Japan's nuclear crisis, a warning for India

Sea water being used for the first time to cool the nuclear reactor

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 14 March 2011

In April, we will be observing the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Though every year the anniversary reminds us of the perils of nuclear power, this year it sent an advance message through a ferocious messenger-the tsunami of Japan.

The nuclear crisis in Japan continues. By Monday morning, the second hydrogen explosion took place in a reactor. The fear of a complete meltdown of the reactor remains real with the Japanese government admitting, though after a delay, that partial meltdown of the reactor might have happened already. Nine units of nuclear power plants–all boiling water reactors-are in states of emergency.

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The nuclear crisis seen in Japan is rare. So rare that even nuclear statisticians never simulated such a situation while designing the plants in Japan, an earthquake and tsunami-prone country. The nine magnitude earthquake snapped the plant's power supply, vital to run the cooling mechanism. The tsunami made redundant even the back up power supply system. It means the plant is without any power to supply the enormous amount of water needed to cool the reactor core carrying uranium so that it does not melt.

Nuclear scientists call this situation as rare and term it “station blackout”. Media reports quote scientists and experts as saying, this situation is so low in probability that even Japan never factored this situation in its crisis management.

Currently, sea water is being pumped into the reactor to cool it, a measure used for the first time. This will also ensure that these reactors will never be used again due to the high corrosive nature of salt water mixed with boron.

This is the message from Japan's nuclear crisis: There is nothing unexpected in a nuclear power system. You cannot afford to be unclear about nuclear. It cannot be, as we often use as a measure of safety, 99.9 percent fool-proof. It has to be 100 percent accident-proof.

The ripples of Japan's tsunami-triggered nuclear crisis are being felt in India. It reminds us of the tsunami of 2004. Tsunami waves five-metres high hit the power reactors at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu. A minor water leak was reported in the plant. Walls collapsed but were repaired by 2007. We all believed that the system was roboust enough to survive such a disaster.

The situation in Japan has made us think more about our nuclear security. The Nuclear establishment in India has assured us that our systems are robust. In India, a nuclear plant cannot be built within a radius of 400 kilometres of a seismic zone. Out of the 20 reactors, only two in Tarapur are based on the boiling water principle as the ones in Japan. Going by the statements of the Department of Atomic Energy, diesel power backups for our nuclear power plants, particularly in tsunami prone areas, have been constructed at high altitudes to avoid flooding by tsunami. However, looking at Japan, we need further reassurance. That too in comprehensive terms.

India is currently on a nuclear expansion mode. Many new power plants are being planned. What kind of accident simulation have we done for them? Japan experience taught us that even the lowest probable accident can happen.

Secondly, India will have to rethink in terms of liability in case of a similar nuclear accident. This single crisis is set to increase the cost of nuclear power. Companies have to go for higher insurance coverage or liability commitments. This will add to overall cost. In a spin off, financiers of nuclear power projects may not find it lucrative to invest in such a case. We already see investors opposing the country's nuclear liability legislation. In that case, our speed dial for nuclear power will face disconnection.

Chernobyl swung the public and government opinion against nuclear power. It caused major slowing down of nuclear power plant construction. It is only in the last one decade that the nuclear power witnessed a resurgence, mostly due to India and China aggressively pursuing it. Japan's nuclear crisis has definitely put the Chernobyl gear on this race.

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