Japan: Some home truths about nuclear power

  • 23/03/2011

The severe quake that hit Japan earlier this month and the devastating tsunami that followed it were unfortunate. These two events triggered a series of explosions at Fukushima Daiichi and a few other nuclear power installations. The Dept. of Atomic Energy (DAE) quickly got into a denial mode saying that (i) a safety audit had recently been conducted at NPCIL's plants that should assure us about their safety of all nuclear power plants in india and (ii) that NPCIL did manage well the after effects of the tsunami that hit the east coast a few years ago. Should these assurances be taken as sufficient?

We need to take note of the following facts to appreciate the risks involved.

1. While it is true that the quake and the tsunami triggered the explosions at Fukushima and a few other plants, even in the absence of such triggers, Fukushima had the highest accident rate among the nuclear plants operated by the concerned company in Japan, on the basis of the data available  for 2005-09. Fukushima had a troubled history of problems arising in its operation (Wall Street Journal of 21st March, 2011)

2. There have been numerous accidents at several Japanese nuclear facilities over the last few decades. For example, an accident at Tokaimura nuclear fuel processing plant in Japan in September, 1999 resulted in an uncontrolled chain reaction that led to serious radioactive exposure to 439 persons in the neighbourhood. At Mihama nuclear power plant, in 2004, extreme heat caused a pipe burst that killed four persons and injured another seven. There were many such major and minor accidents in Japan in the past.  It shows that nuclear technology has many inherent risks.

3. It is commonplace in Japan to create spent fuel pools in the immediate vicinity of each plant. In fact, no nation has been able to develop a fool-proof way to deal with the large stockpiles of used fuel. Some of Fukushima's problems have something to do with this.

4. Generally, as a result of the secrecy involved in the case of nuclear technology that started first with its military application, in most nations, the regulators have not been allowed to be independent as they should be and the laws dealing with nuclear facilities not allowed to encourage transparency. For example, in the case of India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is subordinate to DAE which it is supposed to oversee. The Atomic Energy Act has many non-disclosure clauses that preclude 100% public transparency. Unless AERB's autonomy is ensured and the Act itself made compatible with the Right to Information Act, the fears and apprehensions about nuclear energy will remain. In reality, there is no need for the large nuclear power capacity additions that DAE is presently contemplating, as nuclear power is base load power that cannot economically fit into grid operation.

5. In the case of nuclear power plants, as a result of Chernobyl experience, a zoning system around each project site has been adopted internationally. The exclusion zone (1.5km around the site) prohibits any habitation. Within 5km, no development activity is permitted and no population increase is encouraged. People living within 16km from the site are subject to monitoring for radioactivity and can be asked to evacuate in the event of an accident. The Japanese experience may broaden these limits further. What worries me is that the people living around the new project sites are not fully taken into confidence on this. Perhaps, NPCIL wishes to push through its projects with least public resistance. Lack of transparency should not be viewed as an answer to nuclear power development.

6. There is not much of information in the public domain on the so called "safety audits" conducted by NPCIL. What were the findings of these audits in the past and what was the action taken? Unless DAE places this information before the Parliament and the people, the public will continue to entertain serious doubts about the safety of nuclear power, especially after the vivid and distressing pictures they saw on the TV channels during the last few days on Japan.

7. Out of 104 nuclear power plants in USA, at least 27 have been found to be causing radioactive tritium contamination of ground water. Should we not worry about such risks in our own case? 

8. Some countries like Germany have already imposed an embargo on new nuclear power plants and renewal of license for the existing ones, as a sequel to the Japanese experience during the last few days. I believe that India too should take a concious decision to put on hold the new nuclear power projects at Jaitapur (Maharashtra), Kovvada, Nizampatnam and Pulivendala (AP) and those proposed at several other locations elsewhere, pending a wholesale review of the risks associated with the technologies that support the reactors in each case. For example, the 660MWe European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs) to be supplied by Areva of France for Jaitapur are yet to come into regular operation anywhere in the world. In the case of Kovvada, the supplier is likely to be a wstern company, possibly the same company that supplied the reactors for Fukushima in Japan. When Konkan Bachao Samithi opposed the Jaitapur project on genuine grounds, the State used its heavy coercive arm to suppress their voice. Energy development plans cannot and should not be forced on the people against their wishes.

9. Shri Jairam Ramesh, Minister (MOEF) announced environment clearance for Jaitapur in a great hurry, as a prelude to the French President's visit to India last December. The clearance had around 35 conditions attached to it. However, the safety of the French reactors (referred earlier) figured nowhere among these conditions. Do such clearances mean anything to those that live in the vicinity of Jaitapur? What is the meaning of safeguarding the environment when the safety of the human beings is ignored?

10. A time has come when India should go all out to enhance efficiencies down the line from electricity generation to end-use of electricity, to avoid continuing reliance on new megawatts. We can no longer afford to push through new projects that are risky, people unfriendly and polluting. 

These issues need to be debated widely. I hope Indiaenvironment Portal will facilitate such a public debate.

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