Is renewable energy really environmentally friendly?

Robin Delobel writes: The issue is rarely raised, but renewable energies have a heavy environmental impact when the total production chain and overall product life-cycle is taken into account– particularly, the stage of mining the metals needed in their production. In addition, chemical products used in the mining operations often lead to severe long-term pollution.

Renewable energy sources may have low CO2 emissions at the point of use, but the mines that make the technology possible are often environmentally destructive
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Saving the planet, American style: A critical review, and some thoughts and ideas

To fight climate change, a war-like mobilization a la McKibben is not necessary. Actually we are not at war at all. If we are, then it is we who are the aggressors, we are the enemy of nature. Then the first task for the transition is to end our aggression. We need only to withdraw.

Planet Earth, our habitat, is in dire straits. And our world is suffering from various crises, conflicts and problems. There is hardly any sign that something is seriously being done to solve these problems.

Some Americans – not government officials, not corporate big-wigs, but civil society activists – have now come forward to save the earth and, along with it, the world. It is only this nation, they seem to assume, that can really do something to take up the task – thanks to its enormous military and economic power. They have not only spoken generally on solutions, they have also worked out more less detailed and apparently well-founded plans of action.

These plans are now also being discussed, seriously and widely. They have come from the civil society. You may also call them grassroots groups, although they are so big and so well resourced that they may be compared with big lobby organizations that have access to the powers that be, i.e. they cannot be suspected of any hidden agenda. I have now read two such plans and two discussion papers 1, 2,3,4

One of the plans, entitled A World at War, comes from Bill McKibben,1 founder of the group, that mainly organized the huge demonstration in New York in September 2015. McKibben was one of the members of the committee that drafted (later adopted) the Democratic Party platform for this years presidential election in the USA. I shall discuss this plan first, as the whole discussion started with it. The Climate Mobilization (for short TCM)2, for whom Ezra Silk prepared a first draft of a detailed action  plan, by and large follows the main idea of McKibben.

Wrong Analysis/ Wrong Etiology

McKibben compares the whole effort that he calls for with a war effort, with the huge American military and industrial mobilization for World War II. Now, you cannot fight a war without knowing your enemy! Here McKibben makes the initial big error in analysis, although war is here only a metaphor. The enemy, he thinks, is climate change; he imagines this enemy is committing a huge aggression against us, the world, as if it has some Satanic will. Once he calls it an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics.

Nothing can be more absurd than this analysis of the situation. Any person with some common sense, including McKibben, knows that climate change is only the result of something else. Of course, the extreme weather events that are so regularly happening are largely being caused by climate change, which in turn is being caused by global warming. But even global warming is not the ultimate enemy. We know today that it is man-made. For a moment McKibben also recognized his error. He himself mentions in a half-sentence our insatiable desires as consumers, but he failed to spell it out as the right diagnosis of the malady.

All this should not actually surprise us. Already in the 19th century Friederich Engels made a similar mistake. He wrote: …our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us,5  as if nature is a living being with the anthropomorphic character trait of getting angry and taking revenge when hurt by some enemy. James Lovelock, however, who likened nature to the ancient Greek Earth-Goddess Gaia wrote: It may be that the white hot rash of our technology will in the end prove destructive and painful for our own species, but the evidence for accepting that industrial activities either at their present level or in the immediate future may endanger the life of Gaia as a whole, is very week indeed.6

In other words, Lovelocks theory says Gaia is only bothered about the continued existence of life on earth. She will guarantee that. But whether in the future biosphere humans would still have a place is none of her concern. This indifference of hers to our fate may make us sad, but that is no good reason to think of our response to climate change in terms of a Third World War as McKibben does.

Wrong Strategy/Wrong Prescription

We may allow McKibben his war metaphor in the name of poetic license. But if a general makes a wrong analysis of the war situation or, said in the jargon of applied medical science, if the diagnosis is wrong, the strategy or the prescribed medicine may do more harm than good.

McKibbens prescription, the huge dose of the wrong medicine, a huge mobilization for the Third World War that climate change is allegedly waging against us, is actually uncalled-for. McKibben could have prescribed a much lighter and more effective medicine (a simpler strategy) to remedy the white hot rash, i.e. global warming, if he had based his prescription on his more correct analysis (or diagnosis), namely his own half-sentence our insatiable desires as consumers.

Any leftist of any kind would speak of the capitalists insatiable desire for profit and capital accumulation as the main cause of our troubles. She would call upon us to wage class struggle. The diagnosis of Engels, however, was much better, more comprehensive. He spoke of us and our human [technological] victories over nature as the cause that provoked natures revenge. But this wise man of the 19th century, a century agog with scientific and technological optimism, could not but think of any medicine other than more of the same poison that caused the malady in the first place. He wrote:

… all our mastery of [nature] consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

And, in fact, … after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realize and hence to controleven the more remote natural consequences of our day-to-day production activities.5  

McKibben belongs to the camp of Berni Sanders, who boldly and openly called himself a democratic socialist. But he, like Sanders, is not willing to condemn, let alone openly fight against, capitalism, as Engels did. He however accepts Engelss other idea quoted here and fights only against climate change by technological means. Blinded by optimism, such people believe that a 100 percent transition to renewable energies is possible. They say we need more technology, not less; they assert we could overcome all crises and problems of mankind by means of technology. I already heard in 1984 that the intermittency-and-storage problem of renewable energies has been solved, namely by means of liquid hydrogen.

Feasibility and Viability

Basing himself on calculations of some US scientists and engineers, Mckibben shows what a huge effort would be necessary to accomplish the complete energy transition in the USA by 2050. It would be similar to the whole industrial mobilization in the USA that was necessary to win the World War II. He writes: … you would need to build a hell of a lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields, and millions and millions of electric cars and buses. David Roberts3  makes it vivid:

Well, have a look at Solar City’s gigafactory, … .It will be the biggest solar manufacturing facility … covering 27 acres, capable of cranking out 10,000 solar panels a day – a gigawatt’s worth in a year. At the height of its transition to WWS [wind, water, solar], the US would have to build around 30 gigafactories a year devoted to solar panels, and another 15 a year for wind turbines. That’s 45 of the biggest factories ever built, every year. That is [even for an American] a mind-boggling pace of building,…

Roberts comments: It would mean building a huge amount of shit. I agree, it indeed would also result in producing a hell of a lot of shit every day. Think of the ecological impact of all that. And since McKibben I guess, is an internationalist, similar kinds of transition to 100 percent clean energy should also take place in at least all the G20 countries. That is a must, for a transition only in the USA would not suffice to win the war against climate change.

Think now of the amount of nonrenewable material resources that would have to be extracted from the earth for carrying out this mobilization, in addition to the amount that has already been extracted, burnt and used up Think of the treeless scars on the earths surface, and the holes that the mining activities would leave behind, in addition to those that the planet has already gotten. Think also of the amount of collateral waste production, in addition to what has already been produced. And think of the additional number and area of waste disposal sites where it can be dumped! Moreover, when you have scrapped and demolished all the fossil and nuclear fuel power plants, where will the waste be dumped? Will it not really become like hell on Earth?

Remember that all machines and all products wear out and have a limited lifespan. The same holds true for solar panels, wind turbines and machines with which we make them. They have to be replaced, sooner or later, even factory buildings. Remember also that inorganic nonrenewable materials cannot be fully recycled, because the entropy law also applies to materials. As many in the ecology movement have been saying for quite a few years now, if it should go on like this, we humans would soon need at least two more planets – one as our resource base, and the other as our waste dumping site. Joking apart, such an industrial economy as McKibben envisages it, even if it could somehow be brought into existence, would not be viable. It would soon collapse.

I wonder why McKibben could not think of all this while issuing his call for a Second-World-War-like industrial mobilization. After all, he definitely knows enough about the true production process in the industrial age, that it is not a cyclical but a continuous linearprocess, that it begins with resource extraction and ends in dumping waste in landfills or the atmosphere or the waters, while midway (if we are lucky) giving us consumers some satisfaction and fulfilling some of our material and immaterial basic and non-basic needs.

After all, he is the author of a famous book that I read in the 1980s, End of Nature,7 wherein he took up a position against anthropocentrism, which he considered to be the root of all evils. But in this essay he displays an anthropocentric – worse, an US-centric –thinking. For what may be possible in the huge USA, the strongest economic and military power in todays world, is simply not possible in, say, India with its 1.25 billion people cramped in an area one third of that of the USA.

EROEI / Net Energy

There are three more reasons why I think an industrial economy like the present-day US-American one solely driven by so-called clean renewable energies– if the idea can at all be materialized –will be neither free from CO2 emission, nor generally pollutions-free, nor sustainable. I have in the past published several texts presenting my reasons for thinking so.8  There is therefore no need to fully repeat them. Here is only a very short gist of my argumentation:

(1) The clean energies (mostly electricity, but also biofuels) may be a little cleaner than energy from fossil fuel sources, but they are not 100 percent emissions-and-pollution-free. For all equipments – solar panels, wind turbines, cables etc. etc. – used at any stage in the process of generating and distributing clean energies, in fact any kind of energy, are manufactured by means of machines and factories that are driven mainly (though not solely) by either coal-based energy or nuclear energy, which emit CO2 and radioactive particles respectively.

(2) All protagonists of 100 percent clean energy simply assume that solar and wind energy plants yield an amount of net energy – i.e. a surplus over the whole amount of energy that was consumed for manufacturing and building them) – that justifies their commercial deployment. In other words, their EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) is sufficiently positive. But there is considerable doubt about that.8 I shall take up this point once more below.

(3) They simply ignore the difference, first pointed out in 1978 by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen9, between feasibility and viability. He maintained till 1994, the year he passed away, that solar-electricity technology was of course feasible, but not viable. Also TCMsVictory Plan2, despite its other merits, contains these last two errors. I shall come back to this point below.

Merits and Weaknesses of TCMs Victory Plan

McKibbens action plan appears to pursue only one goal, to, somehow and as soon as possible, replace fossil fuels with renewables. He seems to think once that goal has been attained, all other major problems of the earth and the world (economic crisis, unemployment, pollution etc.) would quasi automatically, though gradually, disappear.

As against that, TCM has realized that that would not suffice. It therefore wants, additionally, to pursue a broad range of other, equally important, concrete goals: for instance, to phase out cars and trucks and replace them with a public transportation system, to curtail aviation, to scale back commercial fishing, to cut production and consumption of meat and dairy products etc.

McKibbens is in effect a huge Keynesian plan that would not only win the war against climate change, but also, additionally, function as a huge growth, job and income creating machine. Such ideas have earlier been submitted by others under captions like ecoKeynesianism, eco-capitalism, green growth, green New Deal and green economy.10 As against that, TCM seems to have realized what a huge amount of shit such a plan would also produce. Its Victory Plan is in effect one of drawing down production in general, of de-growth, so to speak, and stopping and reversing population growth culminating in demanding that half of the earth/USA should be reserved for conservation purposes.

Both McKibben and TCM calls upon the state to intervene in the economy in order to motivate or compel the economic actors (particularly companies) to do what is needed to save the planet. McKibbens eco-Keynesian action plan does not need to question capitalism. But I wonder how TCMs plan, which is in effect tantamount to enforcing a world-wide recession, can be compatible with capitalism with its growth compulsion. The plan even envisages rationing of all products and services that emit greenhouse gases in order to ensure more equity. That is not far from planning. Why doesnt the group call its plan one for eco-socialism in America? Of course, I know it is very difficult to say this in America.

Readers of my writings would surely guess that I heavily sympathize with the TCM plan. That is also the reason why my eco-socialist friend Kamran Nyeri sympathizes with it and calls it a breakthrough in the movement to save the planet.4  However, there are two weaknesses in TCMs Victory Plan. One I have just mentioned above, namely that it cannot be realized without abandoning capitalism, a call for which I have not seen in the 110 pages (or have I overseen it, or is it only hinted at?). The other is that the whole plan, like that of McKibben, is based on the assumption that running the whole US-American economy by using only renewable clean energies is not only feasible but also viable.

In TCMs Victory Plan, this assumption is based on the latest book by Richard Heinberg, written together with David Fridley,11 wherein the two authors claim they have drawn their conclusions after studying a large number of latest studies on the subject. I had learnt the term EROEI from one of Heinbergs earlier books The Party is Over (2003)12. In that book he quoted two tables that showed different estimates of EROEIs of various sources of energy in connection with the respective technologies. In their latest book, Heinberg and Fridley write:

Unfortunately, the net energy or EROEI literature is inconsistent because researchers have so far been unable to agree on a common set of system boundaries. Therefore two analysts may calculate very different EROEI ratios for the same energy source. This does not entirely undermine the usefulness of NEA [net energy analysis]; it merely requires us to use caution in comparing the findings of different studies.)11

That means even today, one cannot quote a certain figure and assert with any degree of certainty that this is now the EROEI of solar energy.

Also Ugo Bardi13, (not an American, but) a European scientist and member of the Club of Rome, shows in his article published in May 2016 how much uncertainty still exists in this matter. Bardi, a protagonist of Photovoltaic solar energy, used a question rather than a statement, for the title of his article: But whats the REAL energy return of photovoltaic energy? I request my readers to especially read all the comments and responses to his article, which mainly (but not only) came from researchers working on this question. The readers will then see how many of them hold the view that it is negative.

In his 2003 book, Heinberg (2003: 152f.) quoted two studies. One from the year 1984, in which Cleveland et al. estimated the EROEI of Photovoltaics to be 1.7 to 10.0. Twelve years later, in 1996, Howard Odum estimated it to be only 0.41, i.e. negative. Heinberg wrote in this connection:Time is relevant to EROEI studies because the net energy yield for a given energy source may change with the introduction of technological refinements or the depletion of a resource base (ibid). In the case of solar energy, its resource base, namely solar radiation, hadnt undergone any depletion in the said 12 years. And presumably, both studies were made in the mainland of the USA, in average locations ( not one in the Death Valley and the other on the North Slope of Alaska).

Now, if we may logically assume that in those twelve years the photovoltaic technology had undergone some technological refinements, then the EROEI of photovoltaic technology should actually have improved rather than deteriorated in that period (as Odums figure shows). Be that as it may, the point I want to make here is that it has been very unwise on the part of McKibben, TCM, and Heinberg himself to base their plans for saving the planet on uncertain data from inconsistent literature. In fine, I think it simply is not possible todirectly answer this question by raising data.

One must have recourse to indirect reasoning, as I have done in my writings on this topic.14     I myself think that the EROEIs of the renewable energy technologies, except hydroelectric power stations, are negative, and they are generally becoming ever more negative because all the resources needed to manufacture and/or build all the equipments and plants needed for or relevant to these technologies are nonrenewable and are continuously being depleted or have to be extracted from ever remoter and ever more difficult terrain (mines), which entails ever more energy investment.

Another question that protagonists of solar energy (generally, of renewable energies)avoid taking up is the question of viability of these energy technologies. This question, as stated above, was first raised by Georgescu-Roegen in his 1978 paper referred to above.9. In 2016, 38 years later, it still remains unanswered. But it is not forgotten. In the discussion that followed Ugo Bardis article referred to above13 , one discussant, using the pseudonym foodstuff  impatiently put the same question in much simpler language:

I still want to know if the following can be done and does the EROEI quoted include it all (plus extra energy demand I havent thought of):
1. Mine the raw materials using equipment powered by solar panels.
2. Transport and convert metal ores, e.g. bauxite-aluminium, using equipment run by solar panels and in a factory built using the energy from solar panels.
3. Make the finished panels in a factory run by solar panels, including building and maintaining the factory.
4. Transport, install and maintain the solar panels using equipment running on solar panels.
All this is presently being done [mainly] with the energy from fossil fuels. How will it be done when they are gone?

I request McKibben, TCM, Heinberg and Fridley to please answer these questions. My answer is No. If they cannot answer Yes, that would mean their vision of an industrial society based on 100 percent renewable clean energy is a 100 percent illusion, even TCMs reduced-scale industrial society.
I think TCMs victory plan has another weakness: It is sending mixed or contradictory messages. Otherwise, how could Paul Gilding,15 former executive director of Green Peace International, write in his forward to Ezra Silks Victory Plan:

[In a situation of] economic and social crisis [and]… despair, a climate mobilization of this sort could result in [inter alia]… huge economic benefits … innovation, technology and massive job creation … much better quality of life … business opportunities [etc.].… . [It would] leave our energy costs lower and supplies more secure … more people employed. [In a situation , in which] the global economy is in deep and serious trouble, [in which] growth … is grinding to a halt, [in which] inequality and the lack of progress of the Western middle class has laid the foundation for political extremism, xenophobia and isolationism,… brought us phenomena like Trump, Brexit … movements that further threaten the global economy, [it could be a] mobilization to save the economy. [This quote is partly reconstructed by me. My insertions are in square brackets.]


The Other Plan and the Other Path

Is any other plan for saving the planet possible?, one may ask.
It is possible, but it surely will not be popular among present-day Americans. It is possible, if we accept McKibbens other diagnosis, namely, our insatiable desires as consumers is the cause of climate change, and if we accept the truism, as I formulated it in an earlier blog16, that the real and deeper causes of many of our maladies are the continuously growing needs, aspirations and ambitions of a continuously growing world population, while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing – in short, the lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.

Then it follows that the spirit of the other plan that could perhaps save the planet must be the very opposite of McKibben and Cos gigantism and limitless technological optimism, i.e. the beliefs that everything is doable, that we can also build a colony on the Moon etc., which are themselves diseases, not remedies.

TCM (with Heinberg and Fridley) has discarded gigantic plans for stopping climate change. But it too has offered only half a solution. It still seeks a high-tech solution to the energy problem, namely renewable clean energies. We then first need an antidote to these typical American diseases, which has long ago been offered by Fritz Schumacherwith his slogan Small is beautiful. He wrote:Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. 17     However, the latest that I have read 0f Heinberg points to the right direction. He seems to have returned to his former healthy skepticism. In an article published in September 2016,18 he writes:

We concluded that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to using renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we would all be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy.

For such a transition, a Second-World-War-like mobilization a la McKibben is not necessary. Actually we are not at war at all. And if we cannot but use the war metaphor, then it is we who are the aggressors, we are the enemy of nature. Then the first task on the path of this transition is to end our aggression. We then need only to withdraw and not carry on the aggression with other weapons.19  We then dont need to build much, but we do need to dismantle a lot. Above all, particularly Americans and their fans and imitators in the rest of the world need to dismantle their American way of living.

Before society, the state, the economic powers that be take the first step backwards, weecological-political activists will have to do a lot of mainly educative work. At present at least, we cannot compel anybody to do anything. But there is also no hindrance to educative work. Everything else – electoralism, demonstrations, lobbyism, party work, setting personal examples, writing, lecturing etc. – can be used to convince and persuade the people and the powers that be.
One of the goals in TCMs Victory Plan is to stop and reverse world population growth. This ought to be the first point where the transition should begin.

For, as Paul Ehrlich wrote to point out its utmost importance, Whatever be your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth].20 All problems that nature has with us, as well as all problems of our own human society get aggravated as population grows. There are also two advantages of beginning at this point: It is easy to persuade the powers that be to do something in this regard. And it is easy to persuade people in the lower income groups that their living conditions would immediately improve if they limit the number of their offspring to two.21 Also, here there would be the least resistance from the ruling classes and the imperialist nations. So here we could achieve our first successes.

I think at present an elaborate and detailed other plan like that of TCM is neither possible nor necessary. We can however start with what is immediately possible.

Bill McKibben: It’s time to declare war on climate change
Unlike Adolph Hitler, the last force to pose a planetwide threat to civilization, our enemy today is neither sentient nor evil. But before the outbreak of World War II, the world’s leaders committed precisely the same mistake we are making today—they tried first to ignore their foe, and then to appease him.


1. McKibben, Bill (2016): A World at War

2. Salomon, Margaret Klein (2016): The Climate Mobilization Action Program: Victory Plan(This is only a preface. The link to the 110 page document written by Ezra Silk is given at the end of this text)

3. Roberts David (2016): Climate Justice Policy and the Metaphor of War

4. Nayeri Kamran (2016):Making Progress: A Critical Assessment of Climate Action Plans by Bill McKibben and The Climate Mobilization.

5. Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1976) Selected Works (in 3 volumes) Vol. 3, Moscow. P. 36.

6. Lovelock, James  (1987) Gaia –A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford and New York. P. 10.

7. McKibben, Bill (2006) End of Nature. USA (?): Random Haus.

8. Sarals articles :
(a)Chapter 4 of: Saral Sarkar (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?. London: Zed.

9. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1978): Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy;

10. For a critic of these ideas see Sarkar (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?.London: Zed Books.

11.Heinberg, Richard and Fridley, David (2016)  Our Renewable Future

12. Heinberg, Richard (2003) The Partys Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. Forest Row: Clairview.

13. Bardi, Ugo (2016)But whats the REAL energy return of photovoltaic energy? inCassandras Legacy (online).

14. Sarkars writings on EROEI (see note 8)

15. Paul Gilding (2016) Forward to
Silk, Ezra (2016) The Climate Mobilization Action Program: Victory Plan (see note 2)

16. Sarkar, Saral (2016): A Historic Event or a Fraud?

17. Schmacher, E.F. (August 1973)Small is Beautiful, an essay, in The Radical Humanist, Vol. 37, No. 5, p. 22

18.  Heinberg, Richard (2016) Exploring The Gap Between Business-As-Usual And Utter Doom.

19. Sunzi,: An ancient Chinese author (2500 B.C.). He wrote on strategies of warfare inter alia: Verily, he wins, who does not fight, (quoted from Wikiquotes)

20. Ehrlich, Paul (quoted in Weissman).
Weissman, Steve (1971) Forward (in Meek 1971).
Meek, Ronald. L (1971) Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb, Berkeley.

21.Saral Sarkar (1993) Polemics is Useless – A Proposal for an Eco-Socialist Synthesis in the Overpopulation Dispute.

Was Fukushima the worst environmental disaster in human history?

Whitney Webb reports: Fukushima continues to leak an astounding 300 tons of radioactive waste into the Pacific every day. It will continue do so indefinitely as the leak’s source is inaccessible to both humans and robots due to extremely high temperatures. In other words, Fukushima has contaminated the entire Pacific Ocean in just five years.
Read more…

Why is India holding out on the Paris Climate Agreement?

Global Risk Insights reports: Recent developments suggest that India has been seeking to leverage its ratification of the Paris Agreement. Specifically, the Modi Government has claimed it will only be able to meet emissions reduction targets if it rapidly expands its capacity to produce nuclear energy, which would be difficult to achieve without NSG membership.

Read more…

Report: The rise of the Right and climate catastrophe

Michael T. Klare writes: Nationalistic exceptionalism could become something of the norm if Donald Trump wins, or other nations put the needs of a fossil fuel-based domestic growth agenda ahead of global climate commitments. In its latest report, the Norwegian energy giant Statoil outlines a chilling scenario focused on just this sort of dystopian future.
Read more…

Koodankulam’s untameable atomic reactor: Tickling the dragon’€™s tail again?

The reactor failed four times in the final commissioning test. Numerous emergency shutdowns and four maintenance outages have kept the reactor off-grid for days, and it has supplied far less electricity than it was supposed to. Yet, plans to import a dozen more reactors of the same vintage from the same vendor are in progress.

Read more…

Koodankulams untameable atomic reactor: Tickling the dragon€™s tail again?

The reactor failed four times in the final commissioning test. Numerous emergency shutdowns and four maintenance outages have kept the reactor off-grid for days, and it has supplied far less electricity than it was supposed to. Yet, plans to import a dozen more reactors of the same vintage from the same vendor are in progress.

V.T. Padmanabhan, Paul Dorfman & Anisur Rahman, EPW

We are very grateful to the anonymous peer reviewer for valuable comments. V T Padmanabhan fondly remembers R Ramesh, V Pugal, J Makolil, Raminder Kaur and K Sahadevan, colleagues in the Koodankulam Risk Audit Group.

We’re entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger societal breakdown.

—Rees M, Science, 8 March 20131

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a public sector undertaking under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), has been operating a 1,000 megawatt electric (MWe) water–water–energy–reactor (WWER), the Russian version of the pressurised water reactor (PWR), since 22 October 2013 at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in Thirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, 98 km north-east of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital. The NPCIL’s contractors constructed the plant with equipment supplied by the Atomstroyexport (ASE) of Russia. The reactor could not pass the “initial start up” (ISU) tests, which alone can ensure that it “will operate in accordance with design and is capable of responding to anticipated transients and postulated accidents” (United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2013: 7).

Within a decade, the KKNPP campus is expected to have six such reactors. A detailed history of this trans-boundary, trans-generational health risk for millions of people has been published elsewhere.2 We narrate the history of commissioning the reactor in haste in violation of safety guidelines, its transfer for warranty period operation, and analyse its performance since the synchronisation with the electricity network from 22 October 2013 till 30 April 2016.

Sources of Data

This study is based on the daily reports of power generation and station outages published by the Southern Regional Load Dispatch Centre (SRLDC), Bengaluru on its website ( The data includes generation at the peak hour (19:30 hr); non-peak hour (03:00 hr); maximum generation of the day; and the electricity received by the grid after deducting internal consumption. The data on outage include the time and cause of outage, and the expected and actual dates of revival.

Key Milestones

According to the official narrative, the initial fuel loading (IFL) of the reactor was completed on 2 October 2012. Though the first few fuel assemblies were loaded during the third week of September 2012, the process was stopped due to flaws in the neutron flux monitoring equipment (NFME). Safety guidelines of IAEA and AERB say that fuel loading should be stopped if the NFME is not working properly. An AERB presentation at the VVER Regulators’ Forum meeting at Kanyakumari, India in December 2013 reveals that NFME defect was noticed during the fuel loading.3 A report in the newspaper the Hindu on 18 October 2012 said that “the loading of enriched uranium was almost complete” and “a 10-member team from the AERB comprising experts in various sub-fields of Atomic Energy technology, began inspection of the plant.” On 26 January 2013, another report said that “the plant was almost on the verge of being commissioned last month, but got stopped after the authorities decided to do some maintenance work when some of the parameters were found to be not falling within the prescribed norms in toto”.4 On 3 June 2013, a Russian scientist at KKNPP noted in a Russian discussion forum that: “4 of intricate valve the size of a suitcase holding a block thousands, in a unique state where fuel is half loaded, and load characteristics have not been confirmed.”5 The reactor attained the first act of criticality (FAC) in July 2013, and was connected to the electricity grid on 22 October 2013 for power ascension (C-Phase commissioning) tests.

C-Phase commissioning has 45 tests in three sub-phases of C-1, C-2, and C-3, during which the reactor power is raised to 50% of full power (FP), 75% of FP, and 100% of FP respectively. The final test in C-3 is non-stop operation of the reactor for 100 days at 100% FP. The C-1 and C-2 tests take about 10 days, while the C-3 tests need 120 days. Add 30–40 days for regulatory deliberations and the reactor should have been commissioned within 160–170 days after the grid connection. The initial plan to commission the reactor before 22 April 2014 had to be shelved due to unusually high shutdowns due to trips (scrams)6 and maintenances.7

The C-1, C-2, and C-3 sub-phases of the KKNPP-1 began on 22 October 2013, 4 January 2014 and 3 May 2014, respectively. The reactor was in the C-1 sub-phase for 74 days and in the C-2 sub-phase for 119 days, a total of 193 days against the 180 earmarked for the entire phase. Technically the reactor is still in the C-3 sub-phase as four attempts to clear the final test failed, and the latest attempt began on 3 May 2016. Details of the failed FP tests are given in Table 1.

Clearing all the commissioning tests is the precondition for crossing four main milestones. They are (i) the award of a licence for regular operation of the reactor from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB); (ii) commercial commissioning; (iii) transfer for warranty operation by the equipment supplier to the operator; and (iv) final transfer of ownership after successful completion of the warranty period operation. The reactor has crossed the first three milestones without clearing the final test.

(i) Provisional transfer: According to an official Russian blog, KKNPP-1 was “put into warranty operation, which was preceded by signing the power unit’s provisional acceptance certificate by the contractor, ASE, and the customer, NPCIL on 27 December 2014” ( 2015). News agency TASS (2015) reported that “a year-long period of operation on warranty has begun” and “upon the results of these 12 months, the power unit will be fully transferred to the Indian side.”

(ii) Commercial commissioning: Three days after the provisional acceptance of the reactor from the ASE, at the 00:00 hour on 31 December 2014, NPCIL declared the commercial commissioning of KKNPP-1. According to the initial plan, this was supposed to be a star-studded event with the Russian President and the Indian Prime Minister jointly dedicating the generating station to the nation. Since the site received the order for this major milestone from the NPCIL head office only six hours before it took place, there was no celebration or celebrities at the site.

(iii) Licence to operate: During the first six months of commercial operation, the reactor tripped two times and was shut down on 24 June 2015 for a six-month long maintenance. A fortnight later, on 8 July 2015, the AERB granted a licence for its regular operation even though it did not clear the stipulated final commissioning test.

Warranty Period Performance

During the warranty period of one year, the reactor worked for 166 days and was on full power for 102 days, in two instalments. On 27 December 2015, the last day of the warranty period, the machine was still under maintenance and was connected to the grid on 31 January 2016. On 2 February 2016, the ASE extended the warranty period till the second quarter of 2016 “to carry out the final transmission,” after “the end of the warranty period of operation and confirmation of all installed power performance” (TASS 2016). During the 121 days of the extended warranty period, the reactor was offline for 49 days; 31 days on maintenance; and 18 days on three trips. Of the 72 online days, it was on full power for 18 days only. The rate of trips per year increased from 3.5 during 2015 to 12.2 during 2016. As the latest attempt for the final test began on 22 June 2016, it could not clear the test within the extended warranty period.

Commissioning Tests

According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the power ascension test phase “should be completed in an orderly and expeditious manner,” and failure to complete it “within a reasonable period of time may indicate inadequacies in the applicant’s operating and maintenance capabilities, or may result from basic design problems.” In India, 17 reactors have been commissioned so far without any outside support, and a 540 MWe heavy water reactor at Tarapur near Mumbai was commissioned in 2006 in a record time of 148 days of grid connection. Only insiders will be able to judge whether the non-completion of power ascension tests and unusually high number of trips and shutdowns are due to operator incompetence, basic design problems, or defective equipment.

Violation of Court Orders

On the question of commissioning the reactor, the AERB said that “the safety guide on consenting process does not identify any stage of commercial commissioning” and the “declaration of NPP as commercial is the prerogative of the utility”.8 The NPCIL also said that “declaration of commercial operation is the purview of NPCIL”.9 Though the AERB guide does not mention anything about commercial commissioning (AERB 2014), the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court assigned a central role to the AERB in the commissioning of KKNPP-1.

83.2. These two stages (siting, construction) have been completed in respect of KKNPP. The third stage of ‘commissioning’ involves regulatory clearances at several intermediate stages/phases starting from hot commissioning stage to raising reactor power up to 100% rated power. (Madras High Court 2012)10
The plant should not be made operational unless AERB, NPCIL, DAE accord final clearance for commissioning of the plant ensuring the quality of various components and systems because their reliability is of vital importance. (Supreme Court 2013)11

The hurried commissioning of the reactor, its transfer for warranty operation, and the award of an operating licence without clearing the commissioning test were dictated by extraneous reasons. A couple of hours after the AERB board decided to award the licence, during a press conference after the bilateral meeting of the Indian premier and the Russian president at Ufa in Russia, the Indian ambassador said,

The Kudankulam 3 and 4 contracts have already been signed. There is what is called the Long Cycle Supply of Equipment which is a contract that has been signed. So, it is in the process of implementation. That is what the (Indian) Prime Minister and President Putin noted with satisfaction as progress in the nuclear energy cooperation.12

Incidentally, the AERB officially announced its 8 July 2015 decision to grant a licence to operate the KKNPP-1 in a press release a week later. Unlike all the earlier AERB consents that used to mention the Advisory Committee for Project Safety Review (ACPSR), which has been overseeing the KKNPP project from the beginning, there is no reference to the ACPSR in this last consent.

In short, all the three vital events in the life of the reactor were dictated by politics and diplomacy, and not based on safety science and regulatory norms. With the midnight commissioning and the award of the operator’s licence for a reactor, which was in an intensive care unit of sorts, India has entered a brave new world of regulation-free fission technology.

Performance Details

The KKNPP-1 is the world’s first PWR certified as Generation-III by the European Utility Requirement (EUR) Club, a consortium of power-generating companies based in Europe (Ermakov and Rousselot 2007). During the proceedings for the EUR certification of the WWER reactor in 2006, the Russian designers had shown the Koodankulam reactors, which were then under construction, as prototypes. Gen-III reactors are supposed to be more reliable, safe, and economical.

Since the reactor attained FAC during the middle of July 2013 and was grid-connected in October 2013, we now have its operational data for two and a half years, which represents about 6% of its design life of 40 years. Being the only Gen-III certified Russian reactor operating in the world, the designer and the global nuclear industry might be keeping a close vigil on its performance. As they have not published any report so far, we present this performance analysis.

In the Words of Designers

KKNPP houses version V-392 (also known as AES-92) WWER-1,000 reactors, which according to the Russian designer,

has better economical parameters than those of a V-320 plant. Specific capital investments in the construction are 1.6 times less and the electricity generation costs are about 1.5 times less than for existing serial plants with WWER-1000/V-320 design. Economical efficiency of NPP operation is determined by quantity of the produced power which depends on reliability of power production. The plant availability goal for WWER-1,000/V-392 design was established as 0.85 around the year. The factor of power generation losses due to repair and maintenance must not exceed 0.1 (that is, the duration of the scheduled outage must not exceed 15–37 days per year). The factor of the power generation losses due to system failures must not exceed 0.05 per year. (IAEA 2004)

Reactor in Real World

In the 922 days between its grid connection and 30 April 2016, four maintenance outages and 22 scrams kept the reactor off-grid for 470 days. Year-wise data is given in Table 2. The reactor was supposed to be on 100% full power about a month after grid connection. We assume that KKNPP-1 reached this milestone on 1 January 2014. As per the preliminary safety analysis report (PSAR), the duration for refuelling and annual maintenance is 30 days, and it is assumed that the reactor worked for 335 days in a full year. Its maximum contribution to the grid was 22.8 million units (MU) on 7 January 2015, the average during the full power days was 22.5 MU, and this is considered the norm (reference energy supply) for the unit since 1 January 2014 (row 11 of Table 2). The SRLDC provides data on the net supply of electricity after deducting in-house consumption, which is about 1.5 MU/day when the reactor is working. When the generator is off-grid, the unit consumes about 1 MU/day. The estimated electricity drawn by the unit from the grid during its non-working days is in row 13. The net amount of electricity received by the grid from KKNPP-1 after deducting the withdrawal during non-working days is given in row 14. The data for the period of commercial operation is given in column (g).

Main Findings

(i) During 2014–16, the overall contribution of the reactor was on 40% of its design potential.

(ii) The contribution during the warranty period operation was 42.6%, which is less than half the quantity promised by the designer.

(iii) The total loss of revenue to the NPCIL due to the lost productivity of KKNPP-1 since January 2014 till 30 April 2016 was `4,245.5 crore. Lost revenue accounts for about 20% of total revenue from sales and 81% of the net profit of the NPCIL.

(iv) The rate of trips per 7,000 hours at KKNPP-1 and workdays lost per trip are 14.1/yr and 5.1 days/trip at KKNPP as against 0·5/yr and 1·5 days for all the reactors in the world respectively (World Nuclear Association 2014). The trip rate at KKNPP-1 is 28 times higher than that of all the commercial reactors in the world.

Comparison with Other Reactors

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) publishes the performance statistics of all commercial reactors in the world. Three indicators (operation factor, energy availability factor, and load factor) for 5 WWER-1000 reactors and one heavy water reactor commissioned during this century are given in Table 3. Of these, KKNPP-1 is the only reactor certified as Generation-III, while all others belong to Generation-II. These data are for the first full calendar year after commissioning the reactor. KKNPP-1 is vying for the bottom most position in all the indicators. TAPS-2 on row 7, one of the oldest boiling water reactors in the world, commissioned some four decades ago, is far more efficient.

The dismal performance of KKNPP-1 during the 30 months of its grid connection raises doubts about the Gen-III certification process. As the certification was done 10 years ago, when the reactor was in the early stages of construction, the certifier (the EUR Club) should take cognisance of the performance of the real reactor in the two and half years of its operation.


In spite of the repeated failures in clearing the commissioning tests and its position as one of the worst performing commercial reactors in the world, the NPCIL, the owner of KKNPP-1 is busy negotiating more deals for reactors of the same vintage from the same vendor. The people, Parliament, and governments have a right to know what is happening behind the high walls of the nuclear campus. Most of the legislators and decision-makers believe that projects such as KKNPP are important for national defence, which was true till the Indo–US nuclear deal. In reality, all the 14 operating reactors, including KKNPP, which are under IAEA safeguard, are simply commercial ventures. The NPCIL being a public sector undertaking, its accounts ought to be scrutinised by Parliament and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

After the meltdown of five reactors, we are now better informed about the catastrophic risks of fission technology. All the five meltdowns from Three Mile Island to Fukushima were accidents in the real sense because nobody had foreseen them. In the case of Koodankulam, several well-informed persons who had held important positions in academia and in civil, military and public services in India and abroad have raised concerns about the safety of the reactors.

The plant’s continuous existence without a proper safety audit poses an unacceptable risk, not only for the people of India, but also for the people of South Asia and wherever the wind will blow.

V T Padmanabhan (pdagalo) is Member, Nuclear Consulting Group; Paul Dorfman (poaucauk) is with the Nuclear Consulting Group and UCL Energy Institute, University College London; and Anisur Rahman (iu.a1bneno) is a former director of Nuclear Safety Consultants, UK.


1 M Rees, “Denial of Catastrophic Risks,” Editorial. Science, 8 March 2013: DOI: 10.1126/science.1236756

2 V T Padmanabhan, Paul Dorfman, A Rahman, 2015 doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3239.8561.

3 K J Vakharwala, 2013, Safety Review of Kudankulam NPP KK NPP -1, 2, AERB, 20th Meeting of WWER Regulator’s Forum – 11–13 December 2013, Kanyakumari, India.

4 The Hindu, New Delhi, 26 January 2013 AERB permits repeat of hydro tests at Kudankulam kudankulam/article4345280.ece.

5 =716.

6 Definition of Trip/SCRAM: US NRC defines scram (trip) as follows: “Key operating parameters of a nuclear power plant are continuously monitored to detect conditions that could lead to exceeding the plant’s known safe operating limits, which might damage the reactor core and release radiation to the environment. If any of these limits is exceeded, then the reactor is automatically shut down, in order to prevent core damage. The automatic shut-down of a nuclear reactor is called a reactor trip or scram. A reactor trip causes all the control rods to insert into the reactor core in about three seconds and release of boric acid into the coolant” (

7 Central Electricity Regulatory Commission New Delhi Petition No 72/MP/2014, Date of Order: 12 May 2014,

8 AERB letter No AERB/RST/RTI Appln 587/2015/4008 dated 23 June 2015.

9 NPCIL letter No NPCIL/CPIL/MUMBAI-HQ/327/2015/873/421 dated 7 Jul 2015.

10 Justice P Jyothimani and the Justice M Duraiswamy dated 31 August 2012 (WP No 24770).

11 Justice K S Radhakrihnan and Justice Dipak Misra, 2013 Judgment in Civil Appeal No 4440 of 2013 (Arising out of SLP (C) No 27335 of 2012, p 242).

12 Ministry of External Affairs press briefing,


AERB (2014): “Commissioning of Pressurised Water Reactor Based Nuclear Power Plants,” Safety Guide No AERB/NPP-PWR/SG/O-4 C, October,

Ermakov and Rousselot (2007): “European Utility Requirements for LWR Nuclear Power Plants for LWR Nuclear Power Plants: EUR volume 3 AES 92 subset,” EUR Seminar, Nice, France, 15 May.

IAEA (2004): Status of Advanced Light Water Reactor Designs, IAEA-TECDOC-1391, pp 358–59, (2015): “Partner Company Highly Appreciates Participation of Power Machines Ojsc in Installation and Commissioning of First Power Unit at Kudankulam NPP in India,”, 19 March,

TASS (2015): “Kudankulam-1 Transferred to India for Warranty-Period Operation,” Russia and India Report, 2 January,

— (2016): “Final Transfer of the First Unit of Kudankulam NPP in India Is Planned in the Second Quarter – Rosatom,”, 2 February,

United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (2013): “Regulatory Guide 1.68: Initial Test Programs for Water-Cooled Nuclear Power Plants,” June,

World Nuclear Association (2014): Optimized Capacity: Global Trends and Issues 2014 Edition, World Nuclear Assocation,

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