I met with physicist M.V. Ramana on February 18, 2013, for an interview after his talk on nuclear energy in India at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He is currently appointed jointly with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, both at Princeton University.
Contrary to many opponents of nuclear power and perpetrators of environmentalist messages around the world, Ramana kept away from polemics and catharsis. He didn’t have to raise his voice to make a good argument; he simply raised the quality of his reasoning. For once, it felt necessary to sit down and listen.
What was striking about Ramana was that he was not against nuclear power – although there’s no way to tell otherwise – but against how it has been handled in the country.
With the energy crisis currently facing many regions, I feel that the support for nuclear power is becoming consolidated at the cost of having to overlook how it’s being mishandled. One look at how the government’s let the Kudankulam NPP installation fester will tell you all that you need to know: The hurry, the insecurity about a delayed plant, etc.
For this reason, Ramana’s stance was and is important. The DAE is screwing things up, and the Center’s holding hands with it on this one. After February 28, when the Union Budget was announced, we found the DAE has been awarded a whopping 55.59% YoY increase from last year for this year: Rs. 8,920 crore (2012-2013 RE) to Rs. 13,879 crore (2013-2014 BE).
That’s a lot of money, so it’d pay to know what they might be doing wrong, and make some ‘Voice’ about it.
Here’s a transcript of my interview of Ramana. I’m sorry, there’s no perceptible order in which we’ve discussed topics. My statements/questions are in bold.
You were speaking about the DAE’s inability to acquire and retain personnel. Is that still a persistent problem?
MVR: This is not something we know a lot about. We’ve heard this. This is been rumoured for a while, and in around 2007, [the DAE] spoke about it publicly for the first time that I knew of. We’d heard these kinds of things since the mid-1990s as we saw a wave of multinationals – the Motorolas and the Texas Instruments – come; they drew people not just from the DAE but also from the DRDO. So, they see these people as technically trained, and so on. The structural elements that cause that migration – I think they are still there.
That is one thing. The second, I think, is a longer trend. If you look at the people who get into the DAE – I’ve heard informally, anecdotally, etc. – you’ve got the best and the brightest, so to say. It was considered to be a great career to have, so people from the metropolises would go there, people who had studied in the more elite colleges would go there, people with PhDs from abroad would go there.
Increasingly, I’m told, that the DAE has to set its sights on mofussil towns, for people who want to come to the DAE out of where they are, so they’ll get people. The questions: what kind of people? What of the caliber of those people? There are some questions about that. We don’t know a great deal, except anecdotally.
You spoke about how building reactors with unproven designs were spelling a lot of problems for the DAE. Could you give us a little primer on that?
MVR: If you look at many different reactors that they have built, a bulk was based on these HWRs, which were imported from Canada. And when the first HWR was imported – into Rajasthan – it was based upon one in Canada in a place called Pickering. The early reactors were at Pickering and Douglas Point and so on.
These had started functioning when the construction of the Rajasthan plant started. You found that many of them had lots of problems with N-shields, etc., and they were being reproduced here as well. So that was one set of things.
The second problem, actually, is more interesting in some ways: These coolant channels were sagging. This was a problem that manifested itself not initially but after roughly about 15-20 years, in the mid-80s. Then, only in the 90s did the DAE get into retubing and trying to use a different material for that. So, that tells you that these problems didn’t manifest on day #1; they happen much later.
These are two examples. Currently, the kind of reactors that are being built – for example, the PFBR, with a precise design that hasn’t been done elsewhere – have borrowed elements from different countries. The exact design hasn’t been done anywhere else. There are no exact precedents for these reactors. The example I would give is that of the French design.
France went from a small design called the Rhapsody to one which is 250-MW called Phoenix and then moved to a 1,200 MW design called the Super Phoenix. The Phoenix has actually operated relatively OK, though it’s a small reactor. In India, Rhapsody’s clone is the FBTR in some sense. The FBTR itself could not be exactly cloned because of the 1974 nuclear test: they had to change the design: they didn’t have enough plutonium, and so on.
That’s a different story. Not even going through the route of France where it went from Rhapsody to Phoenix to Super Phoenix, India went from what is essentially a roughly 10-MW reactor – in fact, less than that in terms of electrical capacity – they went to 500 MW – a big jump, a huge jump.
In the case of going from Phoenix to Super Phoenix, you saw huge numbers of problems which had not been seen in Phoenix. So, I would assume that the PFBR would have a lot of teething troubles again. When you think that BRs are the way to go, what I would expect to see is that the DAE takes some time to see what kinds of problems arise and then build the next set of reactors, preferably trying to clone it or only correcting it for those very features that went wrong.
These criticisms are aimed not at India’s nuclear program but the DAE’s handling of it.
MVR: Well, the both of them are intertwined.
They are intertwined, but if you had an alternative, you’d go for someone else to handle the program…?
MVR: Would I go for it? I think that, you know, that’s wishful thinking. In India, for better or for worse, if you have nuclear power, you have the DAE, and if you have DAE, you have nuclear power. You’re not going to get rid of one without the other. It’s wishful for me to think that, you know, somehow the DAE is going to go away and its system of governance is going to go away, and a new set of players come in.
So you’d be cynical about private parties entering the sector, too.
MVR: Private parties I think are an interesting case.
What about their feasibility in India?
MVR: I’m not a lawyer, but right now, as far as I can understand the Atomic Energy Act (1962) and all its subsequent editions, the Indian law allows for up to 49 per cent participation by the private sector. So far, no company has been willing to do that.
This is something which could change and one of the things that the private sector wanted to be in place before they do anything of that sort is this whole liability legislation. Now that the liability legislation is taking shape, it’s possible at some point the Reliances and the Tatas might want to enter the scene.
But I think that the structure of legislation is not going to change any time in the near future. Private parties will be able to put some money in and take some money out, but NPCIL will be the controlling body. To the extent that private parties want to enter this business: They want to enter the business to try and make money out of it, and not necessarily to try and master the technology and try new designs, etc. That’s my reading.
Liquid sodium as coolant: Pros and cons?
MVR: The main pro is that, because it’s a molten metal, it can conduct heat more efficiently compared to water. The other pro is that if you have water at the kind of temperatures at which the heat transfer takes place, the water will actually become steam.
So what you do is you increase the pressure. You have pressurized water and, because of that, whenever you have a break or a crack in the pipe, the water can flash into steam. That’s a problem. In sodium, that’s not the case. Those are the only two pros I can think off the top of my head.
The cons? The main con is that sodium has bad interactions with water and with air, and two, it becomes radioactive, and-
It becomes radioactive?
MVR: Yeah. Normal sodium is sodium-23, and when it works its way through a reactor, it can absorb a neutron and become sodium-24, which is a gamma-emitter. When there are leaks, for example, the whole area becomes a very high gamma dose. So you have to actually wait for the sodium to become cool and so on and so forth. That’s another reason why, if there are accidents, it takes a much longer time [to clean up].
Are there any plants around the world that use liquid sodium as a coolant?
MVR: All BRs use liquid sodium as coolant. The only exceptions primarily are in Russia where they’ve used lead, and both Pb and sodium have another problem: Like sodium, lead at room temperature is actually solid, so you have to always keep it heated. Even when you shutdown the reactor, you’ve to keep a little heater going on and stuff like that. In principle, for example, if you have a complete power shutdown – like the station blackout that happened at Fukushima, etc. – you can imagine the sodium getting frozen.
Does lead suffer from the same neutron-absorption problem that sodium does?
MVR: Probably, yes; I don’t know off the top of my head because there’s not that much experience. It should absorb neutrons and become an isotope of lead and so on. But what kind of an emitter it is, I don’t know.
Problems with Na – continued…
MVR: One more important problem is this whole question of sodium void coefficients. Since you’re a science man, let me explain more carefully what happens. Imagine that you have a reactor, using liquid sodium as a coolant, and for whatever reason, there is some local heating that happens.
For example, there may be a blockage of flow inside the pipes, or something like that, so less amount of sodium is coming, and as the sodium is passing through, it’s trying to take away all the heat. What will happen is that the sodium can actually boil off. Let’s imagine that happens.
Then you have a small bubble; in this, sort of, stream of liquid sodium, you have a small bubble of sodium vapor. When the sodium becomes vapor, it’s less effective at scattering neutrons and slowing them down. What exactly happens is that- There are multiple effects which are happening.
Some neutrons go faster and that changes the probability of their interaction, some of them are scattered out, etc. What essentially happens is that the reactivity of the reactor could increase. When that happens, you call it a positive sodium void coefficient. The opposite is a negative.
The ‘positive’ means that the feedback loop is positive. There’s a small amount of increase in reactivity, the feedback loop is positive, the reactivity becomes more, and so on. If the reactor isn’t quickly shut down, this can actually spiral into a major accident.
So, it’s good if at all times a negative void coefficient is maintained.
MVR: Yes. This is what happened in Chernobyl. In the RBMK-type reactor in Chernobyl, the void coefficient at low power levels was positive. In the normal circumstances it was not positive – for whatever reasons (because of the nature of cross-sections, etc. – we don’t need to get into that).
On that fateful day in April, 1986, they were actually conducting an experiment in the low-power range without presumably realizing this problem and that’s what actually led to the accident. Ever since there, the nuclear-reactor-design community has typically emphasized either having a negative void coefficient, or at least trying to reduce it as much as possible.
As far as I know, the PFBR being constructed in Kalpakkam has the highest positive void coefficient amongst all the BRs I know of. It’s +4.3 or something like that.
What’s the typical value?
MVR: The earlier reactors are all of the order of +2, +2.5, something of that sort. You can actually lower it. One way, for example, is to make sure that some of these neutrons, as they escape, don’t cause further fissions, but instead, they go into some of the blanket elements. They’re absorbed. When you do that, that’ll lower the void coefficient.
So, these are control rods?
MVR: These aren’t control rods. In a BR, there’s a core, and then there are blanket elements outside. Imagine that I don’t keep my blanket just outside but also put it inside, in some spots so some of these neutrons, instead of going and causing further fissions and increasing the reactivity, they will go hit one of the blanket elements, be absorbed by those. So, that neutron is out of the equation.
Once you take away a certain number of neutrons, you change the function from an exponentially increasing one to an exponentially decreasing one. To do that, what you’ll have to do is to actually increase the amount of fissile plutonium that you put in at the beginning, to compensate for the fact that most of [the neutrons] are not going and hitting the other things. So, your price as it were, for reducing the void coefficient is more plutonium, which means more cost.
So you’re offsetting the risk with cost.
MVR: Yeah, and also, if you’re thinking about BRs as a strategy for increasing the amount of nuclear power, you’re probably reducing the breeding ratio (the amount of energy the extra Pt will produce, and so on and so forth). So, the time taken to set up each reactor will be more. So, those kinds of issues are tradeoffs. In those tradeoffs, what the DAE has done is to use a design that’s riskier, probably at some cost.
They’re going for a quicker yield.
MVR: Yes. I think what they’re doing in part is that they’ve convinced themselves that this is not going to have any accidents, that it’s perfectly safe – that has to do with a certain ideology. The irony is that, despite that, you’re going to be producing very expensive power.
Could you comment on the long-term global impact of the Fukushima accident? And not just in terms for what it means for the nuclear-research community.
MVR: I would say two things. One is that the impact of Fukushima has been very varied across different countries. Broadly speaking, I characterized it [for a recent piece I wrote] in three folds following an old economist called Albert Hirschman. I called it ‘Exit’, ‘Voice’, and ‘Loyalty’.
This economist looked at how people responded to organizational decline. Let’s say there’s a product you’ve bought, and over time it doesn’t do well. There are three things that you can do. You can choose not to buy it and buy something else; this is ‘Exit’. You can write to the manufacturer or the organization that you belong to, you make noise about it. You try to improve it and so on. This is ‘Voice’.
The third is to keep quiet and continue persisting with it. This is ‘Loyalty’. And if you look at countries, they’ve done roughly similar things. There are countries like Germany and Switzerland which have just exited. This is true with other countries also which didn’t have nuclear power programs but were planning to. Venezuela, for example: Chavez had just signed a deal with Russia. After Fukushima, he said, “Sorry, it’s a bad idea.” Also, Israel: Netanyahu also said that.
Then, there are a number of countries where the government has said “we actually want to go on with nuclear power but because of public protest, we’ve been forced to change direction”. Italy is probably the best example. And before the recent elections, Japan would’ve been a good example. You know, these are fluid categories, and things can change.
Mostly political reasons.
MVR: Yes, for political reasons. For also reasons of what kind of or nature of government you have, etc.
And then finally there are a whole bunch of countries which have been loyal to nuclear power. India, China, United States, and so on. In all these countries, what you find is two things. One is a large number of arguments why Fukushima is inapplicable to their country. Basically, DAE and all of these guys say, “Fukushima is not going to happen here.” And then maybe they will set up a sort of task force, they’ll say, “We’ll have a little extra water always, we’ll have some strong backup diesel generators,” blah-blah-blah.
Essentially, the idea is [Fukushima] is not going to change our loyalty to nuclear power.
The second thing is that there’s been one real effect: The rate at which nuclear power is going to grow has been slowed down. There’s no question about that. Fukushima in many cases consolidated previous trends, and in some cases started new trends. I would not have expected Venezuela to do this volte-face, but in Germany, it’s not really that surprising. Different places have different dynamics.
But I think that, overall, it has slowed down things. The industry’s response to this has been to say, “Newer reactors are going to be safer.” And they talk about passive safety and things like that. I don’t know how to evaluate these things. There are problems with passive safety also.
What’re you skeptical about?
MVR: I’m skeptical about whether new reactors are going to be safer.
Are you cynical?
MVR: I’m not cynical. Well, I think there’s some cynicism involved, but I’d call it observation. The skepticism is about new reactor designs are going to be immune to accidents. Because of incomplete knowledge, and so on, you might be protecting against Fukushima, but you’ll not be protecting against Chernobyl. Chernobyl didn’t have a tsunami triggering it – things of that sort.