Information Asymmetry in the Informal Waste Ecosystem


SELLING IN THE DARK


kabadiwalla connect

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 7)

As a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.
– Benjamin Disraeli

LEARNING FROM THE EXPERIENCES OF THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR

What do Indian farmers and rag-pickers have in common? At face level, both groups couldn’t be more different: one’s livelihood is based on producing crops, while the other earns a living by salvaging waste. But interestingly, both operate within sectors that are structured in a very inequitable fashion.

Consider these statistics: according to a report published by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in 2013, the average monthly income of an agricultural household is INR 6426. Dr Rahul Singh, from the Birla Institute of Management Technology, estimates that Indian rag-pickers earn anything between Rs. 45 to 80 in a day – an average of Rs. 1875 each month. In both sectors, however, the final product accrues much more value at the higher end of the supply chain, and is traded for much higher prices than what farmers and rag-pickers receive.

There are many reasons attributed to the unequal distribution of profits, especially at the lower end of the supply chain; one important factor is the unequal access to crucial information relating to the market.

In technical terms, this is referred to as ‘information asymmetry’ – a market economy which has ‘imperfect information’ between all the players. Information asymmetry can be defined as a situation where some party in a transaction benefits from having preferential access to information, leading to power imbalances in transactions.

Information asymmetry can exist across different industries and verticals. In India, it is particularly prevalent in the agriculture sector. A recent report describes the disconnect that exists between the industry’s multiple activities – including planning production, growing, harvesting, packing and transport, among others – which can lead to increased transaction costs, market friction and a situation in which particular stakeholders wield more power than others.

SELLING IN THE DARK | COMMONALITIES BETWEEN THE WASTE AND AGRICULTURAL MARKETS

In the agricultural sector, this asymmetry manifests itself in a variety of ways. In terms of structure, the industry comprises of farmers who produce crops, traders and middlemen who aggregate, wholesalers who bid for the produce aggregated by the traders, and eventually, consumers. Buying and selling of produce takes place at specified neighborhood markets, or ‘mandis’ and these are largely dominated by traders.

In general, farmers at the bottom of the supply chain are completely dependent on these traders to push their wares to consumers. They are particularly disadvantaged because of fewer opportunities of what is called ‘spatial arbitrage’; since they are not mobile, they cannot collect cumulative information on current prices and patterns of demand across different markets. This is an expensive operation that is far beyond their capability and as a result, they are unable to make decisions that would maximise their profits

This situation is clearly illustrated in the survey conducted by the NSSO. According to this data, farming households are relatively unaware of government procurement options for crops and crop insurance schemes. They are also far removed from new technologies and guidance from state-run research institutes.

On the other hand, large traders have the capacity to collect this information from different markets, which gives them better bargaining power over the farmers. It also gives them an understanding of how to hike the prices of produce, significantly increasing their mark-up. Besides this, large traders have the advantage of temporal arbitrage; that is, those who have the capital to store large quantities of produce for longer periods of time can also affect market prices in specific localities by doing so. The end result is fairly straightforward: while consumers pay competitive prices for produce, farmers receive only a fraction of the income.

Interestingly, Kabadiwalla Connect’s primary research has shown similar cases of information asymmetry in the waste space. Much like the structuring of the agricultural sector, the informal waste space includes a variety of buyers and sellers along a complicated chain. At the bottom-most level are mobile rag-pickers, who source waste manually from street dumps, landfills and homes. Waste is then passed on to itinerant buyers (who have the added benefit of a vehicle) and stationary scrap-dealers of varying capacities and scales. Finally, waste is routed to recyclers who upcycle it to a product of a much higher value.

THE INFORMAL WASTE ECOSYSTEM | LACK OF INFORMATION HITS THE BOTTOM OF THE SUPPLY CHAIN HARDER

Predictably, it’s the rag-pickers and itinerant buyers who are most disadvantaged because of the lack of information. While they source and salvage waste, they do not have the knowledge or ability to add value to it in any way. On the other hand, scrap-dealers (especially those at the higher end of the chain), are much better equipped to do so. They purchase waste at extraordinarily low prices from rag-pickers and then align their management process to better meet industry demands. As you travel up the waste chain, they sort waste into increasingly specialized categories and aggregate it to the extent that will make them maximum profit. They also know to transport waste to geographies where demand is highest.

The knowledge of these dynamics is what allows scrap-dealers and wholesalers to push up their revenue while simultaneously paying their suppliers a bare minimum. What results is that players at the base level of the supply chain are highly underpaid – in countries like Nicaragua for example, waste-pickers earn between $1.50 to $2 per day, while in Mexico, the average is around $7 a day. In his paper ‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’, Martin Medina writes about how waste-pickers in Colombian, Indian and Mexican cities receive only 5 percent of what the recycling industry eventually pays for waste they supply.

LEARNING FROM OUR PRIMARY RESEARCH

One of the scrap-dealers whom we interviewed is based in MMDA Colony. Most of his competitors work out of rented or makeshift locations and purchase several categories of waste in small quantities. However, he has utilized his financial capability and knowledge to build a more successful enterprise. He invested in a 2400 square foot yard to aggregate material, and chose to specialize in only one category: paper. Rather than source his material from several stakeholders, he worked out contracts with a few printing presses in the city. These presses not only produce vast amounts of waste paper, ensuring a steady supply, but also shred it before handing it over to him, cutting down on the processing procedures he has to implement in his yard. Once the paper is brought to his yard, his staff sort it into super-specialized categories and bale it to save space. The scrap paper is aggregated until it can be sold for the highest price. His monthly revenue is over INR 1,00,000 – several times what an average kabadiwalla would make.

On the other hand, another scrap-dealer whom we spoke to in Kotturpuram had a very different model. He deals with 13 categories of waste, running the gamut from plastic and paper to metals like copper and aluminium. His suppliers are varied and operate in an ad hoc manner, and he has no understanding of the volume game, neglecting to aggregate his waste before selling it. He makes less than INR 10,000 every month.

TECHNOLOGY INTERVENTIONS | OPPORTUNITIES AND CAVEATS

There have been various attempts at tackling the information asymmetry in the agricultural sector. An interesting model sought to make market information available on a mobile platform, since cellphones are easily accessible in rural parts of the country. However, there are a few factors that limit the efficiency of these systems. For instance, many farmers are unable to bear the cost of using an online or mobile platform, which means that the service has to be free in order to have a wide reach; but on the flipside, services that are not economically self-sustaining also tend to lose support in the long run. Moreover, these systems are not always created and implemented with a good enough understanding of the needs of the farmers.

There doesn’t seem to have been any highly successful technological interventions tackling information asymmetry in the waste space. However, governments that have lent support to informal waste networks by regularising their functioning have, to an extent, managed to facilitate the free flow of information. In Brazil, for instance, the informal waste sector has been provided with institutional support and organised into unions and cooperatives, making it easier for rag-pickers and scrap-dealers to access information collectively. In India, while there are instances of self-organisation within the informal waste sector, we still have a long way to go until there is no exploitation within the ecosystem.


– Written by Siddharth Hande and 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
‘Role of AMIS in Resolving Information Asymmetries in Agricultural Markets: Guidelines for AMIS Design’ – Laxmi Gunupudi and Rahul De, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
‘Socio-Economic Issues in Waste Management By Informal Sector in India’ – Dr Rahul Singh, Birla Institute of Management Technology


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Innovations in the Informal Ecosystem in Chennai


NOTES FROM THE FIELD


kabadiwalla

MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 4)

This is a post by one of Kabadiwalla Connect’s research interns, Sannihit, who’s a student at IIT-Madras. Sannihit has been involved in collecting data from the field.

Walking through the streets of Chennai, hunting for kabadiwallas, I realised it is a relatively easy job to find them. Interspersed between houses and shops, many of these ubiquitous kabadiwallas often go unnoticed. And yet, they are the core of the informal waste management sector, the silent engines that take part in the process of waste management in the city. And my intention is to understand this ecosystem.

As I conducted the survey, I asked myself many questions about them and was confronted with doubts and contradictions. In this day and age, we are encouraged to consume more, and new needs are being created all the time. We define ourselves by our consumption patterns but not in terms of how we manage our waste. And ironically, when there is a system of kabadiwallas working with waste management, they are stigmatised for carrying out an ‘unclean’ job. Mr Rehman, one of the kabadiwallas I interviewed, is quite content with his business turnover. However, he said, “We are a little uneasy when people not only refuse to appreciate our job, but actually look down on it.”

Others aren’t even happy with their business profit. A regular complaint voiced by many kabadiwallas is that as more of them have mushroomed around Chennai, each shop’s customer base has declined. Other factors have also affected their business. “Over the past decade, there has been a steady decline in paper consumption. Digitisation has reduced the paperwork”, complains Mr Rajakumar, the owner of Vanaparvathi Waste Paper Mart.

This may not be a valid argument, since waste generation in the city continues to rise at an alarming rate – plastic covers, water bottles, magazines, furniture, electronic items etc. Even newspaper subscription rates continue to rise. On the other hand, Mr Rajakumar could be correct – especially if the increase in the number of kabadiwallas is disproportionate to the increase in waste generation. It’s also true that there are no restrictions on entry and exit in this system, thus making the field very competitive.

Time and space are key determinants of business for the kabadiwallas. The location of the shop is of prime importance. This factor greatly determines profits as well as methods of waste accumulation. Kabadiwallas located in residential areas usually collect the waste using a mechanical tricycle. Their business is relatively small. However, shops along the main roads manage to tap the waste flow from commercial spaces and many own motor vehicles. Kabadiwallas are also very conscious of ‘decency’ in the area in which they operate. The owner of Selva Vinayaka Paper Mart told me that he doesn’t generally doesn’t collect waste from rag-pickers, since his shop is close to a residential apartment and many of its residents would object to their presence.

Apart from all these observations, one thought kept me occupied for a while – should a situation come about in which the government takes it upon itself to responsibly recycle the waste generated in the city, will the kabadiwallas be considered a part of its policy? Cities in the western world very efficiently manage their waste by employing the latest technologies. However, in India, the same methods might disrupt the livelihood of the small-time kabadiwallas. In the Indian scenario, we cannot fail to capture the local subtleties. New technologies must help the kabadiwallas reinvent themselves in an evolving city. The small-timers should be provided with a level playing field. They should be equipped with information to conduct their job more efficiently.

A good economic return is a strong incentive for the kabadiwallas to actively expand their capacity. How does one help increase their revenue? On the other side of the equation, the kabadiwallas should equally be willing to adapt themselves. Will they accept changes that would unsettle their traditional work environment?


– written by Sannihit Bathula. 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.


MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 3)
MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 2)
MUSINGS ON WASTE (Part 1)

Tale of a Fish – an Anti-nuclear mime

Performed by Susanta Das at The Hive, Bandra, Mumbai on the 26th of October 2014. 47 mins 06s. via Satyen K. Bordoloi

“This is the tale of a little fish. It is a tale of power and politics, modernity and tradition, technology and nature. Through the eyes of the fish we get to see the different actors in this tale – the fisherman, the politician, the police and the protestors, and the nuclear power plant itself.” What happens to the little fish?

Update: Investigate Koodankulam Irregularities – Letter from Seventeen Eminent Activists, Scientists and Retd. Government Officials

10 September 2012

Photograph by Amirtharaj Stephen

23 October 2014

We, the undersigned, are deeply disturbed at newspaper reports about the serious damage sustained by Koodankulam Unit 1’s turbine even before the plant has begun commercial operation. We are also concerned at the total lack of accountability of the Department of Atomic Energy, NPCIL and AERB with respect to the Koodankulam project, and are worried about the safety ramifications of persisting with the commissioning of Unit 1 without a thorough and independent review of the plant, its components and the processes of setting it up. We are also shocked to see that unmindful of the problems plaguing Units 1 and 2, and the issues arising from lack of transparency in the nuclear establishment, NPCIL and the Government of India are moving ahead with work on Units 3 and 4.

It is now confirmed that Unit 1’s turbine is severely damaged and would require replacement. One Tamil newspaper reports that the turbine may be manufactured in India, and that this may entail a delay of two months. This is yet another instance of prevarication. Replacing a turbine at a nuclear power plant will take a lot longer than two months. As usual, no official clarification has been forthcoming from Nuclear Power Corporation India Ltd or its regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. If the reports about the damaged turbine are true, then it is cause for serious concern. The delay in commissioning is the least of the problems; the damaged turbine spotlights far more fundamental issues that impinge on the long-term viability and safety of the reactor. It vindicates allegations by observers and civil society about the compromised quality control and assurance system in India, and raises troubling and as yet unanswered questions about the substandard quality of equipment purchased from Russia.

The manner in which Koodankulam Units 1 and 2 have been constructed represent everything that is wrong with the Indian nuclear establishment. Equipment for the nuclear reactor and related infrastructure arrived way before they were erected, and had to spend years exposed to corrosive sea-air. Instrumentation and other cables that had to be laid before the construction of the containment dome arrived well after the dome was completed. To “manage” this, Indian engineers demolished portions of the containment dome to insert several kilometers of cabling. This is not only unprecedented in nuclear history, but also extremely worrisome for two reasons – first, it compromises the integrity of the containment dome; second, it highlights the casual and unplanned manner in which an extremely delicate and highly risky facility such as a nuclear reactor is actually being constructed.

Many components and critical equipment were manufactured by corruption-tainted companies that had reportedly used substandard raw material. Where countries like China and Bulgaria, which also received such substandard components, held Russian manufacturers to account and forced them to replace or repair such components, Indian authorities continue to deny that any such problem exists. To make matters worse, the entire exercise is shrouded in unnecessary secrecy with NPCIL and the AERB either remaining mum or communicating with partial truths or outright lies.

For these problems to happen at a nuclear reactor that has been at the focus of massive public attention makes us shudder to think what is being passed off in other less visible nuclear projects. While Indian reactors have had an average lead time of 5 months between attaining criticality and commencing commercial production, Koodankulam’s Unit 1 will take more than two years to meet this milestone if ever it does.

We urge the Prime Minister’s office to commission an enquiry into the irregularities at Koodankulam Units 1 and 2, including an interrogation into how such a shoddy plant managed to secure safety, environmental and quality clearances. Such a move will inspire confidence in the minds of public regarding the intentions of the Government.

Sincerely,
Admiral (Retd) L. Ramdas, former Chief of Staff, Indian Navy, Raigad, Maharashtra
Lalita Ramdas, environment and women’s rights activist, Raigad, Maharashtra
E.A.S. Sarma, I.A.S. (Retd), former Union Secretary of Power, Vishakapatnam
M. G. Devasahayam, I.A.S. (Retd), Chennai
Medha Patkar, National Alliance of People’s Movements
Aruna Roy, Social Activist, MKSS
Nikhil Dey, Social Activist, MKSS
Dr. Suvrat Raju, Scientist, Bengaluru
Dr. M.V. Ramana, Scientist, Princeton, USA
Dr. K. Babu Rao, Scientist (Retd), Hyderabad
Dr. T. Swaminathan, Professor (Retd), IIT-Madras
Dr. Atul Chokshi, Professor, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru
Praful Bidwai, Columnist, New Delhi
Arati Chokshi, Social Activist, Bengaluru
Achin Vanaik, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, New Delhi
G. Sundarrajan, Poovulagin Nanbargal, Chennai
Dr. S.P. Udayakumar, PMANE, Nagercoil
Nityanand Jayaraman, writer and social activist, Chennai
Gabriele Dietrich, NAPM, Madurai

Please copy-paste and circulate this letter.

Update: KKNPP Must Tell the Whole Truth

Driving in Kopachi, the buried village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
via Miguel Ortega Lafuente

If you are pro-nuclear for the benefit of progress of your beloved country, your imagination of anti-nuclear ‘activists’ might merely be of a hypocritical bunch of thumb-twiddlers waiting for disaster to win a simple argument. We don’t want another Chernobyl, Cancer Street, Pripyat, or Kopachi in your/our beloved country. We don’t want our fish to die of brine accumulation or radioactive bio-magnification. We don’t want people to disappear and houses to be buried. We want transparent, trust-worthy technology that actually cares about the breathing lives in this land and sea. We don’t want disaster. And heck if disaster happens, we truly know we have nothing in place to manage it!

sam pc

Koodankulam Press Release | October 20, 2014
KKNPP Must Tell the Whole Truth and the Director Must Go

The turbine of the first unit at the KKNPP is said to have developed some major problem. Although the first unit attained criticality in July 2013, it has not begun commercial operation yet even after 15 months of its erratic functioning. Even before starting its commercial operations “the world class third generation plant” is on the blink. It is ironic that the Department of Atomic Energy, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, KKNPP and scores of pro-government scientists have been issuing “the best and the safest” certification to this project for the past three years.

It is reliably learnt now that the faulty equipment in the turbine are being replaced and it may take a considerable amount of time to do that. It is quite pertinent to note here that there was a valve burst at the first unit a few months back and six workers were badly injured. All this attest to our claim that they have used shoddy and substandard parts at the Koodankulam project.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board tested all the equipment and their functioning so carefully and methodically and issued certificates for each step. How come they did not detect any problems with the turbine then? What kind of tests did they do? How did they give “all clear” certification? If this is the efficiency and efficacy of the AERB, we have to be really worried about the safety and security of 8 crore Tamils and 4 crore Malayalis in the southern tip of India.

It is really disconcerting that the KKNPP authorities remain tight-lipped about the excessive diesel purchase, recurrent accidents, and equipment malfunctioning that keep happening at the KKNPP. Mr. R. S. Sundar, the Site Director of the KKNPP, must resign from his job. He has been refusing to tell the truth to the people of this country and the press about the KKNPP. This is a major dereliction of duty. He would do the same mistake even if a major accident were to happen here at Koodankulam. It is not clear who he is trying to protect. It is also not clear if he does care about the safety and security of the people of this area. People in this region cannot sleep peacefully with our children with officers like Mr. Sundar in charge of a mega nuclear power park. So he must resign from his job.

Interestingly, the Russian Ambassador to India, Mr. Alexander Kadakin, has spoken recently that the Koodankulam nuclear power project is the best and the safest in the world and that his country would sell some 22 more plants to India. But today we hear that the turbine is not working at Koodankulam. The turbines the Russians had supplied to China (Tianwan) and to Iran (Busher) had serious problems too. We have strong reasons to believe that there are problems not only in the turbine of the KKNPP but also in the reactor core and other crucial areas.

When the first two reactors at Koodankulam are limping and tumbling, it would be a reckless move to erect two more reactors at the Koodankulam site. It is all too clear that the KKNPP project is a complete and total failure and it must be shut down permanently to safeguard the safety and security of the people of the southern tip of India.

People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy
Idinthakarai

Koodankulam Update: Hot water spillage injures six workers at the nuclear power plant

14 May, 2014. 2.00 p.m. Shopkeepers from Anjugramam, a village about 15 km from Koodankulam nuclear complex, reported seeing at least 6 ambulances rushing by at around 1.15 p.m. Anjugramam lies near a fork in the road, where one fork leads to Kanyakumari town and the other to Nagercoil. Another Idinthakarai resident, Mildred, who was at Myladi (25 km from Koodankulam) reported seeing 3 ambulances rush by at around 1.45 p.m. Myladi is en route Nagercoil. Nagercoil and Kanyakumari are two major towns within 30 km of the nuclear plant, with large hospitals. Predictably, the nuclear establishment denied the occurrence of any accident first. Later they admitted to a minor incident and are reported to have said that the injured were taken to the hospital in the NPCIL township, where they were well enough to walk on their own. Sources from inside the plant report that at least three of the injured were contract workers and the other three were NPCIL staff. Reports also suggest that the accident happened in or around the boiler section of Unit 1, which reportedly attained criticality mid-year last year.
After initially flashing news about the incident, the media is now reportedly playing NPCIL’s statements denying and downplaying the incident. If NPCIL’s past record is anything to go by, truth will be a while in coming. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was unavailable for comment.
This accident comes less than a week after the Honourable Supreme Court ruled that it was satisfied with the safety features installed at the plant.

Conversation with NPCIL, Koodankulam Station Director R.S. Sundar on his mobile phone 9443350706 at around 3.40 p.m, on 14 May 2014

NJ (me): Hello Sir. This is Nityanand. I’m a freelance writer. I’m calling to find out if the workers admitted at Krishna Kumar Hospital in Nagercoil are from your plant.
RSS: Who are you? First tell me who you are.
NJ: My name is Nityanand Jayaraman and I’m a freelance journalist from Chennai, currently speaking from Coonoor.
RSS: I don’t speak to freelance journalists, only normal journalists.
NJ: Sir, I am a normal journalist. There are a lot of rumours doing the rounds. I merely wanted to confirm that there was an incident at Koodankulam.
RSS: What did you say your name was?
NJ: Nityanand Jayaraman.
RSS: I don’t know you. Who do you write for?
NJ: I’m a freelancer sir. I write opinion pieces and have published in Yahoo, The Hindu, Tehelka and have written extensively about Koodankulam.
RSS: I only speak to journalists I know.
NJ: Obviously, you can’t know all the journalists. How can I get a confirmation then?
RSS: You go speak to someone else. Speak to Corporate Communications.
NJ: You seem very angry with the media sir. Any problem?
RSS: No problem. There is nothing. i don’t know you. That’s all.
NJ: But you are not likely to know many of the international media either. How can you speak to them then?
RSS: I cannot speak to international media. I cannot speak to you.
NJ: I am not from the international media. I am a Chennai based freelancer. I just wanted a simple confirmation sir. Did any incident take place at Koodankulam today?
RSS: You come on the land line.
NJ: Can you give me the land line number sir?
RSS: You speak to Corporate Communications.
NJ: Can you give me their number sir?
RSS: No. I don’t have it. You call on the land line.
NJ: Can I have the number sir?
[Hands it over to assistant]
Assistant: Take down sir. 259718.
NJ: Area code sir?
Assistant: 04637
NJ: Who should I speak to sir?
Assistant: You just call that number?
NJ: Who should I ask for?
Assistant: Speak to the person who picks up the phone.
[Hangs up]

It makes one wonder, especially when the person who picks up the phone when I called says cryptically that “All the injured are in conscious condition.” If it is a “small incident” as stated by Mr. R.S. Sundar to NDTV, why all this cloak and dagger. If the plant has a sound disaster/emergency response system, why did they have to drive more than 1 hour on bad roads to Nagercoil to treat the injuries from a “small incident.” Clearly, NPCIL does not have a disaster management plan in place, and its corporate communications itself is a disaster that has to be managed.

Click to read Of small incidents and big disasters, Tehelka.com

Wednesday’s accident did not involve radiation. Burns and broken bones are common workplace injuries. It is precisely the commonplace nature of this incident and how it was handled that expose how the Koodankulam set-up has all the ingredients required to bungle the handling of major emergencies. These ingredients are: poor and non-transparent communication, lack of emergency response infrastructure, non-compliance with operating procedures, lack of quality assurance of equipment and personnel…

Shared by Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle.

What is Nuclear Energy?

A book in English written by Neeraj Jain, published by Lokayat, Pune to create awareness amongst people regarding nuclear energy. We are publishing the first two chapters of this book for it is a very good introduction to the science and technology of nuclear energy. [ Please read more of the book – Unite to Fight Nuclear Madness pdf Second Edition June 2012.  This book answers many important questions like – Is Nuclear Energy Green? Is Nuclear Energy Safe?]

Part I: The Basics of Nuclear Power

The basic operation of a nuclear power plant is no different from that of a conventional power plant that burns coal or gas. Both heat water to convert it into pressurised steam, which drives a turbine to generate electricity. The key difference between the two plants lies in the method of heating the water. Conventional power plants burn fossil fuels to heat the water. In a nuclear power plant, this heat is produced by a nuclear fission reaction, wherein energy in the nucleus of an atom is released by splitting the atom.

The Atom

Everything is made of atoms. Any atom found in nature will be one of 92 types of atoms, also known as elements. (Actually, an element is a pure substance made up of only one type of atoms.) Atoms bind together to form molecules. So, a water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Every substance on Earth—metal, plastics, hair, clothing, leaves, glass—is made up of combinations of the 92 atoms that are found in nature.

Atoms are made up of three subatomic particles: the positively charged protons, the neutral neutrons and the negatively charged electrons. Protons and neutrons bind together to form the nucleus of the atom, while the electrons surround and orbit the nucleus.

Every element is characterised by its mass number and atomic number. The mass number is the number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus, while the atomic number is the number of protons. The chemical properties of an atom depend upon the number of protons in it, that is, its atomic number. There are atoms whose nuclei have the same number of protons, but different number of neutrons. The chemical properties of these atoms are identical, since they have the same number of protons. Such atoms are called isotopes. An isotope is designated by its element symbol followed by its mass number. For instance, the three isotopes of uranium are designated as U-234, U-235 and U-238.

Nuclear Fission

Fission means splitting. When a nucleus fissions, it splits into several lighter fragments. Nuclear fission can take place in one of two ways: either when a nucleus of a heavy atom captures a neutron, or spontaneously. Two or three neutrons are also emitted. The sum of the masses of these fragments (and emitted neutrons) is less than the original mass. This ‘missing’ mass has been converted into energy, which can be determined by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 (where E is the energy, m is the mass, c is the speed of light).

Typical fission events release about 200 million eV (electron volts) for each fission event, that is, for the splitting of each atom. In contrast, when a fossil fuel like coal is burnt, it releases only a few eV as energy for each event (that is, for each carbon atom). This is why nuclear fuel contains so much more, millions of times more, energy than fossil fuel: the energy found in one kilogram of uranium is equivalent to the burning of 2000 tons of high-grade coal.

It is this energy released in a nuclear fission reaction that is harnessed to convert water to steam and drive a turbine and generate electricity in a nuclear power plant.

Nuclear Chain Reaction

The nuclear fission reaction is accompanied by the emission of several neutrons. Under suitable conditions, the neutrons released in a fission reaction fission at least one more nucleus. This nucleus in turn emits neutrons, and the process repeats. The fission reaction thus becomes self-sustaining, enabling the energy to be released continuously. This self-sustaining fission reaction is known as nuclear chain reaction.

The average number of neutrons from one fission that cause another fission is known as the multiplication factor, k. Nuclear power plants operate at k=1. If k is greater than 1, then the number of fission reactions increases exponentially, which is what happens in an atomic bomb.

Nuclear Fuel

The isotopes that can sustain a fission chain reaction are called nuclear fuels. The only isotope that can be used as nuclear fuel and
also occurs naturally in significant quantity is Uranium-235. Other isotopes used as nuclear fuels are artificially produced, plutonium-239 and uranium-233. (Pu-239 occurs naturally only in traces, while U-233 does not occur naturally.)

We discuss the use of U-235 as nuclear fuel here. Uranium has many isotopes. Two, U-238 primarily, and to a lesser extent, U-235, are commonly found in nature. Both U-235 and U-238 undergo spontaneous radioactive decay, but this takes place over periods of millennia: the half-life of U-238 (half-life is the amount of time taken by half the atoms to decay) is about 4.47 billion years and that of U-235 is 704 million years. (For more on radioactivity and half-life, see Chapter 3, Part I.)

While both U-235 and U-238 are fissionable, that is, both undergo fission on capturing a neutron, there is an important difference in their fission properties. U-238 can only be fissioned by fast moving neutrons, it cannot be fissioned by slow moving neutrons; therefore, it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction as the neutrons released during its fission inevitably inelastically scatter to lose their energy. However, U-235 has the property that it can be fissioned by slow moving neutrons too. This is what makes it fissile; in other words, it can sustain a nuclear chain reaction and can be used as nuclear fuel.

The concentration of U-235 in naturally occurring uranium ore is just around 0.71%, the remainder being mostly the non-fissile isotope U-238. For most types of reactors, this concentration is insufficient for sustaining a chain reaction and needs to be increased to about 3-5% in order that it can be used as nuclear fuel. This can be done by separating out some U-238 from the uranium mass. This process is called enrichment, and the resulting uranium is called enriched uranium. [Note that not all nuclear reactors need enriched uranium; for example, Heavy Water Reactors use natural (unenriched) uranium.]

As mentioned above, U-235 also undergoes a small amount of spontaneous fission, which releases a few free neutrons into any sample of nuclear fuel. These neutrons collide with other U-235 nuclei in the vicinity, inducing further fissions, releasing yet more neutrons, thus starting a chain reaction.

If exactly one out of the average of roughly 2.5 neutrons released in the fission reaction is captured by another U-235 nucleus to cause another fission, then the chain reaction proceeds in a controlled manner and a steady flow of energy results. However, if on the average, less than one neutron is captured by another U-235 atom, then the chain reaction gradually dies away. And if more than one neutrons are captured, then an uncontrolled chain reaction results, which can cause the nuclear reactor to meltdown; this is also what happens in an atomic bomb. To control the fission reaction in a nuclear reactor, most reactors use control rods that are made of a strongly neutron-absorbent material such as boron or cadmium.

The neutrons released in a fission reaction travel extremely fast, and therefore the possibility of their being captured by another U-235 nucleus is very low. Therefore they need to be slowed down, or moderated. In a nuclear reactor, the fast neutrons are slowed down using a moderator such as heavy water or ordinary water.

Part II:  The Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The nuclear fission reaction that we have discussed above is only a small part of the entire complex process of generating electricity from uranium. The entire process is known as the nuclear fuel cycle. We now take a brief look at the various stages of this process (including the phase of uranium enrichment).

Mining: The nuclear fuel cycle starts with mining of uranium. Since 90% of the worldwide uranium ores have uranium content of less than 1%, and more than two-thirds have less than 0.1%, large amounts of ore have to be mined to obtain the amounts of uranium required.

Milling: The mined ore is then trucked to the mill to be processed to extract the uranium. Here, the ore is first ground into fine powder, and then treated with several chemicals to extract the uranium. The coarse powder thus obtained is called yellowcake. It contains 70-90% uranium oxide (U3O8).

Enrichment (not for Heavy Water Reactors):  The uranium oxide in the yellowcake contains both the fissile U-235 and non-fissile U-238. The yellow cake is now taken to a processing facility. Here, the uranium oxide is converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6), as this compound is gaseous at low temperatures and so is easier to work with. The UF6 is now enriched either through diffusion or centrifugation, meaning the proportion of fissile U-235 in it is increased from 0.7 percent to 3-5 percent. The process yields two types of UF6: one is enriched, and the other, which contains primarily U-238, is called depleted, so-called because most of the U-235 has been extracted from it.

Fuel element fabrication: The enriched uranium hexafluoride gas is now converted into solid uranium oxide fuel pellets, each the size of a cigarette filter. These pellets are packed into very thin tubes of an alloy of zirconium, and the tubes are then sealed. These tubes are called fuel rods. Each fuel rod is normally twelve feet long and half-an-inch thick. The finished fuel rods are bundled together to form the fuel assembly (or fuel bundle), which may have as many as 200 fuel rods. Several fuel assemblies are now placed in the reactor core of the nuclear power reactor—the number may go up to several dozen, depending upon the reactor design.

Nuclear reactor: The nuclear reactor is where the nuclear fuel is fissioned and the resulting chain reactions are controlled and sustained at a steady rate.

Decommissioning: Nuclear power plants are designed for an operating life of 30-60 years. When the reactor completes its working life, it is dismantled. Unlike conventional coal and gas power plants, the dismantling of a nuclear power plant is a very long-term, complicated and costly operation, because the entire nuclear power plant, including all its parts, has become radioactively contaminated. The long-term management and clean up of these closed reactors is known as decommissioning, which can take anywhere between 5 to 100 years, depending upon the type of decommissioning plan.

Disposal of radioactive nuclear fuel waste: Every year, one-third of the nuclear fuel rods must be removed from the reactor, because they are so contaminated with fission products that they hinder the efficiency of electricity production. The uranium fuel after being subjected to the fission reaction in the reactor core becomes one billion times more radioactive; a person standing near a single spent fuel rod can acquire a lethal dose within seconds. This spent nuclear fuel is going to be radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Therefore, it needs to be safely stored for centuries to come.

Generally, the spent fuel is first stored for many years in on-site storage ponds and continually cooled by air or water. If it is not continually cooled, the zirconium cladding of the rod could become so hot that it would spontaneously burn, releasing its radioactive inventory. The cooling period can be from a few years to decades. After cooling, there are two options for the waste—either it is reprocessed, or it is moved to dry cask storage.

In the latter case, the spent fuel rods are packed by remote control into highly specialised containers made of metal or concrete designed to shield the radiation. These casks must be stored for centuries to come; however, no country having nuclear plants has succeeded in building such a long-term nuclear waste dump site. Presently, in most countries having nuclear plants, these casks are ‘temporarily’ stored near the spent fuel cooling ponds.

Reprocessing spent fuel: Reprocessing is a chemical process to separate out the uranium and plutonium contained in the spent fuel, which can then be used as fuel for what are known as Fast Breeder Reactors. Reprocessing also segregates the waste into high-level, intermediate-level and low-level wastes.

Part III: The Nuclear Reactor

Most nuclear reactors work on the same basic principles. The basic components common to most types of nuclear reactors are as below:

Reactor core: The part of the nuclear reactor where the nuclear fuel assembly is located.

Moderator: The material in the core which slows down the neutrons released during fission, so that they cause more fission. It is usually ordinary water (used in Light Water Reactors) or heavy water (used in Heavy Water Reactors).

Control rods: These are made with neutron-absorbing material such as cadmium, hafnium or boron, and are inserted or withdrawn from the core to control the rate of reaction, or halt it.

Coolant: A liquid or gas circulating through the core so as to transfer the heat from it. This primary coolant passes through a steam generator (except in Boiling Water Reactors or BWRs), where the heat is transferred to another loop of water (in the so-called secondary circuit) to convert it into steam. This steam drives the turbine. The advantage of this design is that the primary coolant, which has become radioactive, does not come into contact with the turbine.

Pressure vessel: Usually a robust steel vessel containing the reactor core and moderator/coolant.

Steam generator (not in BWRs): Here, the primary coolant bringing heat from the reactor transfers its heat to water in the secondary circuit to convert it into steam.

Containment: This is typically a metre-thick concrete and steel structure around the reactor core. After the zirconium fuel cladding and the reactor pressure vessel, this is the last barrier against a catastrophic release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Apart from a primary containment, many reactors have a secondary containment too, which is normally a concrete dome enveloping the primary containment as well as the steam systems. This is very common in BWRs, as here most of the steam systems, including the turbine, contain radioactive materials.

Types of Nuclear Reactors

At a basic level, reactors may be classified into two classes: Light Water Reactors (LWRs) and Heavy Water Reactors (HWRs). LWRs are largely of two types, Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs). LWRs, and of them, the PWRs, are the most widespread reactors in operation today. Heavy Water Reactors can also be of different types, one of the most well known being the CANDU reactors developed by Canada, which are a type of Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). Most of India’s indigenous reactors are CANDU reactors.

Below, we discuss the most well-known type of nuclear power reactor—the PWR, and also the reactor design of most of India’s reactors—the PHWR or CANDU reactor.

Pressurised Water Reactor

A PWR uses ordinary water as both coolant and moderator. It has three water circuits. Water in the primary circuit which flows through the core of the reactor reaches about 325°C; hence it must be kept under about 150 times atmospheric pressure to prevent it from boiling. Water in the primary circuit is also the moderator, and if it starts turning into steam, the fission reaction would slow down. This negative feedback effect is one of the safety features of this type of reactors.

The hot water from the primary cooling circuit heats the water in the secondary circuit, which is under less pressure and therefore gets converted into steam. The steam drives the turbine to produce electricity. The steam is then condensed by water flowing in the tertiary circuit and returned to the steam generator.

Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR or CANDU)

A PHWR uses heavy water as the coolant and moderator, instead of ordinary water. Heavy water is a more efficient moderator than ordinary water as it absorbs 600 times fewer neutrons than the latter, implying that the PHWR is more efficient in fissioning U-235 nuclei. Hence, it can sustain a chain reaction with lesser number of U-235 nuclei in uranium as compared to PWRs. Therefore, PHWR uses unenriched uranium, that is, natural uranium (0.7% U-235) oxide, as nuclear fuel, thus saving on enrichment costs. On the other hand, the disadvantage with using heavy water is that it is very costly, costing hundreds of dollars per kilogram.

Conceptually, this reactor is similar to PWRs discussed above. Fission reactions in the reactor core heat the heavy water. This coolant is kept under high pressure to raise its boiling point and avoid significant steam formation in the primary circuit. The hot heavy water generated in this primary circuit is passed through a heat exchanger to heat the ordinary water flowing in the less-pressurised secondary circuit. This water turns to steam and powers the turbine to generate electricity.

The difference in design with PWRs is that the heavy water being used as moderator is kept in a large tank called Calandria and is under low pressure. The heavy water under high pressure that serves as the coolant is kept in small tubes, each 10 cms in diameter, which also contain the fuel bundles. These tubes are then immersed in the moderator tank, the Calandria.

2. Is Nuclear Energy Green?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Aug 21, 2011): “I am convinced that nuclear energy will play an important role in our quest for a clean and environmentally friendly energy mix as a major locomotive to fuel our development process.” [i]

Taking advantage of the growing crisis of global warming, political leaders, administrators and the global nuclear industry have launched a huge propaganda campaign to promote nuclear energy as the panacea for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

While it is true that nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases in the same quantity as coal or oil powered generating stations, but to conclude that nuclear energy is “an environment friendly source of power” is a far stretch. Nuclear reactors do not stand alone; the production of nuclear electricity depends upon a vast and complex infrastructure known as the nuclear fuel cycle. And the fact is, the nuclear fuel cycle utilises large quantities of fossil fuel during all its stages, as discussed below.

Carbon Emission and the ‘Nuclear Fuel Cycle’

Uranium mining and milling are very energy intensive processes. The rock is excavated by bulldozers and shovels and then transported in trucks to the milling plant, and all these machines use diesel oil. The ore is ground to powder in electrically powered mills, and fuel is also consumed during conversion of the uranium powder to yellow cake. In fact, mining and milling are so energy intensive that if the concentration of uranium in the ore falls to below 0.01%, then the energy required to extract it from this ore becomes greater than the amount of electricity generated by the nuclear reactor. And most uranium ores are low grade; the high-grade ores are very limited.

The uranium enrichment process is also very energy intensive. For instance, the Paducah enrichment facility in the USA uses the electrical output of two 1,000 MW coal-fired plants for its operation, which emit large quantities of CO2.

The construction of a nuclear reactor is a very high-tech process, requiring an extensive industrial and economic infrastructure. Constructing the reactor also requires a huge amount of concrete and steel. All this consumes huge quantities of fossil fuel. After the reactor’s life is over, its decommissioning is also a very energetic process.[ii]

Finally, constructing the highly specialized containers to store the intensely radioactive waste from the nuclear reactor also consumes huge amounts of energy. This waste has to be stored for a period of time which is beyond our comprehension—hundreds of thousands of years! Its energy costs are unknown.

Energy Balance

A study done for the Green parties of the European Parliament by senior scientists Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith in 2004 estimated that under the most favourable conditions, the nuclear fuel cycle emits one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions of modern natural gas power stations. They excluded the energy costs of transportation and storage of radioactive waste in their calculations, and also assumed high grade uranium ore is used to make the nuclear fuel. But these high grade ores are finite. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emissions and nuclear energy’s green choga will no longer remain green.[iii]

The concentration of uranium in India’s uranium ores is very low. From the total uranium mined in Jaduguda over the last 40 years, Dr. Surendra Gadekar has estimated that the ore quality at Jaduguda hasn’t been better than 0.03% for many years.[iv] At such meagre concentrations, it is obvious that the total CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle in India must be fairly high.

Actual Potential: Even Less

However, this represents only half the argument. Burning of fossil fuels is not the only factor responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, though it is the largest (see Table 2.1). Obviously, nuclear power cannot help in reducing these other causes of GHG emissions, like use of fertilisers in chemical agriculture, industrial processes that emit GHGs, etc. Then again, fossil fuels are burnt for various uses, and nuclear power can replace fossil fuels only in large scale electricity generation, and not in its other uses, like in the transportation sector.

Worldwide, use of fossil fuels for electricity and heating contributes to only 25% of the total GHG emissions. Therefore, replacing burning of fossil fuels with nuclear energy can only bring about some reduction in this part of the total global GHG emissions. (And that too, assuming that the nuclear energy is generated using high grade uranium ore.)

How much reduction is possible? The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that even if nuclear energy contribution were to quadruple by 2050, it would reduce global CO2 emissions by only 4 percent![v] The crisis of global warming is very acute, and to tackle it, what the world needs is not a marginal reduction in GHG emissions, but deep cuts in them—40 percent by 2020 and 95 percent by 2050. Obviously, nuclear power cannot significantly contribute to bringing about these reductions.

On the other hand, implementation of this scenario would require construction of 32 new 1000 MW nuclear reactors every year from now until 2050. Investment costs for these 1,400 new reactors would exceed $10 trillion at current prices. That is huge! Given the enormous subsidies needed to build just one reactor (discussed in Chapter 5), that would bankrupt even the richest countries!!

[vi]

What About Renewable Sources of Energy?

The above discussion compared CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle with that from gas- and coal-fired power plants. The nuclear lobby focuses on this comparison to make an argument for building nuclear power plants. But there is another facet to the whole issue, which the nuclear lobby very conveniently forgets: renewable energy sources emit less greenhouse gases than nuclear plants! In comparison to renewable energy sources, power generated from nuclear reactors releases four to five times more CO2 per unit of energy produced, when taking into account the entire nuclear fuel cycle.[vii]

If the growing crisis of global warming is an argument in support of promoting nuclear energy as compared to electricity from burning fossil fuels, then, by an extension of this same logic, shouldn’t renewable energy be promoted as compared to nuclear energy?


[i]       Pallava Bagla, “Indian Leader Goes to Bat for Nuclear Energy”, August 22, 2011, http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider

[ii]      Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Power is not the answer to Global Warming or anything else, Melbourne University Press, 2006, pp. 7-13.

[iii]      Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, ‘Nuclear power — the energy balance’,  http://www.stormsmith.nl; Helen Caldicott, ibid, p. 6.

[iv]     Surendra Gadekar, ‘India’s nuclear fuel shortage’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Aug 6, 2008, http://www.thebulletin.org

[v]      Energy Technology Perspectives 2008, IEA/OECD, June 2008, cited in: Nuclear power: a dangerous waste of time, Greenpeace, Jan 2009, http://www.greenpeace.org

[vi]     Statistics taken from the flowchart: World Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2005, World Resources Institute, http://www.wri.org

[vii]     Bill Dougherty, senior scientist, Stockholm Environmental Institute, cited in: Nuclear Power and Children’s Health, Symposium Proceedings, Chicago, Illinois, Oct 15-16, 2004, http://www.helencaldicott.com/childrenshealth_proc.pdf

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