Nuclear lessons from Japan

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But the DAE’s internal review of our nuke programme is likely to be a whitewash job

How safe? Scanning for radiation in Fukushima

THE FUKUSHIMA disaster has spun out of control with explosions in three reactors, a fire in a fourth, and huge radioactivity releases. The Japanese government has finally admitted to the gravity of the crisis and said there is “a very high risk” of further radioactivity leaks from the crippled reactors. Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a television address pleading for calm and said: “I would like to ask the nation, although this incident is of great concern, I ask you to react very calmly.”

The disaster, verging towards catastrophe, is still unfolding. But it is clear that it is far, far worse than the Three Mile Island meltdown (1979) in the US. In its lethal effects, it may not match the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986 in Ukraine, whose anniversary falls on 26 April. Chernobyl caused an estimated 32,400 to 1,10,000 deaths, mainly from cancer. But in its economic, industrial and psychological impact, the Fukushima disaster is likely to be far more powerful and far-reaching than Chernobyl.

Put simply, Fukushima is the global nuclear industry’s worst-ever crisis. Chernobyl was “in the East”. The meltdown could be attributed to faulty designs and shoddy practices in a relatively backward society. The argument doesn’t apply to industrially advanced Japan.

Japan is a world leader in nuclear power, with 55 reactors, next only to the number in the US and France. Unlike them, it has had an active, albeit now declining, nuclear power programme. It ventured into ‘high-end’ fast-breeders just when France, once a breeder leader, abandoned its programme. The Fukushima reactors are of US design (General Electric). The global economic, industrial and emotional impact of the Fukushima disaster, which the world public followed virtually in real time, will be immeasurably greater.

That apart, Fukushima has highlighted the supreme importance of nuclear safety. Governments, especially in the West, cannot afford to ignore public concerns about safety. Switzerland has cancelled its plans to build three new reactors. And Germany’s conservative government has reversed its controversial decision to prolong the phaseout of all nuclear reactors. Other countries too are likely to review their nuclear expansion plans. It’s a safe bet that the ‘nuclear renaissance’ that George W Bush tried to instigate through artificial subsidies will now be a non-starter.

Nuclear authorities in many countries are questioning the assumptions on which they designed reactor safety systems and operating parameters. But in the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), complacency and smugness prevail. Its secretary denies that there is “a nuclear emergency” in Japan, only “a purely chemical reaction”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised a safety review of all DAE installations. He said his government “attaches the highest importance to nuclear safety”; the DAE has “been instructed to undertake immediate technical review of all safety systems… particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand… tsunamis and earthquakes”.

That’s a red herring. The DAE has already declared that all its installations can cope with magnitude 7 earthquakes and heavy tsunamis. It reiterated that the very afternoon Singh made his statement in Parliament. It can be safely predicted that an internal review will be a whitewash job. The Indian public has reason to be alarmed at the Japanese crisis: reactors at Tarapur are also Boiling Water Reactors designed by General Electric, the same as Fukushima’s, only smaller, one-generation older, and probably with weaker safety systems.

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

We urgently need 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 the controversial untested French reactors that India is planning to install at Jaitapur in Maharashtra.

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