error. So fear of nuclear power plant being fundamentally prone to disasters is unfounded.
- The third is greenhouse gas emissions: fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gases, the primary driver of climate change. In 2018, 87% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry.
- A nuclear power plant can give you steady, uninterrupted, predictable power unlike many renewable sources. The sun isn’t shining all the time and neither is the wind blowing at optimum generating speeds.
- Both solar and wind power are great for domestic use, but not industrial use.
- Cost of a nuclear power plant incorporates the cost of waste and decommissioning. Unlike fossil fuels – cost in terms of human and environmental damage is incalculable.
- Regulations also had to with the initial nuclear plant set-up. It was only in December 2010 that the old requirement that reactors should not be constructed above ‘active faults’ was replaced with ‘faults.’
- All energy sources have negative effects. But they differ enormously in size: as we will see, in all three aspects, fossil fuels are the dirtiest and most dangerous, while nuclear and modern renewable energy sources are vastly safer and cleaner.
- From the perspective of both human health and climate change, it matters less whether we transition to nuclear power or renewable energy, and more that we stop relying on fossil fuels.
- Nuclear Power in India – India’s nuclear power plants, mostly set up during the sanction years, provide only 3% of the energy mix. After the historic Indo-US nuclear deal 2008, the first two plants at Kundankulam – established with Russian assistance.
In India, where coal mining is dirty business, land acquisition is a problem and imported energy is hopelessly expensive and uncertain, we should not turn our back on nuclear power. Yes, there are costs and risks, but so is fracking for shale gas, tar sands, heck, even oil and natural gas.
- Nuclear fuel of the future: Thorium –
- Thorium is far more abundant, by about 4 times, than the traditional nuclear fuel, Uranium, and occurs in a far purer form.
- IAEA Report (2005) – India might have the largest reserves of Thorium in the world, with over 6, 50,000 tonnes.
- Through U-233 that could be produced from it releases 8 times the amount of energy per unit mass compared to natural U.
- In waste generation also, it has a relative advantage over Uranium.
- Thorium di oxide is much more stable the Uranium di oxide
- Higher thermal conductivity so in case of explosion heat energy will quickly flow out and prevent meltdown.
- Melting point is 500 degrees higher so in case of accident heat energy will flow out quickly and prevent meltdown.
Two reasons it has not been developed–
- First one needs to produce U-233 from Th, and for this, reactors based on the naturally available nuclear fuel material, Uranium-235, are required.
- Recovery of U-233 by large-scale reprocessing of irradiated thorium poses certain practical hurdles.
- Likely presence of hard gamma emitting Uranium-232 during this reprocessing. But according to experts, all these can be overcome technologically.
- Thorium cannot be weaponised and world powers built nuclear energy plants after they built the weapon.
- Nuclear Liability – 2010 Nuclear Liability act –
- a contractual right of recourse
- Operator would have the ability to reclaim any compensation it may pay, from a supplier, if the product supplied has patent or latent defects or the service provided is substandard
- Recourse where the nuclear incident arose out of an act or omission by the supplier with an intent to cause damage
17(b) – It is not consistent with international norms pertaining to nuclear liability?
Department of Atomic Energy has tried to inject realism by defining the duration of the risk to be the product liability period or five years, whichever is less, and a cap on the risk being the value of the contract. Long-standing suppliers of DAE and NPCIL are unhappy to go along even with these caps, as they feel that carrying large contingent liabilities on their books hurts their credit ratings. They, therefore, prefer to move to non-nuclear activities, even though they have acquired valuable nuclear expertise on work done earlier.
Attorney General – since under 17a right to recourse is contractual nuclear liability to supplier it may or may not apply depending upon the contract signed.
Arguments for 17b –
- India had a history of Bhopal gas tragedy so it needs to design laws taking the possibility of such incidents into account.
- A, b and c need to be looked at separately. For eg. c will always remain valid irrespective of a. So b has to be separated from the ‘contractual’ right to recourse.
- In case of accident the damages would be paid by tax payers hence public interest is involved. SC says – statutory right in favour of a party can be waived by such party as long as no public interest or public policy is adversely affected.
- Attorney’s General’s might be a legal opinion but parliament’s law is public policy and a contract – unlawful if against public policy.
- When India built its first nuclear reactor in Tarapur, indemnity protection was handled by the government. Agreement signed first with GE (US), and then Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) led to nuclear power plants in Rajasthan. India did learn a great deal by this collaboration.
- Even where a plant has been supplied by a single entity under a turnkey contract, many vendors, often running into thousands, would have supplied many components.
- During operation, the operator incorporates many changes and modifications to improve the reliability, ease of operation and efficiency. They may or may not have been done in full consultation with the original suppliers of equipment.
- Moreover, nuclear power plants operate for 50 years or longer; our first two Tarapur reactors have in fact completed 43 years.
- Practice in nuclear reactors across the globe –In the above mentioned 441 reactors operating in 29 countries the world over without exception – nuclear liability goes to the operator. The operator, depending on the political system prevailing in the country, covers the risk to the extent possible by insurance. The government of the country takes up the liability beyond the insurance limit; it may also define an upper limit to its own liability, through legislation. Under the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, a multilateral convention, participating states can also share the liability risk to a defined extent.
E.g. U.S government assumed liability beyond the insurable limit up to another limit set under the Price-Anderson Act, passed by the U.S Congress. The limit set under the Price-Anderson Act has been increased progressively from time to time.
Present Scenario –
After 2008, when India signed nuclear co-operation agreements with the U.S, France and Russia and others not even one contract for the import of reactors has been signed to date. With France, discussions have covered technical and safety issues, and commercial discussions are in progress now. In the case of the U.S., the discussions are still on technical and safety issues.
Only with Russia agreement signed in 2008 for Units 3 and 4 at Kudankulam – extension of the agreement covering Units 1 and 2. Prices have been derived for Units 3 and 4 using the earlier price as a basis. The loan agreement also is based on the earlier pattern. Russia does not want the civil nuclear liability law to apply to the proposed units 3 and 4. India has not applied the law to units 1 and 2 (being challenged in the SC) because they were constructed under an agreement that predated the 2010 civil liability law. But India is against exempting units 3 and 4 because this will be seen as discriminating against companies from the U.S. and France.
The 2008 agreement provides that India would extend indemnity protection for Units 3 and 4, on the same lines as Units 1 and 2. If India wants the unit 3 and 4 agreements to comply with it’s 2010 liability legislation- danger that the entire 2008 agreement may be reopened. Legal expert’s opinion – “Polluter Pays” is not true for thermal and other energy as who pays for the CO2 they release?