On November 26, the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) accorded environmental clearance for the 6x1650 MWe nuclear power project in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Extensive opposition to the project, notably from the Konkan Bachao Samiti (KBS), was overruled by the MoEF in granting this clearance. Environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, in a press statement however clarified that, “I can take on board only the ecological objections raised by the KBS. I have asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and its partner Areva to address the other economic, commercial, safety and technological issues. Indeed, I do believe that NPCIL must significantly improve and expand its public outreach programme”.
Areva is a predominantly state-owned nuclear power company in France, which has developed the 1650 MWe European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), based on the French N4 and the German Konvoi reactor types. But, what is the maturity of the EPR technology today? Till date, no EPR has been constructed and commissioned for operation anywhere in the world. There are four EPRs in different stages of construction elsewhere, and two of them are already facing serious problems and delay. Areva sold the first EPR to Finland and this plant construction started in 2005. Several construction and design problems have delayed the start-up of this plant to the second half of 2013 — a delay of 3.5 years, with a cost escalation of 50 per cent. France itself decided to set up the second EPR, and the construction of this unit started in December 2007. Very similar construction and safety issues have led to a 50 per cent cost increase and a delay of commissioning to 2014. China bought two EPRs, but they are moving cautiously towards completion dates of 2013 and 2014.
Realising that the EPR is in trouble, the French government asked Francois Roussely, a former chairman of the Electricite de France (EDF), in October 2009 to evaluate the status of the EPR and the French nuclear industry in general. The Roussely Report (July 2010) has concluded that the credibility of the EPR has been seriously damaged by the problems of the two reactors under construction. Roussely states, “The complexity of the EPR comes from (questionable) design choices, notably of the power level, containment, core-catcher, and redundancy of systems. It is certainly a handicap for its construction, and its cost — the EPR should therefore be further optimised based on feedback from the EPRs under construction”.
Part of the problems encountered during construction of the two EPRs relate to poor quality control and construction. Reported flaws include the poor fabrication of the pressuriser and the reactor vessel in Finland, cracks developing in base concrete at both sites, defective welds in the containment steel shells, etc. One of the serious design deficiencies pointed out to Areva in a joint letter from the French, Finnish and UK nuclear regulators is the lack of adequate redundancy in the instrumentation and control system design, a safety issue which is not yet resolved completely over the last two years.
There are other basic design issues of the EPR which could cause serious problems in the later stages of operation, those which neither the NPCIL or DAE is highlighting today. The EPR will use 5 per cent enriched uranium, as against the normal 3.5 per cent in current PWR designs, which will enable its fuel burn-up to reach in excess of 70 GWd/tonne as against 30-40 GWd/tonne in current LWRs. This improved fuel economy is touted as an advantage of the EPR. What no one has highlighted is that such high burn-up leads to much higher toxicity of the radioactive waste, with the production of a larger ‘immediate release fraction’ of radioisotopes. It is reported that according to an EDF study, EPR waste will have about four times as much radioactive bromine, iodine, caesium, etc, compared to ordinary PWRs using lower burn-up, with other reports putting these figures much higher.
Consequently, radiation doses to the workers and general public could also be correspondingly high, in case of radiological releases. These problems will persist during spent-fuel transfer, storage, reprocessing and waste disposal. Furthermore, it is reported that the higher burn-up in EPR will result in thinning of the fuel cladding, making it prone for early failure and fission product release. Since no EPR has ever been operated, there is no in-situ data on long-term clad integrity under high burn-up, and therefore the current NPCIL assurances that radiation dose rates to workers and the public will be kept within the AERB-stipulated limits have no basis.
Current cost estimate of the Finnish EPR is 5.7 billion euros. The price of each Chinese EPR is stated to be 5 billion euros. Taking the average cost of a 1650 MWe EPR as 5.3 billion euros, at the 2010 exchange rates, the cost works out to be a whopping `19.5 crore per MWe! At this rate, the six EPRs at Jaitapur alone will cost the tax-payer about `1,93,000 crore, a little over the 2G Spectrum allocation loss. In comparison, a typical 700 MWe indigenous pressurised heavy-water reactor (PHWR) would cost about `8 crore/MWe, while a supercritical-steam based coal-fired station would cost just about `5 crore/MWe.
Asked about the cost of the project, the NPCIL says it is not yet finalised. That NPCIL is indeed hiding the enormous cost of the EPR from the public is clear from the answer given by Anne Lauvregeon, CEO of Areva in an interview given to The Hindu on November 25. When asked about the EPR price, she said, “You know giving out the price depends on the customer (NPCIL, in this case). It is not for me to give the price”.
Over and above the cost of the reactor, the NPCIL will have to add on other costs which truly belong to the project. These will include the significant costs of the storage and disposal of radioactive waste from the high burn-up EPR spent-fuel, the eventual decommissioning cost, the extensive additional physical security costs including anti-aircraft batteries and extra coast guard deployment (none of which would be required if Jaitapur were to have a coal-powered station), substantial increase in nuclear fuel cost over the years, etc. If complete transparency is not demanded from the NPCIL, all such extra costs will be swept under other heads and in effect become tax-payers’ hidden subsidy to promote the prime minister’s foray into these unjustified nuclear reactor imports.
In summary, on the false premise of ensuring energy security for the nation, the PM is leading India to purchase six unproven French EPRs at an enormous cost to the exchequer. No EPR has so far been built and operated anywhere in the world, and the partial construction of two such units have already shown significant deficiencies. In the long run these EPRs are likely to have serious operational, safety and radiological release problems far in excess of current generation reactors. It is best if India does not embark on an EPR-based power project until significant operational experience is gained elsewhere with such systems.
In her November 25 interview Lauvergeon said, “Before buying something, people need to see the product. There are a lot of designs which are perfect on paper but which do not work”. Truly spoken, Lauvergeon, the Indian people shall wait till your EPRs in Finland and France gain enough operational experience, before considering to place any orders for EPRs.
(The writer is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of the Government)