Unsafe at Any Time

Parsa Sanjana Sajid

yellowcake

Proposed in 1961, groundwork for Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant in Ruppur near Kushtia is now underway with Russian technological assistance and loans. In the intervening 55 years energy needs have exploded along with the desire to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. But during the same period, we have also learned a lot about nuclear energy. This leads us to ask whether the technology is really clean as its supporters claim. In addition, there are concerns about cost, reliability, and timeliness of nuclear reactors, all of which apply to the Ruppur plant.

Fragments recently spoke with M. V. Ramana and Zia Mian about the Ruppur plant.

Mian is a physicist and co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and co-author of Unmaking the Bomb:A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation (MIT Press, 2014). Ramana, is a physicist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin Books, 2012).

The interview has been lightly edited.

Fragments Magazine (FM): What are your concerns about the Ruppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh?

MV Ramana and Zia Mian: There are multiple concerns with regard to Ruppur. Like all nuclear reactors, Ruppur will also be subject to the risk of catastrophic accidents and will produce radioactive waste that will remain hazardous to humans for hundreds of thousands of years. But the short term and definite consequence is that the people of Bangladesh will face high costs of electricity to pay for building the reactors and operating them. The stated figure for Ruppur’s two 1200 MW VVER reactors is $12.65 billion and this is comparable with stated cost figures in other countries. In Turkey, for example, the Akkuyu project involves the construction of four 1200 MW VVER-1200 reactors imported from Russia at a projected cost of $20 to 25 billion. Similarly, Jordan’s agreement with Russia to import two 1000 MW VVER reactors is estimated to cost $10 billion. Thus, building nuclear reactors involves enormous amounts of capital.

However, this figure should not be taken at face value. Because of the long history of cost and time overruns at nuclear power plant projects around the world, such escalations will likely occur at Ruppur too. The costs of India’s Koodankulam reactors, again imported from Russia, went up by more than 70 percent, from the original provision of Rs. 131.71 billion (to an anticipated Rs. 224.62 billion). The Flamanville project in France, the country with the highest proportion of nuclear power in its electricity mix, has gone up from €3.3 billion to €10.5 billion.

The cost of electricity generation in a project with such high capital costs will necessarily be high. For the rate of return of a little over 15 percent as assumed by the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (BERC), the average (or, more accurately, levelized) cost of nuclear power from the Ruppur project at the estimated $12.65 billion would be roughly 32 Taka per unit of electricity (kWh), not including the uncertain costs of dealing with the radioactive waste or of decommissioning the reactor once it has aged and stopped generating power. In comparison, BERC’s estimated tariffs for model wind and utility scale solar power projects are around 11 and 13 Taka per kWh. This cost is borne out in recent solar projects. In other words, nuclear electricity from Ruppur will be about three times more expensive than wind or solar electricity.

FM: Can you address specific concerns about the deal with Russia?

MVR & ZM: There are at least two reasons to question Russia’s ability to deliver on its commitments. First, Russia has made so many nuclear deals in recent years that it may not be able to deliver on all of them. There have been delays already in reactors that Rosatom is building within Russia. It is likely that Russian reactor projects abroad will also experience delays and cost escalations.

A second reason Russia may not be able to deliver on Ruppur is the collapse of the Ruble on the currency markets. In the case of Belarus, reactor orders were reported to be a ‘turnkey’ or fixed price deal that was denominated in dollars. Because the Ruble has fallen relative to the dollar, costs to Rosatom have reportedly gone up by 71 percent and Belarus has been asked to provide additional financial support to keep the project going. We don’t know how the Ruppur agreement will deal with currency fluctuations. According to media reports, what has been agreed with Bangladesh is not a “fixed price” contract but a “cost plus” contract where “the vendor has the right to come up with any cost escalation (plus their profit margin) to be incorporated into the contract amount”. The Ruppur contract, like most nuclear contracts, is not publicly examinable, and so one cannot be sure who will be bearing any cost increases.

FM: Often nuclear power is billed as a safe and clean alternative to fossil fuel. But rarely do we examine what’s meant by “clean” and “safe” and how. For example, uranium extraction is bad for the environment. Radioactive waste disposal poses huge risks. How safe or clean is nuclear power really?

MVR & ZM: Radioactive waste production is an inherent part of nuclear power generation. As each nucleus of uranium or plutonium breaks apart to produce energy that is eventually converted into electricity, it also gives rise to radioactive fission products. Some of these radioactive products have extremely long half-lives, extending in some cases to millions of years, and continue to emit ionizing radiation for that long period of time. Since radiation is hazardous to health, exposure to these wastes will continue to be harmful as long as some of the constituents remain radioactive. They have to thus be isolated from human contact for hundreds of thousands of years.

Since the 1950s, nuclear establishments have advocated constructing geologic disposal of radioactive wastes. But no country has so far constructed any such repository for storing waste from nuclear power plants. Therefore, dealing with radioactive waste must be considered an unsolved problem. Any source of power that produces such hazardous wastes cannot be classified as a clean source of energy.

FM: Then there’s nuclear disaster. For a geographically small but densely populated country like Bangladesh, a disaster or accident could be catastrophic. Much more so than what happened in Chernobyl or Fukushima. Is it even realistic to simply couch it in terms of improved safety standards and technology when the potential risks are so high, when even the best standards are subject to error and other dangers such as natural disasters loom large?

MVR & ZM: Nuclear power is inherently risky and nuclear facilities are susceptible to severe accidents that could result in radioactive materials released into the biosphere. The world has witnessed catastrophic accidents such as the ones at Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as a host of others that came close to such an outcome. So, there is good reason to associate nuclear power with the possibility of accidents. This does not change even with newer reactor designs because they share the basic features of older reactors. In particular, they too involve the use of large quantities of radioactive materials that are subject to high temperatures and pressures. Because reactors, both old and new designs, involve so many components, they all have to deal with component failures. Such failures can spin out of control triggering a more wide-ranging accident.

More generally, as sociologist Charles Perrow argued in the aftermath of the Three Mile Accident of 1979, nuclear reactors are a complex technology where the different components of the reactor interact with each other, which then creates the potential for hidden and unexpected interactions between different parts of the system. A second important characteristic identified by Perrow is tight coupling, which refers to the time-dependence of the system, wherein changes in one part of the system impact another part within a very short time. Both are inherent features of nuclear reactors and there is a limit to how far they can be minimized through engineering efforts. Owing to these two characteristics Perrow argued, systems like nuclear reactors can undergo what he termed “normal accidents,” which are systemic accidents rather than accidents resulting merely from the failure of single components. Even if safety were the only priority of reactor designers, these properties of nuclear reactors mean that they will always have a non-zero, albeit small, chance of accidents.

This argument assumes that safety is the only priority of reactor designers. In reality, designers are always trying to manage multiple priorities: cost reduction, ease of operations, reducing radioactive waste generation to the extent possible, and so on. These priorities often place conflicting demands on the reactor design, compromising safety.

Finally, although natural disasters like cyclones and earthquakes can initiate a chain of events that leads to catastrophic accidents, accidents do not need a natural disaster to trigger them. Two of the three major reactor accidents, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, occurred due to purely internal causes.

FM: Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario where the problems with the contract with Russia you outline don’t exist. Or another scenario where the contract is with another country and Bangladesh gets the best possible deal. Even under these circumstances, the overarching problems with nuclear power plants would exist. Do you agree? And if so, why pursue such a venture?

MVR & ZM: Yes, we agree. It is not that the Russian deal is bad and all that needs to be done is to pursue a different reactor deal. All reactor deals will suffer from most of the problems outlined above, especially high costs and risk of accidents.

FM: If we want to reduce fossil fuel dependency, what’s the most effective, safe, and feasible technology?

MVR & ZM: The recent advances in renewable energy technologies, in particular, solar energy and wind energy technologies, make these the leading contenders for reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Rapid increases in global investments in solar and wind energy point to the widespread agreement about the attractiveness of these technologies.

Renewables, of course, have their problems. A significant concern is that solar and wind energy can be generated only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and this intermittency makes them unsuitable for supporting the grid. While intermittency is a challenge, it is by no means insurmountable. To start with, intermittency is a problem only when the share of renewables in electricity generation becomes quite high, say, 30 percent. Bangladesh is far from such high levels of penetration by renewables. In the case of Bangladesh, which has a high fraction of natural gas plants, it should be possible to deal with even larger shares of renewables because the electricity output from natural gas plants can be ramped up and down quickly. And finally even at high levels of renewables, there is the possibility of incorporating storage for limited amounts of time. Thus, the usual concerns about the inadequacy of renewables as alternatives to fossil fuels are not good reasons to preclude them as alternatives to fossil fuels.

[Image Credit: Argonne National Laboratory. Yellowcake. Public Domain.]