Context: On April 13, 2021, Japan’s government announced plans to release over one million tonnes of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea over the next 30 years.
The wastewater is a by-product of the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which disabled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to the release of radioactive materials. After more than a decade of storing this wastewater, Japan says they are running out of storage space, and allege that the, now treated water is safe for release.
How is the water being treated and what is the controversy?
- The water is being treated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
- The water has been treated with multiple techniques, notably the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), which removes 62 types of radioactive materials.
- However, it doesn’t remove tritium.
- TEPCO and the Japanese government argue that the concentration of tritium does not exceed international standards, in particular, those of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. According to TEPCO’s website, the radiation emitted by tritium is “extremely weak, and can be blocked with a single sheet of paper.” The concentration is also six times less than the limit for tritium in drinking water, set by the World Health Organization.
- You can’t remove tritium because it is identical to hydrogen. So removing it, chemically extracting it from wastewater becomes quite impossible.
- Fears persist within the majority. A poll conducted by Japan’s Jiji Press in September shows that 16.3% of respondents are opposed to the discharge of the treated water, and 30.8% were neither opposed nor in favour. Several protests have been held in Seoul against the release, and many hoarded seafood ahead of the discharge. Some surveys show that 8085% of South Koreans oppose the water’s release. The Chinese government, which has been against Japan’s decision since the announcement was made, has already banned seafood from Japan.
ANALYSING NUCLEAR ENRGY AS A WHOLE:
Points in favour of nuclear energy:
- Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source: It generates power through fission, which is the process of splitting uranium atoms to produce energy. The heat released by fission is used to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity without the harmful by-products as emitted by fossil fuels.
Fig: A comparison of direct GHG emission (red bars) and full life cycle emissions (blue bars)
- Nuclear energy’s land footprint is small: Despite producing massive amounts of carbon-free power, nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source. A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate which is 360 times less than wind plant and 75 times less than solar plant.
- Nuclear energy produces minimal waste: Nuclear fuel is extremely dense. It’s about 1 million times greater than that of other traditional energy sources and because of this, the amount of used as nuclear fuel is not as big as you might think.
Nuclear power is not without significant disadvantages and risks that warrant consideration:
- Safety concerns: Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated the catastrophic dangers of nuclear power when safety systems fail. In Indian context high population density, limited water resources and seismic instability in some regions amplify the risks and potential impacts of an accident should one occur..
- Weapons proliferation: Nuclear technologies and by-products like plutonium can potentially enable weapons proliferation if misused or mishandled. India must ensure its ambitious nuclear plans strengthen oversight, safeguards and the civilian orientation of its programs to avoid enabling weapons ambitions in unstable regions.
- Costs: Although nuclear energy is inexpensive once operational, nuclear power plants are highly capital intensive to construct. Project cost overruns are common. Ex: Flamanville reactor in France is 10 years behind schedule and costs have tripled to $12.7 billion. High costs could deter investment into nuclear and benefit cheaper renewable sources.
- Waste disposal: Nuclear plants generate radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years and there are unresolved issues around waste storage and disposal. Any country pursuing nuclear must develop safe, long-term waste solutions to avoid contamination.
- Opportunity costs: Large investments into nuclear energy could divert funds and focus away from renewable sources like solar and wind which are quickly achieving cost parity, often better matched to grid needs, and do not have the same economic, safety or waste risks as nuclear. A balanced approach is needed.
- Domestic capacity: India’s nuclear ambitions depend heavily on foreign reactor designs, fuel sources and technical cooperation, especially from Russia and France. This dependence could compromise India’s aim for energy self-sufficiency and technology leadership. Investing in education and R&D is needed.
Recent technological developments have addressed some nuclear concerns, but not eliminated them entirely:
- Safety: New reactor designs like advanced light water reactors and fast breeder reactors incorporate more passive safety features, lower meltdown risks and higher tolerance for human error or natural disasters. Ex: AP1000 reactors can withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and have a 72-hour backup system. However, severe accidents remain possible and the “fail-safe” nature of reactors is still debated. Strict regulatory oversight is still needed.
- Proliferation: Technologies like laser enrichment reduce proliferation risks by making the enrichment process more difficult to replicate, while new fuel types like mixed oxide (MOX) fuel make plutonium more difficult to extract for weapons. However, determined groups could potentially overcome these barriers, indicating safeguards must still be actively pursued.
- Costs: Standardized reactor designs, modular components, and improved construction techniques aim to reduce costs through replication and learning curve impacts. Ex: Modular reactors could cost 50-70% less. However, nuclear remains capital intensive, projects often run over-budget, and reliable cost reductions remain uncertain – especially where subsidies or public funds are used.
- Waste: New reprocessing techniques can recycle used nuclear fuel and recover usable uranium and plutonium. The recycled fuel can power advanced reactors, minimizing waste. India uses a plutonium-uranium extraction process. However, reprocessing still results in radioactive byproducts that require storage. And it can increase proliferation risks which must be addressed.
- Renewable integration: Nuclear technology startups are developing smaller, more flexible reactors to complement intermittent renewable sources, providing low-carbon baseload when needed. Ex: NuScale’s small modular reactors can balance loads. However, variable renewable costs are rapidly declining as technologies and coupled with storage, could potentially reduce need for large baseload capacity from nuclear.
- Domestic capacity: India has established domestic manufacturing capabilities for nuclear components like coolant pipes, centrifuges, and control mechanisms through partnerships between the NPCIL and private industry. India also has a well-developed nuclear fuel cycle, including facilities for mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication, as well as facilities for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. India is also developing advanced nuclear technologies, such as fast breeder reactors and thorium-based reactors. However, India still imports key reactor components from Russia and France due to limited technical experience. Developing a robust domestic supply chain will take time.
|CONCERNS OF NUCLEAR ENERGY||TECHNOLOGICAL ADDRESS OF THE CONCERNS|
|Safety concerns||New reactor designs like advanced light water reactors and fast breeder reactors incorporate more passive safety features, lower meltdown risks and higher tolerance for human error or natural disasters|
|Weapons proliferation||Technologies like laser enrichment reduce proliferation risks by making the enrichment process more difficult to replicate, while new fuel types like mixed oxide (MOX) fuel make plutonium more difficult to extract for weapons|
|High Costs||Modular reactors could cost 50-70% less.|
|Waste disposal||New reprocessing techniques can recycle used nuclear fuel and minimize waste. Ex: Fast breeder reactors can generate more fuel than they consume.|
|Opportunity costs||Renewable integration: Nuclear technology startups are developing smaller, more flexible reactors to complement intermittent renewable sources, providing low-carbon baseload when needed. Ex: NuScale’s small modular reactors can balance loads.|
|Domestic capacity||India also has a well-developed nuclear fuel cycle, including facilities for mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication, as well as facilities for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. India is also developing advanced nuclear technologies, such as fast breeder reactors and thorium-based reactors.|
So nuclear technology offers promise but no panacea. Its viability, costs and necessity in any country’s energy mix depends on a comparison to all available options – and selection of the optimal diverse, balanced and sustainable supply with fair consideration of risks and benefits. An open and honest appraisal is still most prudent with any pursuit of nuclear power.
- Energy security: India has a severe energy deficit and high dependence on coal, with over 70% of electricity generated from coal. Nuclear power provides energy security by diversifying fuel sources for electricity and reducing overreliance on any single source. Ex: France derives over 70% of its electricity from nuclear, ensuring stable supply.
- Energy poverty: Energy poverty is a major challenge in India, with millions of people lacking access to basic energy services. Nuclear power can help address this challenge by providing a reliable and affordable source of energy to remote and underserved areas.
- Low-carbon source: Unlike coal, nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases and particulate pollution. It can help India meet its climate change mitigation goals under the Paris Agreement as a low-carbon source for base load power. Ex: Sweden aims to phase out fossil fuels in favor of nuclear and renewable energy for a carbon-neutral grid.
- Economic benefits: The nuclear power industry creates many jobs in research, reactors construction, and supporting sectors. Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu employs over 2000 people. Nuclear also reduces the need to import expensive fossil fuels. Operation of nuclear plants over 60-100 year lifetimes provide long-term economic value.
- Energy independence: Domestically produced nuclear fuel reduces dependence on imported energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas – providing greater energy security and independence. India aims to develop its domestic uranium resources and thorium-based reactors. Ex: Canada’s uranium mining industry employs over 60,000 people and sustains remote communities.
- Reliable: Nuclear power plants operate at over 90% capacity for most of their lifetimes, providing a constant and stable source of baseload power to grids regardless of weather conditions or time of day. Ex: South Korea generates about 30% of its power from nuclear, operating at over 95% capacity.
- Existing investments: India has invested heavily in nuclear energy, with 22 commercial reactors operating and 7 under construction. Kudankulam plant alone cost $6.7 billion. Scrapping nuclear prematurely would lead to loss of this investment and wasted capital that could have gained from the plants’ operation over 60+ years.
- Advanced technologies: New nuclear technologies can strengthen the case for nuclear in India, including more advanced light water reactors, fast breeder reactors, and thorium-based reactors which use domestically available fuel sources.
- Technological penetration: Development of nuclear reactors can drive technological progress in India through several mechanisms:
- Materials science: Nuclear reactors require advanced materials that can withstand high temperatures, pressures and radiation over long periods. Progress in materials like zirconium alloys, graphite, and new ceramics has applications in other industries like aerospace, defense, and electronics. India aims to develop silicon carbide composites for future reactors.
- Manufacturing: High-precision manufacturing techniques are needed to produce nuclear reactor components. Electron beam welding, 3D printing processes etc require technical skills that translate to other sectors. India’s Make in India initiative aims to localize nuclear supply chains to support manufacturing growth.
- Robotics: Nuclear reactors utilize robotics for inspection, maintenance and handling of radioactive materials. Developments in robotics, sensors and remote tooling have spin-off benefits for fields like space exploration, mining, and hazardous waste management.
- Sensors and monitoring: Nuclear reactors employ advanced sensors, detectors and real-time monitoring technologies to control processes, detect anomalies and prevent accidents. Technologies like optical spectroscopy, radiation mapping and ultrasonic transducers have medical, security and industrial applications.
- Fusion: Research in nuclear fusion aims to develop clean, abundant energy by replicating the processes of the sun on earth. Fusion programs push boundaries in areas like advanced electromagnets, plasma physics and high-heat materials that ultimately benefit sectors like space travel, computing, and accelerator science. India operates an experimental tokamak fusion device.