Geopolitics

A Lesson from Fukushima
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 06 Apr , 2011

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.

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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.

A report by Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the United States published in 1993 had stated categorically that chronic radiation exposure, heat fatigue and corrosive chemistry could damage or destroy vital safety related components inside the reactor vessel before the expiry of 40 year plant operating licence.1

Technology which promises abundance also provides ways and means to manage the risk.

And yet Tarapur BWR which went critical in 1969 has been given a lease of life until 2030. In an article published in Frontline magazine in Mar1999, Mr A. Gopalakrishnan (ex Chairman of the AERB with inside information of the state of India’s nuclear installations) had put the spotlight on several safety related deficiencies in our nuclear establishments.2 12 years later no authoritative response is available in the public domain. That is not to suggest that DAE or NPCIL has been indifferent to safety concerns. But just as the shortcomings remained under the wraps until revealed by an insider, what the authorities have done also remains obscure. What is the public to believe?

India’s energy demands are set to multiply several fold if it is to sustain its ambitious growth rate. Its hydrocarbon resources are meager. Coal reserves though considerable, are of poor quality and there are major pollution related concerns attached to coal fired plants. Hydroelectric energy though potentially plentiful, yet remains mired in political and environmental controversies. Nonconventional sources i.e. solar, wind, wave and tidal etc. do look promising but they have yet to reach commercial viability on a large scale.

But it does point to the absolute necessity of instituting an extremely stringent, transparent and rigorous watchdog regime to ensure that safety bar is set appropriately high and expedience does not allow any substandard material, procedure or process to slip from underneath.

Therefore in its energy mix, India has opted for massive increase in nuclear power. From an installed capacity of about 6000 MW in 2010, by 2020 it is set to increase to 20,000 MW and to 40,000 MW by 2030. The augmentation of capacity is to be achieved both through imported reactors as well as by indigenous designs.

The latter would adopt the ‘Fast Breeder Route’ to sidestep constraints imposed by very limited indigenous uranium resources. Fast breeders will use the abundantly available Thorium as feedstock. The chosen strategy carries the promise of unlimited raw material for power production. Although immensely promising, the technology involved is saddled with some serious risks too. Unlike all other reactors which use water jn one form or another (Boiling, Pressurized heavy water, or light water) for cooling, fast breeders would use Sodium to extract excess heat released by radioactive processes in the reactor. Sodium reacts violently with both air and water.

Therefore any leakage or breakage in the cooling system which allows Sodium to come in contact with air or water can have potentially disastrous consequences. It also means that abundantly available natural coolant, i.e. water can not be used to tackle any potential overheating emergencies. This is not to suggest that DAE’s well conceived plans to bolster India’s energy security should be abandoned because of the risks involved.

Technology which promises abundance also provides ways and means to manage the risk. But it does point to the absolute necessity of instituting an extremely stringent, transparent and rigorous watchdog regime to ensure that safety bar is set appropriately high and expedience does not allow any substandard material, procedure or process to slip from underneath. That is the only way both to ensure safety as well as to assure the public of its interest being placed at the very heart of India’s nuclear power programme.

Notes:

  1. http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/bwrfact.htm
  2. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article1585746.ece Front Line Vol 16: no. 06 Mar 13-26, 1999
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal AK Trikha

Former AOC-in-C Southern Air Command.

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