With reference to the issue of finding new locations for nuclear power plants, the AERB has put in place a “code of practice” for nuclear power plant siting. With this reference, consider the following statements:
1. The codes demarcates a zone of around 1.5 km radius around the nuclear plant as sterlized zone
2. Population centres with a population of more than 100,000 should at least 30 km away from the site
3. The reactor locations should be far away from coal deposits
Which among the above is / are correct statements?

Answer: [B] Only 2

(Excerpt from “The Power of Promise” by M V Ramana; Penguin UK)

One problem that has intensified over the decades has been finding new locations for nuclear reactors, an absolute necessity for an ambitious programme. As the first nuclear power reactors were constructed, the DAE settled on particular criteria for choosing sites for reactors. These included a small or no population close to the reactor; proximity to cities or industries that could consume the electricity generated; the availability of water to cool the reactor; and the presence of appropriate soil structure and seismic conditions to reduce the risk from earthquakes.

The rationale for these criteria is mostly self-evident. Meeting all these requirements at one and the same place has often proven difficult, and one or more have had to be diluted at each reactor site. There are even some in-principle contradictions: low population density and proximity to cities or industries, for example. Particularly difficult—given the high population density of the country—have been the criteria related to population distribution.

The criterion requiring low inhabitation near reactors comes from concerns about harm to public health caused by the small amounts of radioactive substances released by the reactor into the atmosphere during routine operations, and about the impacts of a catastrophic accident, should one occur. During the early days of reactor technology, there was no experiential basis for estimates on routine radioactive releases, let alone those that would result from a catastrophic accident.

Therefore, the distance up to which habitation should be excluded, so as to avoid potentially high radiation doses, was chosen, somewhat at random, as one mile. When translated into kilometres, this becomes 1.6 km, seemingly more precise but just as arbitrary. Eventually, all this became formalized into something called the code of practice for nuclear power plant siting put out by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. This code requires that, in addition to an exclusion zone, with a radius of 1.5 km around the plant, there shall also be a sterilized area around the exclusion area covering an area of up to 5 km in radius around the plant.

In this sterilized zone, the total population should be small, preferably less than 20,000. So that this may continue to remain the case, ‘only natural growth of population is permitted’. The figure of 1.5 km results from ‘rounding off’ the 1.6 km (1 mile) radius and in some DAE documents both figures are used. There are, in addition, some ‘desirable characteristics’ for any reactor site, including:

Population density of less than two-thirds the state average in an area of a 10-km radius around the site

Distance to population centres with a population of more than 10,000 to be more than a 10-km radius from the site

Population centres with a population of more than 100,000 to be at a distance of more than 30 km from the site.

The sterilized zone, according to the nuclear establishment, is the one at risk of extensive radioactive contamination in case of a major accident. To put that in perspective, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, a zone of radius 30 km from the reactor was defined as the exclusion zone, and all the inhabitants in that area evacuated . A separate economic criterion utilized in site selection in the early years was that reactor locations should be far away from coal deposits.

All through its history, the DAE has claimed that nuclear power was cheaper than thermal power in areas far away from coal mines. The strategy adopted by the DAE is to make nuclear power seem competitive by increasing the cost of transportation of coal. In recent years, however, this criterion seems to have been abandoned due to a combination of the DAE’s demand for new reactor sites, especially coastal ones, and various state governments trying to benefit from electricity being generated by projects funded by the Central government, including nuclear ones.

This question is a part of GKToday's Integrated IAS General Studies Module