Nuclear reality, damaged democracy

Indian policy-makers continue to vouch for nuclear energy after the Fukushima tragedy

By M V Ramana, Suvrat Raju
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Suvrat Raju and M V RamanaThe problems associated with the accidents at the Fukushima nuclear reactors continue, weeks after an earthquake and a tsunami struck Japan. On March 27, Japanese officials announced that leaked water sampled from one unit was highly radioactive, exposure to which would cause severe radiation sickness in hours. Estimates of releases of cesium-137 and iodine-131, two radionuclides likely to cause the greatest harm to human health, by different agencies are now a significant— and increasing—fraction of the release from the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

In the quarter century since Chernobyl, the nuclear industry had persuaded many that catastrophic accidents were a thing of the past. Its claim stands exposed by the disastrous accident at Fukushima. But nuclear power advocates, especially in India, have been trying to portray the events in Fukushima as an aberration.

Officials from the nuclear establishment claim that India’s nuclear reactors are safe from catastrophic accidents because they have “defence-in-depth”—multiple protective systems all of which have to fail before a radioactive release occurs. However, while it might be improbable for these systems to fail independently, it is possible for one event to cause simultaneous or sequential failures. In Fukushima, the tsunami knocked out the primary and backup power supply and flooded the basement housing the electrical switch yard. In 1993, a fire caused a blackout at the Narora nuclear power station, disabling cooling systems. It is very hard to estimate probabilities of events like these.

Others get even the basics wrong. Ron Somers, the president of the US-India Business Council, explained, “it’s a blessing India is getting its civilian nuclear programme started now because new technology in the event of such an earthquake would automatically shut down”. Somers’ eagerness to promote the American nuclear industry seems to have left him confused. The Fukushima reactors did shut down soon after the earthquake. Unfortunately, just because a nuclear reactor is “shut down” does not mean that its operators can call it a day and go home.

imageThe nuclear fuel in a reactor core is highly radioactive and so, even after the reactor shuts down, it continues to produce heat. If this heat is not removed, the reactor fuel heats up and can melt. This is where the problem arose in Fukushima. The multiple cooling systems failed for one reason or the other.

Policy-makers have made misleading claims. National security adviser Shivshankar Menon suggested a Fukushima-type accident could not happen in India: “The fire (in Japan) was a hydrogen fire in the area where spent fuel is stored.... They (Atomic Energy Commission, AEC) tell us this is most unlikely.” Hydrogen fires might be unlikely but there is no reason they won’t occur at AEC’s spent fuel ponds. Should there be a loss of cooling water, as happened at Fukushima, the nuclear fuel will heat up. With rising temperature, the fuel cladding, made of zirconium, will react with water to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen is inflammable whether it originates from spent fuel in Jaitapur or in Japan.

The government refuses to acknowledge the simple but unpalatable truth that severe accidents are possible, even if rare, at all nuclear facilities. This is not simply due to its belief in the nuclear establishment’s safety claims but also because it has been trying to force-march the country into a massive nuclear expansion, especially after the Indo-US nuclear deal. In 2008, it staked its power on this issue and survived only—as shown by recent WikiLeaks revelations—with dubious means. Last year, it spent an entire parliament session pushing a nuclear liability bill that took away the rights of Indian citizens to claim adequate compensation from international nuclear vendors.

“India does not have the luxury of renouncing nuclear power,” Ashley Tellis, a key mediator of the nuclear deal said recently. Given that nuclear power is costly and hazardous, and that its pursuit is damaging India’s democracy—whether in the “cash for votes” scandal or in repression of popular protests at Jaitapur—the converse is true: India does not have the luxury of pursuing a nuclear expansion.

The authors are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Ramana’s book on nuclear energy in India is soon to be released

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  • The authors do not to

    The authors do not to appreciate the robustness of nuclear safety.
    1. 14,000 or so deaths directly from Tsunami and an equal number missing. None directly from the nuclear reactors.
    2. No one in public domain exposed to harmful radiation dose. 200,000 or so Iodine tablets distributed as a matter of abundant caution but NONE repeat consumed so far. It was not required to be taken considering the radioactivity in the environment.
    3. The spread of radioactivity confined to locally by and large.
    4. None of the occupational workers exposed to limiting levels of dose.

    India is not as seismic prone as Japan is. Tsunami of 14 mts is not possible in India. Which of our coastal cities would survive 14 mts Tsunami, they are not designed so because it can not happen. So, I am not able to appreciate objections to the statement that" Fukushima type accident can not happen in India".
    Of course, as is the case after all accidents, the safety of all nuclear plants is globally assessed and reinforced as required. The same is being done in India also.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The first set of comments

    The first set of comments about the article has said: "The authors do not to appreciate the robustness of nuclear safety."
    It is naive to say that tha two nuclear physicists do not appreciate the robustness of nuclear safety. Reports are pouring in from all over about the health and economic impacts of Fukushima nuclear emergency. We should not forget that the three major nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were all due to different reasons, but resulted in similar devastating effects. The nuclear accident can be due to any reason, but will all result in the uncontrolled nuclear reaction/heating of the reactor chamber with many consequences, most common of which is the nuclear contamination of the area surrounding the reactor. This must be avoided, but there is no gaurantee that such a phenomenon will not happen in Indian nuclear installations, because our quality standards whether in design, engineering, construction or safety issues were never known to be better than that of Japan.

    Hence it is highly misleading to say that such accidents will not happen in India. Did anyone ever indicated that accident will occur at Three Mile Island OR Chernobyl OR Fukushima? Though nuclear advocates keep saying that the probability of an accident in nuclear power plant is low as compared to a coal pwoer plant, the magnitude of credible risks in a nuclear power plant is huge as seen in Chernobyl. The loss to humanity from a single accident at Chernobyl is probably greater than the combined loss of all the accidents in coal power plants in the whole world during last 100 years.

    In this background the wisest thing to do is to avoid such accidents, which means minimising the number of nuclear installations.

    Can India, with installed nuclear power capacity of only about 2.8% of the total power capacity, afford to take huge risks to its dense and vast population? Whereas, just by reducing the transmission and distribution losses (T&D losses) from the present level of about 28% in India to 10% can provide a virtual additional electricity generating capacity of 18%, how wise it is to put our society to unimaginable nuclear risks for just 2.8% of total electricity capacity?

    While the nuclear proponents keep making tall claims about how nuclear power is safe, while the accidents are continuing to happen, the fundamental question India needs to objectvely ask is whether nuclear power is essential to meet the legitimate demand for electricity. The honest answer is NO.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • there is no water in

    there is no water in Tatanagar railway station, water supply from raurkela was stopped due to protest of local people... so no water for toilets in rail passing through tatanagr...
    Turamdih mill(UCIL) was closed for many days as there is no water in kharkai river...
    our chief minister(Jharkhand) after his German visit he announced that he want nuclear power plant in his state.
    this is the situation...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The views are too inclined in

    The views are too inclined in one direction only. In this era when, global warming is crippling the decisions on other possible energy production strategies I think N-power is the only solution left. Hydel power is too costly taking into account all the protest that start inevitably before every project. Solar/Wind power are anyway too expensive. N-Power is like democracy - It probably the worst solution but it the only thing surviving [Churchill]

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply