Thursday, March 17, 2011
India must heed the lesson of Japan's nuclear disaster
The great Tohoku earthquake and the consequent
tsunami has not just shifted the earth off its axis, it has also given a hard knock to the prevailing paradigm about nuclear power being the energy source of the future. Whether or not it is a fatal knock remains to be seen, as the disaster that has hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan plays itself out. As of the writing, Japanese workers continue to battle heroically to avert a wider nuclear catastrophe which could result in a large number of casualties.
An event of this magnitude has had predictable global consequences. The powerful and vocal anti-nuclear power community has pounced on the developments to revive a movement that had flagged in the face of the demands for clean energy in the era of global warming. Nuclear power votaries and personnel involved in the industry rose equally quickly to the defence of “their” technology. Both sides have valid arguments, and it would be hubristic to believe that the event was a one of kind and has limited lessons. What it has done is to question our prevailing assumptions about the nature of natural disasters.
The great Tohoku earthquake was the fifth largest since 1900, and it has been 1200 years since an earthquake of this magnitude has hit that plate boundary, unleashing a tsunami which sent waves higher than ten metres crashing onto north-eastern Honshu, Japan’s main island.
It upended the contemporary knowledge about the scale of earthquakes and tsunamis that Japan had been used to in modern history. Japan, of course, implements a strict building code for construction in the country which faces many major and minor earthquakes every year.
Nuclear power has had its critics since its very inception. They have pointed to the inherent dangers of nuclear power technology. For strategic reasons, primarily the fact that it lacked any oil, Japan decided that nuclear energy would form an important part of its energy mix. Japan has 52 operational power plants and three under construction, as many as fourteen of these are in the region facing the earthquake and tsunami. The Fukushima Daiichi plant has six reactors of which four are in serious trouble. The Fukushima Daini plant and the Onagawa plant with three reactors which face the region of the earthquake, did shut down and, in the case of the Daini plant, the cooling was temporarily halted, but soon resumed.
Everywhere in the world, the design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants takes place in a tough regulatory environment. In Japan, because of the high seismicity of many parts of the country and its environs, the regulations have been that much more stringent.
Most nuclear power plants, including the Japanese, are designed to handle major earthquakes and shut down safely automatically. While nuclear plants near Kobe were not affected by the 1995 earthquake, in subsequent years earthquakes did result in several power plants shutting down. The reactors were originally designed to withstand earthquakes of the intensity of 6.7 on the Richter scale, assuming that the earthquake took place directly underneath the reactor. The event would result in an automatic shutdown of the reactor, maintenance of its cooling and its subsequent startup. After the 7.2 magnitude Kobe earthquake, the safety figure was revised upward to 7.75.
In the past decade, the Japanese nuclear safety agencies have revised even these guidelines and put in place newer parameters based on ground motion, rather than the earthquake intensity, and power companies upgraded their safety features to meet the requirements.
The problem, however, was not an earthquake or a tsunami, but a combination of the two. While the earthquake did result in the planned shutdown of the four operational Fukushima reactors, the resulting tsunami really created the problem. It swamped the plant’s electrical machinery and the pumps used to keep the reactor cool failed. The backup generators, too, packed up and the limited battery backup was insufficient to meet the enormous requirements for cooling the fuel rods.
The Indian nuclear establishment has reacted to the dismal news from Japan with alacrity, but the past record of obfuscations and secrecy makes the Department of Atomic Energy’s statements on the subject suspect.
As for the critics, they have used the event to buttress their case against nuclear power. There are a number of ongoing agitations against nuclear power plants in India. Anti-nuclear power votaries, some of who make a living from their activism, are in the forefront, but in most cases the real momentum for the agitations come from farmers upset over the loss of livelihood from land that the government has taken over, or plans to take over. Some of the critics seem more eager to refight their battles against the Indo-US nuclear deal, rather than deal with the specific issue confronting us.
And that issue is: Can India do without nuclear power ? Given the overall shortage of power in the country, it cannot. It may not want to rely on nuclear power for all its energy, but it certainly needs nuclear power sources to meet the enormous demands that it confronts in the coming decades. DAE officials have been arguing that India does not have the same kind of seismicity that Japan has, and is unlikely to face an earthquake of the intensity that it has last Saturday.
True, but neither had the country heard about a tsunami till the 2004 event. Though that tsunami was not at the scale of the one that hit Japan last week, it was powerful enough to take tens of thousands of lives in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand. It also led to a shut-down of the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant. What would a ten-meter tsunami have done?
In all fairness, nuclear power alone is not threatened by earthquakes. Big dams, too, can be destroyed by a temblor. We have several large dams such as the ones in Bhakra and Tehri whose destruction could result in a massive loss of life and property comparable to a nuclear disaster. But unlike a nuclear event which can contaminate a region for hundreds of years, the ecology will easily recover from a burst dam.
What the country needs is to look at the Japanese experience with a cool head and a sharp eye. An event like the great Tohoku earthquake and the ensuing nuclear accidents demand a thorough review of the safety features of existing and planned power plants in the country. The prime minister has promised as much.
But he should also insist on establishing a truly independent regulatory body that would look into matters of siting nuclear power plants and validating their designs. Such a body should be structured for credibility with the people, rather than comfort with the government.
We should also explore other advanced nuclear technologies where accidents will not lead to long-term catastrophes. The Generation IV reactor initiative has several projects with safer and more proliferation resistant reactors. While many of these are still in the future, the so-called pebble-bed reactor is a technology which has been around us for a while and which deserves serious consideration. A 300 MW reactor based on the technology was constructed in Germany, but later dismantled because of political opposition.
Governments and regulatory bodies cannot cater for every possible eventuality. After all a significant asteroid strike can bring a disaster of enormous magnitude and there is little that can be done to prevent it. Human beings have not achieved what they have by taking a neurotic approach to life, the Japan event has confronted us with a situation, and we must react to it in a prudent and mature fashion.
Mail Today March 17, 2011