Japan is no stranger to natural disasters. In living memory it has been rocked by severe earthquakes, battered by typhoons and tsunamis which have left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Frequent brush with disasters of one kind or another have taught the meticulous Japanese on the one hand to examine carefully all critical systems in their midst that may exacerbate the impact of a natural disaster and on the other to mitigate its impact by painstaking disaster management planning and mock drills involving the entire citizenry.
In such a cultural milieu, it is unlikely that risks associated with operation of nuclear power plants could have escaped Japanese attention. And yet the double whammy that hit Japan a few weeks back, breached the multi layered defences around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex – erected with the best available technology and a fastidious culture of discipline and procedure. The full extent of the disaster may yet have many more layers to unfold.
And yet the double whammy that hit Japan a few weeks back, breached the multi layered defences around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex ““ erected with the best available technology and a fastidious culture of discipline and procedure.
Japanese dire plight has focused global attention on safety issues related to nuclear power plants. In India although nuclear reactors have been in our midst for several decades, a generally apathetic public had remained largely unaware of potential hazards associated with them. Therefore nuclear establishment of the Govt. has had a relatively free hand to execute its plans as considered best through internal assessments. In the absence of vigorous articulation, public concerns did not loom very large.
This has changed in the recent past. Debate over the ‘Nuclear Liability Bill’ (passed in August 2010) became supercharged with emotion because coincidently it came to be located in the context of the decades old Bhopal gas tragedy. Sustained opposition of some political parties and NGO’s to location of new reactors at Jaitpur has kept the nuclear issue alive. Now with the crippled reactors at Fukushima Daiichi spewing out radiation at dangerous levels and with no end to the crisis in sight, public anxiety is bound to remain high.
Nuclear reactors are high-temperature-high-pressure systems in which vast amounts of energy are confined in a relatively small space. Since the high temperature, high pressure, and radioactive environment exposes vital components to constant stress, there is an inevitable element of risk associated with nuclear power generation. However with well engineered multi-layered defences, nuclear power plants are as safe as any other source of large scale power generation. In fact if one were to go by statistics alone, deaths and injuries due to nuclear mishaps have been miniscule when compared to any other large scale source of power. This is because risk has been managed effectively.
In fact if one were to go by statistics alone, deaths and injuries due to nuclear mishaps have been miniscule when compared to any other large scale source of power. This is because risk has been managed effectively.
Since the Japanese disaster, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) have been at pains to assert that Indian reactors are safe and have sufficient safety margins to withstand any foreseeable natural calamity. Safety record of Indian reactors since inception is often cited as proof both of sound design as well as safe practices. Of course, there has been nothing like a ‘Chernobyl’ or a ‘3 Mile Island’ type accident/incident to blemish Indian record. But one can not overlook a vital determination that major accidents in high risk domains occur invariably as a consequence of an accumulation of minor errors, faults or omissions which by themselves may not amount to much. Absence of an accident by itself therefore does not give any indication of how close the tipping point to disaster may be.
Safety in the long run is a dividend derived from careful oversight, rigorous analysis of every little fault or failing and dogged follows up action to seal any potential cracks discovered in the system. To pursue such a safety regimen, oversight by a strong, independent audit agency which has no interest in concealing or papering over cracks is an absolute sine qua non. Unfortunately such a system does not obtain in India. Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) the premier watch dog agency in matters of nuclear safety is part of the same establishment whose operations it is supposed to audit. Given the prevailing culture of awards and forfeits in our officialdom, it may not be too far-fetched to assume that the system would breed .few whistle blowers if any.
Further our nuclear weapons’ programme being entwined with power production under the same agency (i.e. DAE) has wrapped the system in a cloak of secrecy – beyond public scrutiny. Consequently besides bland statements for general public’s consumption, the nuclear establishment does not feel obliged to satisfy specific concerns. For example safety risks emanating from aging components in a ‘Boiling Water Reactor’ such as Tarapur 1 and 2 has been documented by more than one agency.