Waste Networks


UNDERSTANDING THE BIGGER PICTURE


kabadiwalla

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 5)

This post was written by Michael Lytton, who is collaborating with Kabadiwalla Connect on research and outreach. Michael is an urban planner with 30 years of experience in the public sector.

I was recently reading a bi-weekly news roundup on waste pickers, and it occurred to me that the publication is a great way to help readers see the bigger picture. The free newsletter that I was reading is published by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The group — it is a global network, and not focussed exclusively on women — is dedicated to the working poor in the informal economy.

The newsletter offers information and insights, examples of government initiatives and policies, and inspiring stories. It is an important instrument in support of WIEGO’s mandate to “build alliances and draw on the expertise of individuals and institutions from constituencies around the globe”.

The news roundup for March 2-15 included the following items:

  • In Brazil, the Ministry of Social Development will choose four associations or waste pickers cooperatives for selective collection of waste produced by the Ministry for six months.
  • In Chile, one thousand women recyclers will be trained in management and entrepreneurship programs.
  • The federal government of Egypt inaugurated a program to pay waste pickers in the city of Cairo.
  • Also in Brazil, the National Bank for Economic and Social Development provided Sao Paulo with $41.8 million to raise the recycling rate of household waste from 1.6% to 10%, and to accelerate the inclusion of waste pickers.

In addition to the countries cited above, there are stories from India, South Africa, Dubai, Fiji, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Honduras.

More than 3,800 news items about the informal economy have been published by WIEGO since 2014, helping to build capacity among informal worker organisations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. At the same time, stories from around the world put local efforts in context.

For example, a new project to install Sustainability Stations throughout the city of Curtiba, Brazil is remarkably relevant to Chennai. Under the banner of education for sustainability, Curtiba’s Department of Environment is making a major effort to engage the population in the management of recyclable waste. The intent is to change the culture of the population in the sorting of waste, making it responsible for separation and for rethinking waste production.

“We want to involve citizens in the management of solid waste, optimise selective collection, and create a mechanism of social inclusion by delegating the management of waste collected for recycling to cooperatives or associations,” explains the Municipal Environment Secretary, Renato Lima.

Sustainability stations are part of the Voluntary Delivery System of Recyclable Waste, whereby citizens bring their waste to a modified shipping container that will receive 12 types of recyclable materials. The program provides for the deployment of at least one station in each of the 75 districts of Curitiba, with each unit intended to serve residents within a 300-meter radius. Outreach staff from the Department of Environment will go door-to-door to announce the installation of each new station, and distribute a booklet with guidelines for proper separation and disposal of recyclable materials.

The current scheme follows Curtiba’s rewards-based recycling program Câmbio Verde (Green Exchange) that was launched in 1991. It began as an exchange of waste for bus passes but soon included basic food staples exchanged for waste.

The idea became the model for the Mexican city of Puebla where a program Monedero Ecológico (Ecological Wallet) was started in 2010. This private sector program gives residents a credit for every kilogram of solid waste they bring in. The credit can then be used for discounts on school supplies, cell phone minutes, clothes and food.

It is interesting to note that Curtiba’s current policy of citizen engagement and voluntary delivery of recyclables comes decades after its selective collection project.  Curtiba shut down its dump in 1988 and the following year began collecting and separating recyclable materials (glass, plastics, paper) three times a week under its renowned Lixo Que Não é Lixo (Trash That Is Not Trash) program. The deployment of dedicated recyclable collection points along with active citizen participation is a progression that will ostensibly result in economies of scale, improved quality and value of recyclables, and new skills for waste pickers.

Clearly, advocacy organizations such as WIEGO can be enormously valuable sources of information. They are more than 3,000 publications and resources on its website. There is a vast repository of working papers, organising, legal, technical, statistical and policy briefs, and profiles of workers’ lives. In many ways, the wheel does not have to be reinvented.

India is in the early stages of modern and effective municipal waste management. Concepts and details such as legal frameworks, integrated waste management, use of voluntary drop-off points, organised waste picker associations and cooperatives, waste education, and inclusion are in most instances still only ideas or early experiments.

At the same time, the challenges cannot be underestimated. On the issue of inclusion alone, researchers describe the process as “bumpy”, pointing out that “[w]here inclusion is taken up by the municipality with the intent of increasing recycling rates, waste picker cooperatives must negotiate a host of issues, including access to equipment and space, coordination of sales to maximise pricing across seasons, materials and geography, and the difficulty of resolving conflicts within the waste picking sector itself.”  Furthermore, even in apparently successful situations, efficient waste management is not labour intensive enough to absorb all or even a small share of the people who survive on trash scavenging. In Bogota, for example, an estimated 14,000 people survive as waste pickers, while the inclusion process provides incomes for 700 people. And although inclusion can be part of a broader social agenda that incorporates microenterprise development, such programs depend on resources outside the typical portfolio of a city waste collection agency. To truly address the needs of waste pickers, waste management modernisation must be coupled with broader social policies.

That said, avail yourselves of the resources of such exemplary organizations as WIEGO. You will be educated and encouraged.


– Written by Michael Lytton. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Picture sources

  1. http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/Waste-Pickers-1.jpg
  2. http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/leslie%20tuttle%20general%20assembly%20ga%202010%20brazil%20belo%20horizonte%20coopersoli%20wastepickers%20workers%20-%2025_0.jpg
  3. http://wiego.org/sites/wiego.org/files/ctools/colombia%20waste%20pickers%2061.jpg

REST OF THE SERIES

Waste Networks: Economics, Informality and Stigma


kabadiwalla

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 2)


Trash talking; there’s more than cities can manage

As consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg. Today, both figures have shot up: urban areas house around 3 billion people, generating 1.2 kg of waste every day – meaning that every year, 1.3 billion tonnes of garbage is created in the world’s cities. Neither does this trend show any signs of slowing down, since the same report projects that by 2025, this quantum will nearly double.

In the developing world, the chief concern is that the formal mechanisms for waste management have come nowhere close to building this kind of capacity. In developed countries, centralized approaches have been implemented to handle waste treatment but elsewhere, most cities still follow fragmented, haphazard systems of collection and transportation, and rely on landfill-based approaches to dispose of waste. If the per capita generation of garbage were to go up as projected, it’s highly doubtful that local governments in developing countries would be able to effectively manage them.

The shadow ecosystem; there’s money in your trash

Luckily, they don’t have to do it alone – parallel informal economies centered around waste management have developed across cities in the Global South. These players scavenge, sort, aggregate and upcycle waste; passing it along a well-developed waste chain until it is ultimately recycled. Such communities exist in several developing countries; kabadiwallas in India, catadores in Brazil, cirujas in Argentina, buzos in Costa Rica and cartoneros in Mexico.

Statistics suggest that they are doing a much better job of handling urban waste in developing countries. From a quantitative point of view, informal sectors have demonstrated a better percentage of resource recovery as compared to formal mechanisms in several cities. In Cairo, for example, it is a startling 30 percent to the municipal corporation’s 13 percent. It is also interesting to think about the incentives that drive the formal and informal waste sectors. For instance in India, service providers are paid according to the tonnage of waste they bring to the landfill. They are, in this sense, incentivized to collect, transport and dump more waste into the landfill. This model has lead to serious issues with regards to handling city waste responsibly. In Chennai, there have been many reports of dumping high volume, low weight plastic into the rivers, because this type of waste does not give formal service providers a high return. There have also been reports of garbage trucks picking up large stones and rubble, so as to boost the tonnage brought to the landfill.  On the other hand, informal sectors derive economic benefit from upcycling waste and the peripheral activities associated with it (sorting and aggregating) and are incentivized, instead, to find value in what is discarded everyday.

Economics of Waste; the zen of the informal waste market

Since the informal  ecosystem has developed primarily around an economic incentive, it functions in a fairly organized way – specific categories of waste are assigned prices, which are defined largely by their recycling potential. For instance, categories that have inherent value, such as copper from wiring, have extremely high price points. Those that can be upcycled into a material of value – such as high value plastic and paper – are also in high demand. On the other hand, lower value plastics are assigned lower price points and categories that have no back-end processing potential are neglected and omitted from the ecosystem altogether. It’s largely for this reason that most waste found littered on streets in developing countries include thin polythene covers, thermocol and other materials that lack back-end processing technology.

The functioning of this ecosystem is also defined by the fact that it has grown to fill a gap. All over the world, informal ecosystems develop only where formal ecosystems are unable to cope with the amount of waste generated and operate in parallel with them. Because of this, they serve an important purpose in the urban context. In Dar-es-Salaam, waste is formally collected only twice a week. Informal collectors fill this gap and charge a nominal fee that residents are happy to pay. In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, informal workers service a whopping 37 percent of the population. Indonesian waste-pickers scavenge and upcycle one-third of the country’s waste and in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it has been estimated that the economic impact of scavenging is almost half a million dollars every month. Informal players also have an advantage in specific parts of urban centres, such as slums and hilly areas that have poor roads, since their vehicles are smaller and easier to use in them.

Waste and Stigma; the invisible ecosystem

However, the informal context within which this sector operates poses its own set of problems. Informal waste players face a great deal of stigma from society and local governments. In many developing countries, their activities are criminalized and they are frequently harassed by authorities. In Cairo for example, the waste-pickers’ donkey carts were banned from the streets of the city between sunrise and sunset. In Colombia, a shocking ‘social cleansing’ program was implemented during the 80s and 90s by paramilitary forces, that regarded waste-pickers as ‘disposable’ and banished them from certain neighborhoods. The movement reached its zenith when the bodies of 40 waste-pickers, who had been killed and harvested for organs, were found at a Colombian university.

This stigma is particularly shocking given the huge service that the informal waste ecosystem performs for urban centres – upcycling waste and keeping it out of the landfill. On the other hand, popular perceptions of them are generally negative because of regressive associations with their choice of work. The informal waste ecosystem remains invisible in most cities in the Global South, with its impact unquantified. Particularly in India, no attempt has been made to improve its efficiency in delivering an effective way for residents, commercial establishments and industries to send less waste material to urban landfills.

The road ahead; incorporating the informal waste ecosystem into the formal ways cities handle their waste

Thankfully, there are examples of cities that are adopting more inclusive approaches to shed visibility on informal waste players. For instance, in São Paulo, a Brazilian graffiti artist named Mundano created a project named ‘Pimp My Carroça’. The project was carried out over a month, during which time more than 50 artists and volunteers came together to revamp the carts (carroças) that belonged to waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. The carroças were beautified and equipped with security signals and mirrors, while the waste-pickers and their families were provided with medical check-ups, psychological therapy, meals, haircuts and even massages.

As a country, Brazil has implemented several programs that seek to formalize and incorporate the informal waste economy, and this initiative has been highly successful in adding a sense of legitimacy to the work done by waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. It’s an example that several other cities can learn from. While such a large-scale inclusion program is yet to be developed in India, there are local examples: in Pune, for instance, informal rag-pickers have been formalized under a cooperative called SWaCH, provided with equipment and ID cards and roped in to collect waste for a fee. In Bangalore, a member-based organization called Hasirudala works at bettering rag-picker conditions, offering them structured employment and fair pay.

However, for a national-level model of inclusion, we require a change in mindset – a breaking down of the perception of informal waste workers as being dirty or backward, and an acknowledgement of their contribution to lessening the load on our landfills. Legitimizing the informal sector is one of the first steps in offering its players a sense of dignity, an assurance of safety in their professions and an acknowledgement that they are the silent players who are taking care of a much larger problem.


– Written by Kavya Balaraman. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Sources

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘What a Waste: a Global Review of Solid Waste Management’ – The World Bank

‘The Economics of the Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management’ – the Collaborative Working Group (CWG)

‘Pimp My Carroca’ – People of Change – http://weofchange.com/pimp-my-carroca/

Image Sources

1:http://rakheeyadav.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSC_0318.jpg

2:https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasscomfoundation/5455201881/

3:http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/4PIG931RI9c/Indian+Rag+Pickers+Forage+Recyclables+Delhi/sOxvLZOe1ik

4:http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Latin+Americas+Largest+Landfill+Set+Close+SI5ZslCZXAil.jpg

5:http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Indian+Rag+Pickers+Forage+Recyclables+Delhi+daY8mbCMO-bl.jpg

6:http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Street+Party+Thrown+Adjacent+Rio+Red+Light+UCxhvOXQBgpl.jpg


MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

Historical Perspectives on the Informal Waste Sector


kabadiwalla

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

Ever year, 42 million tons of waste is generated in India, which is the same as the amount of wheat Australia produces annually

Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.

The problem, though, is that leachate and toxins from untreated waste can affect a particular region for years, which is why municipal corporations are now finding it more and more difficult to appropriate areas to convert into landfills. In Bangalore, for instance, the residents of a village called Mavallipura, adjoining one of the city’s primary landfills, resisted efforts to continue disposing of waste in their backyard in 2012; the result was tens of thousands of tons of untreated waste, deposited on the streets of the city. Chennai, on the other hand, is currently routing its waste to two peripheral landfills – both of which will be reaching the end of their lifespan by the end of the year. As of now, no replacement area has been found.

Ironically, urban authorities do not need to face the challenge of sustainable waste management on their own. Most Indian cities have a robust industry of waste ‘experts’ – collectors, transporters and even recyclers – who make a livelihood out of waste, albeit under the radar. Most households sell old newspapers and cardboard to their neighbourhood kabadiwallas, but these men are merely the tip of the iceberg; in fact, the informal waste sector includes not just grassroot-level waste collectors, but series of middlemen who aggregate, sort and transport waste to the appropriate recycling facility – thus keeping it out of the landfill.

The Waste Chain

From a historical perspective, informal waste economies – at least as they are recognized today – began to develop around the 19th century. This was mainly in Europe and largely a by-product of urbanization and industrialization. As urban centres began to form and expand, the quantity of waste generated by them shot up as well. Simultaneously, the spread of the industrial revolution led to an increased demand for raw material, which proved to be infinitely cheaper when sourced from waste. As a result, an informal sector that began to identify items of value within waste streams, and then source, aggregate, process and eventually recycle them, began to form.

Spatially speaking, informal waste industries have organically formed in developing countries. While the first scavenging sectors sprung up in Europe, waste management systems in these countries were soon formalised and steered by local governing bodies, removing any room for unorganised private entities to continue making a living off waste.

However, the reverse has been true for countries such as India, Brazil, Serbia and Cambodia. These countries have witnessed rapid urbanisation, which directly translates to a huge increase in waste generation. They also experience large-scale migration of unskilled, untrained labour towards cities, most of which have no option but to turn to informal occupations such as waste-picking. Moreover, as countries develop more, their urban centres tend to produce a higher proportion of dry waste (paper, plastic, metal and the like), which have huge markets as raw material for the manufacturing sector.

On the other hand, their local governance mechanisms have not yet developed to the point of completely taking over the workspace of informal players. In India, for example, municipal corporations have the infrastructure and capacity to collect an average of only 70 percent of municipal solid waste, and even less to actually process it. This creates the ideal working conditions for a parallel shadow economy to operate.

Very few attempts have been made to actually map out and quantify the informal waste industries in different countries. Largely, this is because it’s extremely difficult – most waste-pickers and small-scale processors work under the radar and prefer to keep it that way, so as to avoid any form of harassment from city authorities. The sector itself is also a fairly disorganised one, with a huge overlap between activities, scale and hierarchy, making it tough to actually categorise its layers. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The Brazilian government, for instance, has formally recognized waste-picking as an occupation and included it as a category in their official census. This has also allowed it to introduce various schemes to better incorporate these entities into formal waste management mechanisms.

In doing so, Brazil has tapped into a potential answer to waste management concerns that most developing countries can learn from: the informal sector has huge capacity for keeping waste out of landfills. As a community, these players have a lot more collective experience in dealing with waste profitably (and as a consequence, responsibly) than most local governments. They have organised themselves into a form of hierarchy based on scale, with lower-rung rag-pickers accessing waste from dumpsites, landfills and formal collection cycles, and higher-level middleman aggregating and segregating waste streams according to market demand. Scrap-dealers at the highest end of the waste chain deal with hundreds of tons of a particular waste category on a daily basis, supplying in bulk to manufacturers looking for cheaper sources of raw material.

Incorporating parallel economies into our formal mechanisms is far from an easy task; it involves policy-level decisions and some forceful execution to actually leverage the potential of the informal sector. On the other hand, given the kind of waste crisis that Indian cities are facing, this doesn’t seem to be an option we can ignore.


– Written by Kavya Balaraman & Illustrated by Satwik Gade. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


Sources

‘Municipal Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities – A Review’ – Mufeed Sharholy, Kafeel Ahmad, Gauhar Mahmood and RC Trivedi

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘The World’s Scavengers’ – Martin Medina

‘Statistics on Waste Pickers in Brazil’ – WIEGO 

Islamophilia cannot be an effective answer to Islamophobia

re-posted from Huffington Post, Huffpost Students UK, by Karthick RM, 23 December 2014.

islamophobiaThe recent siege by an Islamist in Sydney has raised all too familiar debates about Islamophobia. The general right-wing argument, of course, is that such acts of terrorism are justified by a hard-core minority of Muslims and that downplaying the role of Islam is potentially harmful. On the other hand, the general liberal-left argument is that expecting all Muslims to condemn such acts is bigoted because a whole community cannot be held accountable for the actions of a few ‘deranged lunatics’.

Central to both arguments is an unstated belief that the Islamic identity is central to all Muslims, and while the former despises it, the latter preaches a patronising tolerance of the same. And both are wrong.

We have to look at Islamophobia as the tendency to blame Muslims as a whole, without any differentiation of nation, culture, class, gender, and political orientation for terrorist acts committed by Islamists.

Likewise, we have to look at Islamophilia as the tendency to exonerate Islam as an ideology from the crimes that are committed in its name, as the belief that the Muslim identity is good in itself and is central to an adherent of the faith.

Reality, if anything, shows the contrary. Proponents of the two sides are unlikely to remember that the first state to declare itself officially atheist in the world happened to be a predominantly ‘Muslim’ country – socialist Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, the state banned religion and religious preaching, shut down mosques, and tried to achieve gender parity in all services. In practice, the ‘Muslim’ Hoxha was the most rabid Islamophobe of the previous century. Incidentally, it was precisely those western governments – who are now accused of harbouring Islamophobia – who railed against Hoxha for curbing religious freedom for Muslims.

Several other examples could be given. The Indonesian Communist Party led insurgency, the Kurdish movement in the middle-east, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (Turkey), the Communist Party of Iran – all militantly secular movements led by ‘Muslims’ – have faced brutal repression from variants of Islamism. It would be a brutal illogic to say that the murder of thousands of individuals from these movements had nothing to do with the Islamic ideology that the states they challenged upheld.

Why is this important? Drawing parallels from other cases, can we say that the Inquisition’s slaughter of tens of thousands of heretics at the stake was just an act committed by a few ‘deranged lunatics’ and that the ideology of the Church had no role to play in it? Can we say that the discrimination against Dalits, the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy, owes to a few bad individuals and is not a structural problem in Hinduism? Can we say that war crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamils were just acts of bad soldiers and they can be divorced from the genocidal intent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?

Similarly, we cannot excuse the Islamic ideology from the terrorism and violence that is committed in its name. There is a lot in political Islam that justifies violence against non-Muslims, sexism and terroristic acts and those Muslims who have been fighting it for long have written the best testimonials. For liberals in the West to ignore this and to engage in downright immature acts, like wearing a hijab to convey solidarity with Muslim women, is tantamount to mocking those progressives in Muslim communities who resist the cultural diktats of political Islam.

A more critical approach to political Islam is needed. Commenting on the Rotherham child abuse scandal, which saw the sexual abuse of over a thousand white, mostly working class, children by men of Pakistani-Muslim origin, Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that raising questions about inherent sexism and violence in these communities is neither racist nor Islamophobic. Rather, it is this questioning alone that can guarantee an authentic co-existence.

Liberals and leftists in the West are right to condemn the bigotry of the majority community, but the fundamentalism of the minority community cannot be spared from criticism. If those identifying as left and liberal fail to criticise the dangerous trends of Islamism, the right will step up for the task. That is a future no one wants and political correctness can do little to fight it. Maybe one can start by expressing critical solidarity with those progressive movements from within the Muslim communities that are willing to think beyond narrow religious identities and are willing to challenge the bigotries in Islamic ideology.

***

Karthick RM is a PhD student and Graduate teaching assistant at University of Essex. He blogs at Unceasing Waves. Some initial further readings –

+ A Glance in to the Archives of Islam by Slavoj Zizek. Lacan.com – “One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted “between the lines,” through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition…”

+ When does criticism of Islam become Islamophobia? Pandaemonium – “Islamophobia is a problematic term. This is not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly it does. Islamophobia is a problematic term because it can be used by both sides to blur the distinction between criticism and hatred. On the one hand, it enables many to attack criticism of Islam as illegitimate because it is judged to be ‘Islamophobic’.  On the other, it permits those who promote hatred to dismiss condemnation of that hatred as stemming from an illegitimate desire to avoid criticism of Islam. In conflating criticism and bigotry, the very concept of Islamophobia, in other words, makes it more difficult to engage in a rational discussion about where and how to draw the line between the two.”

+ Islamophilia by Douglas Murray – “For the record I don’t think everybody needs to spend their time being offensive about Islam. Not only is there no need to be offensive all the time, but most Muslims just want to get on with their lives as peacefully and successfully as everybody else. But there is an unevenness in our societies that needs to be corrected.”

We are South of India

via Enna Da Rascalas

Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, English (with subtitles). Just 4 minutes 18 seconds

In eighth standard geography classes, we were made to practice drawing rivers, mountains, and colour all the states on blank physical and political maps of India. Suddenly one day, we had to learn to draw Chattisgarh and Jharkand because they weren’t printed yet. (Reminder: I must learn to draw Telengana)

My naivety of understanding this map of the country I was born in to and therefore belong to, has taken a lot of reading, travel and conversations to fade away. I used to think Madrasi was a compliment and words like Mallu, Golti were non-offensive. I was after all born in a Madras that became Chennai. I didn’t realize until my Malayali friends, Telugu friends, Kannadiga friends, and friends from the rest of Tamil Nadu were also called Madrasi. I felt they were robbing my identity. Well, I thought a lot of stupid things like this about Kashmir, Bihar, the North-east of India and the rest of the map. We are usually taught such naivety and are encouraged to maintain it. It’s like how so much of the world believes Africa’s a country.

I don’t know if more south Indians watch this song and laugh, or if actually people up north are watching this video and understanding We are the South of India… not Madrasis all padoses… I hope more of the latter is happening. Nevertheless, this is a kick-ass song created by the Stray Factory monkeys of Chennai, that must travel far and wide.

Enjoy, share, and subscribe to them here.

sam pc.

“We are sitting on the brink of disaster with Tarapur,” says Former Chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

A Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Prabir Purkayastha, Newsclick (Part 1)

Published on Newsclick YouTube Channel on 18 February 2013. 17 mins 40s

English transcript available below. 2456 words. Download the transcript in .doc format.

PP: Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Today we have with us Dr. A Gopalakrishnan, Former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. We’ll discuss the nuclear energy programme in India and what’s happening to nuclear energy in the world.

Gopal, Jaitapur issue has again become hot because the President of France Hollande is to be in India and also because EPRs (European Pressurized Reactors) seem to have run into further trouble. (Ref: France, India committed to Jaitapur project, WNN)

What do you think is the issue with respect to the EPRs? Why is it suddenly that the cost of EPRs has gone up by almost 30% and Flamanville now is going to cost a whopping 8.3 billion euros, if the figure that EDF (Électricité de France) is saying are correct? (Ref: EDF raises French EPR cost to over $11 billion, Reuters)

AG: The EPRs, which are the reactors, which are meant for Jaitapur, they’re under sharp focus even in Europe, everywhere. Especially after the Fukushima accident, because as you know, the European Union conducted a series of stress tests among the European countries to look at what modifications need to be done if any to the European nuclear reactors. So, in doing this, France, of course, took on the task of looking after their reactors and so also did Finland.

And the reason I mention Finland is, the EPRs today are in three places. There is the first reactor which was started, the EPR couldn’t be sold in France initially, so they went and convinced the Finnish people and they bought one reactor, which is under construction since 2008 and it was promised to be completed way earlier. I mean it was, in four years time, but it never took place. And because it has already run in to various problems in its.. earlier stages, the Finnish people were very particular that they should reexamine the EPR design, which they have. And at the same time, the French nuclear regulator, who is one of the strictest in the world, I mean, it is very impartial and competent regulatory agency…

PP: It reports directly to the President of France.

AG: Yes and they have a transparency law, a nuclear transparency law under which the public have to be kept informed about it. Basically, quite a model that if half of that can be followed in India we’ll be much better off. In any case, so, they have also done the same thing and they have come up with various things in the system, which they think can be strengthened. Mainly because, now we are talking about beyond design-basis accidents. Earlier, you know, it was really designed only to full care of the design-basis accidents, nothing beyond design-basis, which means this extraordinarily high earthquakes, floods, etc. Now it has been made mandatory that those things also, you should show that under those circumstances also public safety will be ensured.

So, I think, the French after a detailed study, in about six or nine months they completed it, and they have made it mandatory that certain corrections will have to be made, and its an extensive list. It would require hardware changes. It also asks for, some substantial changes are being made that ultimately the entire safety analysis report will have to be redone so that the Integrated System Safety can be studied and also a probabilistic safety analysis will also have to be repeated.

So, it would imply even for the Flamanville reactor, which is the French reactor, this will imply a substantial increase in cost plus also increase in schedule, it will also get extended. And the Finnish having seen this they certainly don’t want to be one step behind the French and they wanted all those corrections also to be made in the Finnish reactor, EPR reactor. But in addition the Finnish inspections and studies also pointed to some new further changes that they wanted, which in turn the French also accepted. Therefore, what the Finland people thought of is also getting incorporated in the French reactor there. Ultimately, the EPR and Areva is getting overload with all the changes which they have to do if they want to sell these reactors anywhere in Europe. And this going to add about 25 to 30% more cost. The EPR was one of the costliest reactors even before all of this. And now, as you know, it has all come down to about 36 crores, in our terms, 36 crores per megawatt.

PP: That’s the interesting part. When it started it was 3 billion euros for Flamanville, 3.3 billion euros for the Finnish reactor, now they are all talking about 7 to 8 billion. Électricité de France, in fact, said it’s going to be 8.3 billion euros, which calculated in Indian terms, comes to 36 crore per megawatt.

Now, coming to one particular point that you had mentioned about the stress tests, which the European regulators did for the European existing nuclear reactors. India seems to have done a stress test within a month and declared that all the reactors are safe and there’s nothing to be done, including the Tarapur reactor, which as we know has the same problem as the Fukushima design had. In fact, there is a problem over the power system, which is not backed up, and so on. And yet, in the report of Tarapur it says yes back-up power systems have to be provided, they’ve given them two years and in this meanwhile in these two years Tarapur reactors are still supposed to run. How do you look at that?

AG: I think we are sitting on the brink of disaster with Tarapur. In 1995, when I visited United States as the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, I had an opportunity to talk to the Department of Energy officials. I had gone on a sort of a sensitive mission trying to get some spare parts, some essential spare parts for the Tarapur reactor. Now, it can be said. That time I was sent with a list of spare parts written, typed up in a plain sheet of paper, with no signature, with no letterhead of the Department of Atomic Energy. And I was supposed to go discuss and tell them, this has come from Department of Atomic Energy and could you sell us these parts. And they were all for the Tarapur reactor.

So, I, Hazel O’Leary, was the Secretary of Energy at that time, she had come before that to India. So, I had also met her at that time. She said, you’re welcome. Come to Washington. We’ll see. So, I took this along with various other things which we wanted to discuss, but I gave this paper to her and she was sympathetic, because she understood the public safety aspect of it; that is if this reactor melts down it’s also a bad name for the United States.

Mind you, the days when I was doing all this were pre-2008 and post-1990. I mean not the 1998’sbut we were still under sanctions, U.S. sanctions. To make a long story short, she took this list and there’s a White House group which has to clear such requests first, and that included their National Security Advisor, and others. And they.. Next day, she called me up and said, Please come, I want to talk you. I went there and she said, I’m very sorry the White House group is totally against it. So, I was told to tell you to inform the Government of India that if they feel that strongly about the safety of Tarapur, it will be best if they shut down those reactors and not operate them.

This is a very considered opinion that these reactors have to be shut down. They are one of the oldest reactors. We’ve talked to the General Electric people and they also advised that this should be done. Then they gave me couple of the old-timers from General Electric who were in Washington D. C., put me in touch with them and told me a story. And some of them were involved with the Tarapur construction at that time. They said, look we ourselves don’t even have the  drawings of any kind of that and we’re on telephone giving instructions to Tarapur people to make this change and that change, and they were cutting and re-welding all that inside that reactor, what is left there and the state of health we are not aware. And it will be good if those, I’m telling it as from a technical person to technical person, it will best if those reactors are shut down. And this was the year 1996.

And today, we are sitting here about what…

Both simultaneously: seventeen years down the line.

AG: And of course in between the Nuclear Power Corporation has gone ahead and done some revamping and all that they have said they have done. And we’re still running them. These reactors are an even older version than the Fukushima reactors, which went into trouble. And many things, I mean the containment is shared by two reactors share the same containment building. And various things in there the emergency core-cooling system are not the ideal ones, even today…  This is why when India recently decided to get, invite the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) team to review one of our reactors, one of our reactor plants, I thought that they would at least ask Tarapur to be reviewed, because you know it would have been the most relevant reactor to select. If you want an independent honest opinion from a multinational group, and that’s just not Americans. It’s not that all of them are going to gang up and say shut down this reactor, unless there is technically good reasons.

So, anyway, this reactor was not given. And what we put before the IAEA team was, what I would consider some of the best, two of the best reactors of our current generation PHWR (Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor), obviously we didn’t get much of a criticism, because those reactors are reasonably okay and new. We had placed Tarapur to for such a study, I’m sure in fourteen days of their inspection they would have come out and given us a list of hundred and fifty things which need to be changed. Much more likely that they would have said it is best that you shut down.

PP: So, Tarapur is a ticking bomb.

AG: Tarapur is.

PP: Tarapur Unit 1 and 2 are ticking bombs

AG: And I think in the same way among the projects, which say that we are concentrating on the safety of a lot of these imported plants, etc., but the similar ticking bomb among the projects is the Fast Breeder Reactor which we are building very quietly down there [in Kalpakkam], knowing very little about it. This is a big scale of act from a 40 megawatt thermal to 100 megawatt electric fast breeder, which is about a step of 40 increase, a factor of 40 and the two don’t look alike at all.

Fast Breeder technology, you know, I myself worked for three years on a fast breeder on the operating side. I can tell you that it’s not a benign technology at all. It is not a forgiving technology. If something goes wrong, it will boom the whole countryside will go.

So, I can only keep my fingers crossed. I wish much more transparency comes out in these programmes. Both Tarapur and here. And you know, why, what are we risking all this for? In Tarapur with all the de-rating and all that today, ultimately there are 160-megawatt per reactor we are getting. So, two reactors put together we are getting we have about 320-megawatt electricity. You can just as well set up a coal based plant or something else. If Tarapur is not that close to major cities, you could very well set up that and decommission this, or use that site or the neighbouring site, already there are two other PHWRs there which are producing 1000 megawatt altogether.

So, I think we are doing a lot of foolish things and pushing our luck far beyond. And this going for the Jaitapurville is also a similar situation of pushing our luck beyond.

PP: Jaitapur brings me to this issue of cost, of course, because apart from the safety issues, there is a issue of cost. And we already have in Maharashtra they show Enron, where we went in again for a foolish project where the cost of electricity today from Dabhol is so high that it virtually runs, it doesn’t run at all, or if it runs, it runs at one-sixth of its capacity. So, if we have 36 crore per megawatt, the electricity cost is going to be Rs. 12 to Rs. 14 a unit, and that cost is really not viable. So, why is Government of India really pushing for such an unviable nuclear path? That doesn’t seem to be clear.

AG: It’s a very clear thing, now that I look back. Now, I have been studying the Indo-US Nuclear Deal threadbare from day one. The whole thing has its origin in deception, in a way. I think the Prime Minister did not start this entire nuclear power programme, imported reactor programme, was not set up with power enhancement of electric power in the country but basically it was… As Kakodkar himself, as previous Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, accepted in one of his interviews with a Marathi newspaper it was really a gift to three or four nations, which helped us in getting this energy clearance, Nuclear Supply Group clearance for the deal. And I’ll tell you that in 2005 July the Prime Minister went to America, came back with this agreement for out of the nuclear pariah status. And interestingly in 2006 the, Montek Singh sitting as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission creates a Integrated Energy Policy (IEP), in 2006. And in there, it is built in that 63,000 megawatt of nuclear power will set up by 2032. That’s the date, 2032. It is part of 63,000 megawatt of nuclear, if you analyze you find that in a you’d find that in DAE’s earlier books you’ll find that 23,000, which was their projection of the indigenous programmes’ capability by 2032. So it is clearly a 40 added to the 23 that was already in the books. And lo and behold, up to 2008 when the deal was signed, Kakodkar announced that we need a surge by introducing 40 gigawatt of imported light water reactors. Then only we can really move forward to something like 600 gigawatts, that is 600,000 megawatts of nuclear by 2050. And that would be at that point about 50% of the energy.

Grand over projection, but nevertheless to achieve that he said it was imperative that 48,000 megawatt should be imported, light water reactors should be imported, with 20 years. Now, that is how the case for a nuclear import is built in… and then you go back in history and even Kakodkar said this in 2008. And 2006 we have letters written by the Foreign Secretary to the American State Department promising that we will buy at least 10,000 megawatt of US reactors from them.

PP: Gopal, let’s take this out from India for the moment, let’s look at what’s happening to the programme elsewhere . We’ll do that in the next part of this discussion. So, keep watching Newsclick and the next part of the discussion for what’s happening to the nuclear programme in the world.

***

This English transcript was done by volunteers in Chai Kadai. Feel free to share, copy, distribute and translate this transcript under this Creative Commons license. Please attribute the video interview to A Gopalakrishnan and Newsclick.

Chai Kadai. (chaikadai.wordpress.com | chaikadai@gmail.com)

The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India

M V Ramana in conversation with Nityanand Jayaraman

Date: February 18, 2013. Location: Asian College of Journalism

Published on Youtube on Mar 3, 2013. 30 mins 21s.

English transcript available below. Download the transcript in .doc format.

NJ: Dr. M V Ramana is a physicist at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory, Princeton University. Besides authoring numerous technical papers on the subject of nuclear power, Dr. Ramana is also known as an eloquent and an articulate speaker on the geopolitics of nuclear energy and its changing prospects over the years. In late 2012, Penguin India has published his first solo book, which is called The Power of Promise. He is currently in Chennai, as part of a multi-city tour of India to discuss and release his book. Good afternoon, Dr. Ramana. Thank you very much for being with us at ACJ.

So your book has a very interesting title, The Power of Promise, and in Tamil Nadu, we are painfully aware of the undelivered promises of power, especially the electricity. What is the point that you are trying to make by this title that you have chosen?

Click on cover to see the book in Flipkart.com

Click on cover to see the book in Flipkart.com

MVR: The title came after I wrote the book and as I was studying the history of nuclear energy in India. And what I saw was that over the course of the last seven decades when nuclear power has been established in this country since its inception of the Department of Atomic Energy, the nuclear establishment has made a number of promises of how important nuclear power is going to be as a source of electricity generation in the country, in the future. These projections have always been for the future and they have never been delivered as such. But, by making this promise that in the future there is going to be a large amount of power, they ensure that the Department of Atomic Energy and all the nuclear activities it conducts are supported by the political leadership as well as the elite in the country and this is also combined with yet another promise.

So, the promise here is of two natures. One is of large amounts of energy in the future, but also of, perfect security through building of nuclear weapons. And the Department of Atomic Energy is unique in being a technology that offers these two different promises, these two different aspirations that the elite have. One of being able to consume large amounts of energy, which they feel is necessary for development and economic growth. And of nuclear weapons, which they feel is going to provide them with security. In that sense, nuclear power forms a technology that offers the capacity for mass production, mass consumption, and mass destruction; in that sense, very very unique. What I find is that the nuclear establishment gets its political power through these promises.

NJ: One of the important, kind of, methods by which the nuclear establishment has tried to get its bind to this project, to this whole programme, has been its much doubted three-stage programme. And your book suggests that this has been and will remain a non-starter. Can you tell us more about what this three stage programme is and why you think its going to be a non-starter?

MVR: Before I would say, first I would say, I don’t think it is a non-starter. It has already started, but it’s going it be a non-deliverer. The three-stage programme was first enunciated by the Department of Atomic Energy, in particular its founder who is called Homi Bhabha. The first time he talked about this in 1954 and this was in the context of a debate in parliament, with a critic of the nuclear establishment  as it had been set up at that point, a chap called Meghnad Saha, who was a well-known physicist. And Bhabha basically used the idea that India has a large amount of thorium and he wanted to try and use that thorium to try and make their nuclear power. The reason he wanted to do that has to do with this question of promise.

Let me start by explaining what the basic issue is. So if you wanted to generate large amounts of nuclear power in the country, then you needed large amounts of uranium. And at that time, and subsequently too, what it seems is the case with India and, Indian geology in particular, is that we have fairly limited amount of uranium and the uranium is not particularly of good quality. And to qualify that let me also point out, by limited amount, I mean limited amount of uranium that’s high of quality, that its economic to mine it. Uranium is plentiful. You can find it in your backyard. The amount of uranium you will find by sifting through your entire backyard, will probably be a few grams. So, its not worth it. But, if you wanted to look for somewhat good quality uranium ore then the amounts are fairly limited in India.

Now, nuclear energy is to be big source of power; and that too you want to do it in such a way that it only depends on indigenous resources, then you could not depend on this uranium as it were. It so happens that India also has a large amount of thorium and around the world at that time [1950s], people in nuclear establishments in many different parts of the world felt, France for example, all felt they had limited amounts of uranium and they had to find ways of  exploiting this thorium, which is typically found more abundantly around the world. And as a way to do that, they set up a three-stage programme. In the first stage, what you do is find natural uranium that you find in nature in the cores of what are called heavy water reactors. These are reactors where the neutrons are slowed down through an interaction with water, where there is a heavier isotope of hydrogen called deutirium, which is present. And that deutrinium slows down the neutrons so efficiently that the neutrons have a much higher probability of hitting another nucleus of uranium causing it to fission. So that’s the first stage of reactors.

The next stage is that you take the spent fuel, that is the fuel that has been irradiated inside a nuclear reactor, during the course of which the uranium that’s initially in the fuel would have got converted to plutonium. So you take this spent fuel, after cooling it for a while, you process it in a reprocessing plant, which is basically a chemical plant where you dissolve it in acid and so on, add various chemicals, trying to separate the plutonium. The plutonium in turn, in the second phase, will be used to fuel the reactor, which is called a breeder reactor. A  breeder reactor is one where the core has plutonium, which is actually the one which is fission-ing, and then is surrounded by the blanket of other uranium or thorium, which in turn will absorb some of the neutrons that are escaping from the core of the reactor, to be converted into plutonium, if it’s uranium, or Uranium 233, a different isotope if it’s thorium. And in turn if you produce enough Uranium 233, you could start thinking about reactors where you had Uranium 233 in the core and thorium [indistinct word]…  So, this is the three-stage idea that Bhabha had.

All-Atomic Comics pp. 17 Breeders. Leonard Rifas

All-Atomic Comics pp. 17 Breeders. Leonard Rifas. Click on image to read.

The problem with this idea is essentially the second stage. The second stage involve these so called breeder reactors and these breedor reactors, because of the fact that you’re using this highly fissile plutonium in a very dense configuration you produce a huge amount of heat in a very small volume and this requires the use of metals, molten metals to conduct this heat on to the reactor. You cannot lose water. And this has been a huge source of problems with nuclear reactors around the world. The other set of problems with breeder reactors are that they are susceptible to certain kinds of very catastrophic accidents. All of these typically conspired to make breeder reactors very expensive. And as a result of these many countries, which initially thought much about breeder reactors, have abandoned this idea; this includes the United States, includes the United Kingdom, France… So, as of now, it’s mostly India and Russia, and to small extents China, which is interested in this. If you get through this whole stage, then you have to get to the thorium problem/stage, and thorium has all the problems of the second stage of uranium and other problems, which have to do with the fact that when it produces Uranium 233, it comes with a contaminant, which is Uranium 232, which highly radioactive. So, even to make that substance into fuel rods, you have to do it remotely behind concrete walls and things of that sort, which makes the process very expensive. So, thorium, I would expect it to be much more expensive than the breeder reactors we have. 

NJ: But, we do have a breeder reactor in Kalpakkam coming up.

MVR: We do have, and I’ll talk about that.

NJ: Okay, we’ll come to that in a bit. Now, authoritative sources, including the likes of the Prime Minister, have suggested that India will get nearly 275 gigawatts of electricity through nuclear power by 2052. And we have seen numerous news reports that have just reproduced this, without any critical insight into how achievable it is. What are your thoughts on this and what do you say about it in the book?

MVR: These kind of goals, as I have said, have been enunciated many many times in the past and have never been achieved. The 275000 megawatts by 2052 came around in the early 2000s. And actually in more recent years, it has been devised in a upward storm to 470,000. I’ve seen figures as of that. Apart from all the other problems of nuclear power that it has, long reactor construction time, it’s expensive, all that, all those issues, there is a special problem to this particular projection.

This particular projection is based on building large number of breeder reactors. These breeder reactors, I’ve told you have other problems, but even if you set aside all those problems, assume that you have the money to put in to this and so on, there’s a problem with this projection, which has to do with the accounting for the plutonium that is required. So, as I mentioned earlier, breeder reactors are ones where if you put in a certain amount of plutonium it could generate more plutonium at the end of the cycle. But, in order to get that plutonium out you have to do various things. So, you will have to take the spent fuel out of the reactor, you will have to wait for it to cool, you have to reprocess it in a reprocessing plant, then you will have to take the plutonium out, and make it into fuel rods, rebuild another reactor core with it and then start that reactor. All those things take a certain amount of time. And in the case of the DAE’s projections they have just not alloted enough time for that. So, this is not a matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, it is a matter of physics.

And in mathematical terms, for those people who ubderstand mathematics, the difference between having what’s called a differential equation and a what’s called a difference equation. And the DAE’s thing is inaccurate because it just assumes that the growth will be so smooth and exponential whereas you have to take in to account these discreet actions which have to be done. Once you put into… again, if you go by the DAE’s projections, you will actually end up soon in five to six, ten years with negative amounts of plutonium, because you need the plutonium to fuel the reactor and so on. This is not enough plutonium for that. If you do try to be careful about the plutonium accounting and not assume to have produced it out of thin air, then what happens is these projections are automatically down by 40 to 60%. And if you try to get into account more realistic projections, then you’ll probably come out with 80% of what they have have. Even at the theoritical level, you are not going to be able to reach 275000-475000 numbers that you are talking about.

NJ: Then that figure you’re saying assumes that the second and third stage will be able to go up to…

MVR: This is all only the second stage.

NJ: Only second stage.

MVR: Yeah thorium, even in Department of Atomic Energy’s plans, comes about only after 2052. ….Also, I want to say one more thing about thorium, since you have talked about it. Which is that, there used to be a joke in the electronics industry. The electronics industry, as you know, is mostly based on silicon. And in the 80s, they used to talk about germanium as being ideal metal for semi-conductors and all kinds of chips and so on. But, germanium was found to have various problems. So in the 80s and 90s, people used to make this joke about germanium – Germanium is the material of the future, always has been, always will be. And you see, thorium is very much like that. It’s this magic grade that they want to have it, it’s always in the future, and always will remain in the future.

NJ: Your book meticulously highlights the various mishaps and hurdles faced during the construction and commissioning of various reactors. In one instance, you mention a fire and an explosion proceeded and closely followed the Prime Minister’s visit to Kalpakkam, when she went there, when Indira Gandhi went there to dedicate the MAPS-1 reactor to the nation. Was this incident widely reported? Do these mishaps, which you know are infamously called incidents, come to light automatically and immediately?

MVR: Usually not. In some cases, they do come about. I think, I do not know actually if this widely reported at that point. I found out about it actually through the writings of the retired DAE Secretary, M R Srinivasan, in his autobiography he had talked about this. That’s how I found out about it. What typically happens in  many of these cases is that immediately after the event you often will not find anything about it in public media. Occassionally, some workers leak news of these kinds of things to media and so on. That’s how you find out about it. You find out some, some mishaps through the annual reports that the atomic energy regulatory board…so, you find some information. The picture is neither completely dark nor completely transparent. It’s somewhat mixed. You do find out some details, but some times not.

The 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) under construction at Kalpakkam. Photo credits: S Raghunathan, The Hindu.

The 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) under construction at Kalpakkam. Photo credits: S Raghunathan, The Hindu.

NJ: You’re now in Chennai, a metropolis less than 100 kms from Kalpakkam. And on the other side of Kalpakkam sits Pondicherry, another teeming town. NPCIL [Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.] claims, I mean I know one of its, 25th year, it claimed that the Kalpakkam plants have operated without any hazards for several reactor years. How true is this? What are the kind of facilities that are currently running in Kalpakkam? Is there any cause for concern for people who are living in Chennai or in Pondicherry?

MVR: I would answer this at three levels. First level is, asking just what we know, in terms of empirical things. There have been a number of small incidents of the kind that you have mentioned, various heavy water leaks, things tripping, so on and so forth. Now, if you think about all these things as some kind of an indicator of the health of the system it is sort of like saying – if there is a man that is going around, or woman for that matter who is going around, who has got occassional shortness of breath, who is not able to climb stairs, who has some occasional slight chest pain, and things of that sort, he or she might have not had a heart attack at that point, but clearly those signs are not good. Another thing, to sort of, look at this whole picture is to say, look at the experience so far and can you decide that there has, because there hasn’t been any major accidents, catastrophic accidents, that the system is safe. And again, the answer is no, because the number of years of experience is very very limited compared to the accuracy at the confidence that you want to have about how few accidents there are.

So, to give you an example, if you see the discussions about Koodankulam or any of these reactors, they would often say things like, we have done our analysis of this and the probability of a core damage accident in this will be 10-6  per reactor, or 10-7 , or something like that. Really small number, one part in a million, or one part in ten million, and so on and so forth. If you wanted to get that kind of a figure from empirical data, you would have to have tens and hundreds of thousands of years of reactor experience, without any accidents, to say well this is reasonable. In the absence of that kind of experience, you cannot say, you cannot be sure of this number with any great confidence.

Finally, I would say the most concern about the kind of facilities that they are building in Kalpakkam are two-fold. One, is this breeder reactor that they are constructing, the prototype fast-breeder reactor. It’s the first reactor, commercial scale reactor of the second stage of this nuclear programme. It’s a 500 megawatt reactor, fueled by plutonium, with liquid sodium removing the heat from the core. And this has various problems with its design. In particular, it has something called the positive void coefficient which is very dangerous, which actually led to the accident in Chernobyl, the reactor has a certain kind of behaviour that is not stable. And this proto-fast breeder reactor has been built with a containment, which is the big structure that you see from far in any reactor, which is not of adequate strength in order to contain the accident, if one should happen, a really worse case accident. So, that’s one area where I will concerned about the Kalpakkam reactor.

The second thing is the reprocessing plant, which also is in Kalpakkam, where spent fuel is chopped up and dissolved in acid and plutonium extracted. When this process is done, one should remember that all the radioactivity that is sitting inside this spent fuel, none of it goes away, because that’s a physical property. We cannot destroy radioactivity. So, what happens is all this radioactivity gets stored in the form of, what are called, high level waste, which is extremely concentrated source of radioactivity; usually kept in steel tanks. Ideally, one would like to seal this liquid, actually blend it with glass to form something that is called vitrified waste. In Kalpakkam, for whatever reason, I don’t know why they haven’t managed to get the vitrification plant to work. All the annual reports from the Department of Atomic Energy talk about them building a reprocessing, I mean a vitrification plant, and they always say work is progressing, it’s expected to be completed. But, I have never seen one which says it is completed, as of about a year or so. So, in my sense, even if the  plant is not operating  there will probably be a huge backlog high level waste and this is something which if cooling fails for some reason it can actually explode due to the chemical reactions, in principle it’s possible and this kind of explosion has happened in 1957 at the Mayak processing plant in the Soviet Union, which contaminated a huge area of land. So, that goes to the kinds of things that there would be any worry about.

NJ: Nuclear electricity is cheap! What do your studies suggest, conclude about this suggestion?

All-Atomic Comics pp. 22. Leonard Rifas.

All-Atomic Comics pp. 22. Leonard Rifas.

MVR: This claim about nuclear power being cheap has been made in two ways. One is when the early days of nuclear power, they talked about it being too cheap to meter. That it is so cheap that you don’t even have to cost it, and so on. Those kinds of claims have largely vanished. The Economist magazine said nuclear power has changed from being too cheap to meter to being too expensive to matter. Something of that sort. But, now if you look at the other way by which they talk about this, when nuclear power is compared with another source of energy and ultimate dismay that is cheaper than that.

So, in India the primary source of energy of electricity generation in the country has been coal. And nuclear power has been consistently compared to that. So, in the early years, what they quickly realized was that nuclear power can’t compete directly with coal. So, the strategy was to say, well, near the coal mines, we will certainly not be able to compete, but as you go further and further away from where most of the coal is mined, then you have to include the cost of transporting coal to that thing. And the assumption is, once you go sufficiently far away, then nuclear power is going to become cheaper. So, there will be at least some parts of the country where it makes economic sense to have nuclear power, because the cost of delivering coal for generating electricity will be too high.

So, in the early years, what they would talk about in the 50s and 60s, they were talking about 600 kilometres of distance, 500 or 600 kilometres, and once you go beyond that then nuclear power would be cheaper. But this was before any reactors had actually been built. Once the first set of reactors had been built and their costs sort of understood, what happened was you found that this was not going to happen. So, by the 1980s, as the first reactors happen, they talked about it being 800 kilometres away. Once it was 800 kilometres away, then it can compete. But then, they were very confident at that time, that by the 1990s, Oh, we would have lowered the costs of nuclear power plants, so that it’s going to compete even with the pithead where the coal is mined. Now come the 1990s, all they could say was, you go to 1200 kilometres and then maybe it is going to be competitive. Now, this is roughly the period when I started looking into nuclear power and the early 2000s I made a costing of comparing electricity being generated at the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant, with a core plant that had recently been constructed at that point at Raichur.

Now, the other thing that you found in all these studies of economics was that they would never use costs of real nuclear power plants, real core plants. There would be some arbitrary figure, 5 crores per megawatt, 3 crores per megawatt, sort of just pulled out of a hat and say, this is the cost of your nuclear power plant. So, we said, no we would like do it empirically, and we look at the Kaiga plant and the Raichur plant. The coal for the Raichur plant comes from 1400 kilometres away. So, more than the 1200 kilometres. And we still found that nuclear power is more expensive for realistic discount rates.

The other claim that you see all the time is that nuclear power so far has not been cheaper but in the future it is going to be cheaper, because we are going to decrease the costs of building these nuclear power plants. Again, experience around the world suggests that this is not the case. In both the United States and France, which have the had the most experience building nuclear power plants, costs have actually increased over a period of time. And this is primarily because, they have had to incorporate more and more safety features into nuclear reactors in part, and in part because everything else has become more and more expensive. So, on the whole I would say, the claim that nuclear power is cheap is just not been found to be true.

NJ: This, you’re not even going into the aspects of waste management and costs of an catastrophic event.

MVR: That’s right. And also, in these so called breeder reactors, this tends to be even more expensive than ordinary reactors.

NJ: So, why is it that if nuclear power is so hazardous, so dirty, so unpopular, why is it that civil countries with democratic governments  are pursuing this so avidly?

MVR: This is a million dollar question. I think that it’s…to answer that, I think you have to understand that countries are not unitary objects. There are different people involved, there are different groups involved. Some of the costs, many of the risks and so on are very unequally borne. The primary risk of having a nuclear power plant accident from a nuclear power plant is very local. Even though, some amount of radioactivity might escape and might spread all over the world, as in the case of Chernobyl and so on, the primary impact is within tens of kilometres of a nuclear power plant whereas for somebody sitting in Delhi or Bombay faraway that’s not a big issue.

Likewise, many of these things, I think, are not, are done on the basis of taxpayer money, not on the base of private money. And in many countries where nuclear power has been put to the test at the market place, even if it is backed up with strong political commitment by the political leadership it has often failed. This has been the case in the United States, it is proving to be the case right now as we are speak in the United Kingdom… so on and so forth. I think that the places where it can be absorbed through some combination of government largesse and public taxpayer money, has been the place where it grows.

NJ: And finally, what is your take on Koodankulam? And what would you do if you were in control of the country’s decision making? And what would you have done and what would you do now that the protests have erupted?

Sea Siege. Koodankulam 08 October 2012. Photo credits: Amritharaj Stephen.

Sea Siege. Koodankulam 08 October 2012. Photo credits: Amritharaj Stephen.

MVR: Yeah. So, that’s a very big if. Somebody like me would never be in the government, in a position of power, but let me try and answer that to the extent that I could. So, you said, if I were in a position of power right now, as your first position, that I take to mean, that I couldn’t sort of answer something like, well, I will just abandon the project as it is. Because that would come out of huge political cost. Assuming that particular answer is not open to me, let me try and suggest a few things, I think, a good responsible government should do in this place.

So, the argument here is that you have already spent 17,000 crores on it, we cannot waste that investment, and so somebody has to bare the risk and so on and so forth. I think that three things should be done. One is that, if this plant were to be commissioned, it should be commissioned with complete transparency to the local people, who are the people who are concerned about the safety of it. So, I would say, if in order to win their trust, which is completely absent at this point, I would open up the operating records, as and when the plant is commissioned. And if at any stage, the local population, if they feel uncomfortable about this plant, about how it is operating and maybe invoking the use of expert knowledge from other places and so on feel that this plant is not operating well, then I would commit to having that shut down and those problems rectified.

The second, I would say, is that having learnt this lesson from Koodankulam, no more nuclear power plants should be commissioned without the consent of the people who live in the neighbourhood. So, in the case of Jaitapur for example, where the local population has clearly shown that they are not interested, that they do not want this plant, I would abandon it right away. This is not fair to sort of do that.

And finally, to address the fact that many of the people who are opposing this plant, are not just opposing it because of fear of radiation or of accidents, but also because it is going to impact their livelihood, the least one can do is to say, well, we would compensate you in case you find, for example, that fish catch are going down or people are not buying your fish or something like that. To which you have to start some kind of baseline survey, and then make some arrangements for how these people will be compensated in case they are going to be bearing losses.

These I think are three very minimal measures that have to be taken, short of sort of shutting this down, if you’re going to ahead with commissioning it.

NJ: One last question I had has got to do with this nuclear power plant in New York, Shoreham, which was, I think, abandoned at the last stage and was then subsequently converted in to using gas as a fuel. Now, why was that done? Why wouldn’t that be a feasible option in India?

Wunderland Kalkar 024

Wunderland Kalkar 024 (Photo credit: Henk-Jan van der Klis)

MVR: It could entirely be a feasible option. I have not really looked in to that. That’s one reason I am not talking about it. That’s an excellent question. There have been plants that have been abandoned at various stages after construction. And perhaps, the even better example than Shoreham is that of the Kalkar reactor in Germany, near the border with Netherlands, which was actually abandoned after the whole plant construction had been done, costing about 5 billion dollars, but before the fuel was loaded in to it. And it was subsequently converted in to an amusement park.

Coming back to the basic question, if you want to say you’ve built this infrastructure, some of it can certainly be salvaged and used for other kinds of power generation, whether that is a realistic alternative or what are the costs of that I have not looked in to this, I have not seen any body else look in to this, so I cannot say it with any authority as to what that would be, how much that would cost, how feasible that would be, and what would have to be left out.

NJ: Thank you very much, Ramana, for your time.

MVR: Thank you.

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Credits:

Camera: Abdullah Nurullah, Urvashi Mukherjee, Shatakshi Gawade, Bhaskar Goswami.

Editor: Soofara Ali

Assistant Editors: Shataskshi Gawade, Abdulla Nurullah

Special thanks to Sashi Kumar, Chairman, Asian College of Journalism.

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This English transcript was done by volunteers in Chai Kadai. Feel free to share, copy, distribute and translate this transcript under this Creative Commons license. Please attribute the video interview to the authors and Asian College of Journalism. 

Chai Kadai. (chaikadai.wordpress.com | chaikadai@gmail.com)

 

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Nuclear Power vs. People Power by Raminder Kaur. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Article Highlights

  • India’s ambitions include a tenfold increase in nuclear power so it supplies 25 percent of the nation’s energy  needs by 2050. Two 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors at Koodankulam are expected to go online very soon — the first commissioned reactors since Fukushima.
  • The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy has successfully mobilized tens of thousands of Indian citizens to join nonviolent protests, while the Indian state has resorted to  harassment and threats of violence.
  • The nuclear establishment is the darling of Indian statehood, with far more people employed by the nuclear industry than the renewable energy sector. Citizen calls for increased transparency, accountability, and proper adherence to procedure have been met  with repeated denials, deferrals, and deceit.

Kaur is the author of Atomic Bombay: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns (2012) andPerformative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism (2003/5). She is also co-author of Diaspora and Hybridity (with Virinder Kalra and John Hutnyk, 2005) and co-editor of Censorship in South Asia (with William Mazzarella, 2009),Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (with Ajay Sinha, 2005) andTravel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics (with John Hutnyk, 1999). She is based in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex.