Lessons from Fukushima - Praful Bidwai - Thursday, March 24, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=37869&Cat=9

On Day 1 (March 12), they dismissed it as a minor accident. On Day 2, when there was an explosion in Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, they denied it was a nuclear emergency “as described by some sections of [the] media”. One of them even described it as “a well-planned emergency preparedness programme”.

On Day 3, as the world watched in horror and in real time the Japanese nuclear crisis irreversibly worsen, they maintained that the crisis would be over soon.

These gentlemen, who believe they are omniscient and infallible, are our nuclear energy czars. The first person quoted above is Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Sreekumar Banerjee. The second one is SK Jain, chairman of the Nuclear Power Corporation, which operates 20 reactors in India.

The DAE bosses’ statements show how their dogma prevents them from acknowledging hard facts – such as a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) in the Fukushima reactors that overheated them, causing explosions and large releases of lethal radioactivity into the air.

The radiation could kill hundreds, even thousands of people. The scale is way beyond the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in the US, and comparable to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Ukraine.

It is a terrible irony that the Fukushima crisis should come so close to the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl (April 26), a fatal shock to the global nuclear industry. This crisis is in some ways graver than the Ukraine disaster, which could be attributed to flawed designs and shoddy operating procedures in an industrially backward society. Fukushima cannot be. Japan’s safety standards for nuclear reactors are globally credited to be the best.

Although Japan’s nuclear power generation programme has been troubled with accidents, including explosions, earthquake-induced breakdowns, crises in fast-breeders, and small radioactivity release, never before has a nuclear accident assumed catastrophic dimensions.

That has now happened, in a nuclear power station with six reactors designed by a US company, General Electric, and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), one of the largest nuclear power companies in the developed world.

To understand the context of the Fukushima disaster, we must recall the effects of earlier crises. Three Mile Island (1979) paralysed the US nuclear industry, the world’s largest. It was already in trouble, having not had a single new reactor order since 1973. Three Mile Island led to tighter safety regulations and further raised the already-high costs of reactors, and hence of nuclear power. Despite President George W Bush’s offering generous loan guarantees and other subsidies 10 years ago to instigate a “nuclear renaissance” in America, not a single new reactor has been licensed there.

Then came Chernobyl paralysing the European nuclear industry. The market’s confidence in nuclear power generation, always low, collapsed. No new reactor has been constructed in the last 25 years in Europe, due to growing public opposition to exorbitant nuclear power. The few nuclear projects in Europe are all in trouble, led by the European Pressurised Reactor developed by France’s Areva, now under construction in Finland.

The EPR is 42 months behind schedule, 90 percent over budget, and faces 3,000 safety questions from Finnish, British, US and even French nuclear regulators. If the project is abandoned because of high and rising costs, and bitter litigation, it could end nuclear power expansion in Europe.

The Japanese disaster is so powerful and far-reaching it could precipitate a terminal crisis for the global nuclear industry. Already, Switzerland has cancelled plans to build three reactors. Germany has revoked a recent decision to prolong the phase out of nuclear power. Other countries are likely to follow. Even France, which gets more than three-fourths of its electricity from nuclear reactors, has upgraded the level of the Fukushima crisis on the disaster scale.

What caused the Fukushima crisis? The earthquake shut down the three operating reactors, as designed, thereby cutting off the power with which to cool the reactors’ still-hot cores. As designed, the back-up diesel generators also cut in, but an hour later, cut out, for as-yet-unknown reasons. The core, containing hundreds of tonnes of fuel, started heating up further. As water circulation stopped, more than half the core was exposed in Reactors 3 and 1, and the entire core in Reactor 2. All three reactors suffered a LOCA, with a potential for partial or complete core meltdown.

Soon, unspecified quantities of radiation were released. Radiation from Daiichi was detected by a helicopter 100 km away. Of particular significance in the fallout are Iodine-131 (which gets concentrated in the thyroid, causing cancer), and Caesium-137 (which is similar to potassium and gets easily absorbed in human tissues).

As India embarks on a programme to double and then further triple its nuclear power capacity, it needs to learn four lessons from the crisis. First, nuclear power generation is the only form of energy production that can lead to a catastrophic accident with long-time health damage and environmental contamination. Human error or a natural calamity can trigger a catastrophe – but only because reactors are inherently vulnerable.

Reactors are high-pressure high-temperature systems in which a high-energy fission chain-reaction is only just controlled. Nuclear reactors are both systemically complex, and internally, tightly coupled. A fault in one sub-system gets quickly transmitted to others and gets magnified, plunging the whole system into crisis.

Second, nuclear power involves radiation exposure at all stages of the so-called “nuclear fuel cycle”, from uranium mining and fuel fabrication, to reactor operation and maintenance, to routine emissions, and spent-fuel handling, storage and reprocessing. Nuclear reactors leave a toxic trail of high-level radioactive wastes. These remain hazardous for thousands of years. The half-life of plutonium-239, which is produced by fission, is 24,400 years. Science knows no way of safely storing nuclear wastes for long periods, let alone neutralising them or disposing of them.

Third, India has no independent authority that can evolve safety standards and regulate reactors for safety. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is dependent for its budget, equipment and personnel on the DAE and reports to the chairman of the AEC, who is also the DAE’s Secretary. Over all the four decades since the Tarapur reactors were installed, the DAE has merely implemented or copied US and Canadian designs, with minimal modifications.

Finally, after the Japan crisis, nuclear safety must take precedence over all else. It would be downright unethical to sacrifice safety to please an industry that has failed the world and to pamper a domestic technocratic elite that considers itself infallible, omniscient and above the public interest.

The DAE must be made to discard their “it-can’t-happen-here” hubris, and introspect into India’s nuclear safety record. There have been embarrassing failures, like a 1993 fire at the Narora reactor, the Kaiga containment dome collapse, frequent cases of radiation over-exposure at numerous sites, unsafe heavy-water transportation, and terrible health effects near the Jaduguda uranium mines and the Rajasthan reactors.

What’s urgently needed is an independent, credible safety audit of India’s nuclear programme, in which people outside the DAE participate, pending a radical review of India’s half-baked plans to rush into nuclear power expansion. To begin with, there must be an immediate moratorium on further reactor construction, including controversial untested models like Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor that India is planning to install at Jaitapur in Maharashtra.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo. co.in

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