Learning from Fukushima - Praful Bidwai - Saturday, April 09, 2011

What do Indian social scientists Romila Thapar and Ramachandra Guha, dancers Leela Samson and Malavika Sarukkai, former bureaucrats and diplomats SP Shukla and Nirupam Sen, retired Navy chief L Ramdas, writers Arundhati Roy and Nayantara Sahgal, scientists MV Ramana and PM Bhargava, artists Krishen Khanna and Vivan Sundaram, and former vice-chancellors Mushirul Hasan and Deepak Nayyar, have in common?

The answer is, concern about the safety of nuclear power, highlighted by the still-unfolding disaster at Fukushima in Japan. This impelled these eminent individuals to sign a statement demanding a thorough, independent review of India’s nuclear power programme, and pending it, a moratorium on further nuclear projects.

The statement (available at www.cndpindia.org, www.sacw.net) saw people of different ideological persuasion coming together, including former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman A Gopalakrishnan and Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace activists (including myself). Even P Balaram, director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore - one of India’s world-class science institutions – signed up, a rare thing for a top scientist to do.

This appeal comes just as two workers at Fukushima station have died. Nuclear power zealots had predicted that the Fukushima accidents would not harm plant employees or the larger public.

The operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admits that at least three other employees have suffered severe radiation burns. The public is at risk in Fukushima and nearby. Radiation levels at the plant are 1,000 millisieverts an hour, whereas the annual highest permissible dose for employees is 30 millisieverts. Large quantities of water and steam have been released, containing iodine-131, caesium-137 and strontium-90.

Their presence has been detected on the US West Coast, in Europe and all over Asia. Although their concentration decreases with distance, it’s high enough to warrant evacuation in a 30-km or longer radius. Radionuclides have contaminated milk, vegetables and fish. Iodine-31 concentrates rapidly in the thyroid, caesium-137 in many other tissues, and strontium-90 in bones.

Fukushima’s health damage will be revealed not through early deaths, but through slow, virtually endless low-radiation exposure, which produces cancers and other illnesses. Thanks to early evacuation, the Fukushima toll won’t be as high as Chernobyl (estimated at 34,00o to 70,000 deaths).

However, the reactors contain 40 times the caesium inventory of Chernobyl. If only a tenth of this is released, its impact would be four times greater than Chernobyl’s.

According to estimates, Fukushima has already released iodine-131 equal to 20 percent of that released from Chernobyl and half as much caesium-137.

Fukushima happened not because of the earthquake and tsunami, but because these triggered mishaps in reactors already vulnerable to a catastrophe. All reactor designs can undergo core meltdowns. Natural calamities only make them more likely.

Fukushima’s reactors weren’t designed for high-magnitude earthquakes and tsunamis. The primary containment around the reactor was considered weak by many, including the US government’s Sandia National Laboratories.

Besides, spent fuel was stored in the reactor building. Unlike reactors, spent-fuel pools don’t have reinforced structures. The roof of the Reactor 4 spent-fuel pool was blown off by hydrogen explosions. The spent-fuel got heated and the water boiled off, releasing radioactivity. India’s Tarapur reactors have the same spent-fuel storage design.

The Fukushima crisis is still out of control. Three reactors suffered a partial core meltdown, estimated by US Energy Secretary Steve Chu at 70 percent for Reactor 1. Four of the six reactors, poisoned by seawater, must be scrapped.

TEPCO is planning to entomb these in concrete. But unless the reactor cores are sufficiently cooled in advance and heat-generating spent-fuel is removed, internal heat will crack the concrete shell/dome, releasing radioactivity uncontrollably.

The immediate challenge is to keep the reactors cool and seal the cracks that water is leaking through. TEPCO claims that its sealing efforts have succeeded after repeated failures. Their stability remains unproved.

Seawater radiation intensity near Fukushima reached levels millions of times higher than permissible ones. If the Fukushima staff is evacuated because of high radiation, the reactors could undergo a full meltdown.

Caesium-137 levels even 40 km away from Fukushima are 3.7 megabecquerels per square metre, more than double the level of 1.48 units set as evacuation trigger for Chernobyl.

The lessons from Fukushima stand out grimly and starkly. If industrially advanced Japan couldn’t handle a nuclear crisis, it defies credulity that India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), with its poor safety record, can do so – its claims notwithstanding.

The DAE has been in denial of the gravity of the Fukushima disaster and claims that serious accidents cannot happen in its own reactors.

The Pakistani nuclear establishment takes a similar line, but the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority has recommended a review of the Karachi and Chashma power plants. This should be done immediately.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered a thorough review of India’s nuclear installations, especially on their capacity to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. But Nuclear Power Corporation of India chairman SK Jain boasts: “We have got total knowledge and design of the seismic activities. [The] worst seismic activities and tsunamis have been taken into consideration [while designing DAE reactors]....”

However, Singh said on March 29: “The people of India have to be convinced about the safety and security of our own nuclear power plants. We should bring greater openness and transparency in ... decision-making ... and improve our capacity to respond to the public desire to be kept informed about ... issues ... of concern to them. I would like to see accountability and transparency in the functioning of our nuclear power plants.”

This was a slap in the face of the DAE, which has become the laughing-stock of the global scientific community. But what we need is even more serious – a radical review of India’s nuclear power policy and safety audit by a high-level committee which includes non-DAE experts and civil society representatives.

Second, India must abandon plans for multiple-reactor ‘nuclear power parks’. A crisis in one reactor can produce ‘common mode failure’ and affect other reactors. Third, India must certainly not import untested designs, such as Areva’s European Pressurised Reactors, planned for Jaitapur in Maharashtra.

Finally, countries like ours must build capacity to evaluate reactor designs for safety by evolving stringent norms for materials, structural strength and multiple emergency-control systems. This cannot be done by India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which former chairman Gopalakrishnan says, is the DAE’s ‘toothless poodle’.

The AERB must be separated from the DAE and strengthened with non-DAE personnel, an independent budget and equipment. Singh must hold broad-based consultations with independent experts with experience of safety design, disaster management, evacuation and rehabilitation.

Most important, pending a review and safety audit, India must impose a moratorium on future nuclear construction and revoke recent clearances to projects like Jaitapur. These were based on sloppy, incompetent Environmental Impact Assessment reports, in violation of public hearing norms, and with all manner of vacuous conditions.

The Jaitapur project was cleared for political reasons six days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit last December, with 35 conditions.

A ‘pause-and-review’ approach to nuclear power isn’t extreme. If Germany, China and Switzerland can adopt it and suspend nuclear expansion plans, so can India and Pakistan. Safety is too precious to be sacrificed to appease our nuclear lobbies.

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

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=40594&Cat=9

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