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Disaster proofing India’s power utilities

Disaster proofing India’s power utilities

New Delhi, March 5 (G’nY news service): Our lives are cripplingly dependent on electricity. In the backdrop of the Kudankulam nuclear plant agitation, disaster proofing becomes imperative as we often depend on a reliable source of electrical power for hospitals, schools, and businesses. Power companies need to thus put in place state-of-the-art disaster proofing mechanism to minimize the impact of power outages.

India faces myriad natural disasters with recurring regularity. Cyclones, earthquakes, and floods are almost an annual feature for the sub-continent. The devastating effects of these events can wipe out service to an area for weeks or in some cases even months.

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Rajasthan (G’nY file photo )

Nuclear power plants need to be doubly reinforced to protect them against the vagaries of nature and radioactive leakage. The Kudankulam nuclear power plant, which has been the site of vehement protests ever since construction was begun in 2002, is designed to withstand disasters like earthquakes, tsunami and even an airplane crash, said a senior Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) official. The tsunamigenic fault (where tsunamis originate) is 1500 km away from the plant; it was only 130 km away from the Fukushima reactor. As for earthquakes, there are sensors installed in the plant which initiate a shut down on picking up tremors. In addition, all the nuclear power plants in India are built in earthquake zones 1 and 2, which have low susceptibility to earthquakes.Some low and medium level waste would be generated in the Kudankulam station which is to be treated inside the plant. Very low level effluents from these would be generated and there are norms and limits for their releases. For the twin reactors at Kudankulam, the limit is 0.2 mSv; the regulatory limit of exposure to public is 1 mSv/year from all sources excluding the natural radiation.

The anti-nuclear protests – hunger strikes, rallies, – by the people of Kudankulam have stalled the completion of the plant. The protests are being supported by activists, NGOs The primary impetus behind these protests is the potential health hazard due to the radiation from nuclear power plant – the villagers fear that the radiation will enter the food chain through the fish. This would also affect the fishermen’s livelihood.

The atomic power plants currently in operation India are the ones at Tarapur (Maharashtra), Rajasthan (65 km from Kota), Kaiga (Karnataka), Madras (Tamil Nadu), Narora (Uttar Pradesh) and Kakrapar (Gujarat). Apart from Kudankulam, capacity additions are being made at the atomic power plants at Rajasthan and Kakrapar. Anti-nuclear protests have also been staged in Jaitapur, Fatehabad, Kovvada, Mithi Virdi and Chutka, where plants are being planned. The current installed capacity of nuclear power plants in India stands at 4780 MW, which is about 2 per cent of the total installed capacity.

Large dams, which are an integral part of hydroelectric power stations, have machinery that collect data to control the gates of the dams in the event of an impending disaster. In case of a flood, top priority is given to saving the dam by opening the gates to release water and the power plant is shut down to prevent damage said P K Gupta, the general manager in the geology department of National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC). Hooters installed downstream warn the occupants near the banks of the incoming surge of water. The hydroelectric power stations in earthquake zones are designed to resist earthquakes. Dams can be used to control floods. This aspect depends on the storage capacity of the dam. The Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh has been used to control floods in the region. However, the sudden release of water from the dam can also cause flash floods, as was seen in Mettur.
In the case of grid connectivity in case an electricity tower collapses, lines break, or there is any other physical damage, the system is designed to trip automatically to prevent injury to humans or animals, as well as to prevent further damage.

A number of power utilities are controlled through computers, in this scenario cyber attacks as a disaster may also be understood in the context of disaster proofing. Although not attributable to cyber crime, the grid failure over entire northern India in July 2012 may be cited as one such man-made disaster. Kota Prasad of the safety department in Powergrid refused to answer basic questions about protection of the grid from disasters or cyber attack, giving the status of classified information to knowledge that should be in the public domain. S K Soonee the CEO of Power System Operation Corporation Limited (POSOCO), echoed the posture and refused to answer the questions we posed. The reticence to talk by officials in Powergrid and POSOCO about whether we even have a system in place or not, let alone give us the details, was baffling.
Innovative planning during an emergency is a must for minimizing loss of life and maintaining normalcy. Severe storms for example need redrawing the lines of safety in real time, while flood zones have been redefined annually apart from reinforcing structures in earthquake prone areas. However, round-the-clock availability requirements often make it difficult for electricity providers to perform extensive disaster proofing exercises. With the advent of smart grid and smart meter technologies, utilities can gain insights into the location of problems. Electric utilities should carefully consider how new technologies may be used and incorporated into overall disaster proofing plans. These might include mobile devices, apps and GPS services to dispatch and track power-restoration workers more efficiently and streamline damage assessment. The right technologies also can enable employees to work remotely. Most electricity providers prepare only for risks they consider likely, such as cyclones and floods. Given today’s environment, they also should plan for extraordinary but possible threats such as cyber attacks and events that provide little or no notice. But, the true picture of India’s disaster proofing of power utilities is far from clear and exactly how far we have reached in this area is in the realms of ambiguity.

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