M V Ramana

M. V. Ramana is a physicist associated with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Ramana is the author of “The power of promise: Examining nuclear power in India” (forthcoming, Viking Penguin)

In September 2011, the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation established an Independent Investigation Commission to study what happened during the nuclear accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi plants. On February 28 of this year, a few weeks short of the first anniversary of the commencement of those accidents, their report was released in Japanese. Some of the report’s results have been described in articles in English, including one by Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF) in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Several lessons can be learnt from this investigation.

When compared with Chernobyl, the nuclear accident that most people use as a point of reference, Fukushima has been more complex in organizational terms (for more on this, see here ). One of the reasons why this is the case is that there were multiple reactors and spent fuel pools involved. As Funabashi and Kitazawa from RJIF put it, “an accident at one unit inevitably hampered responses to the situation at another, leading to parallel chain reactions of accidents and radiation releases.” As examples, they point to how a “hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 on the second day of the crisis exposed a spent-fuel pool to the open air, released radioactive material into the environment… causing delays in cooling Unit 3. An ensuing hydrogen explosion at Unit 3 then damaged seawater injection lines and vent lines for Unit 2, producing delays in cooling there”.

The obvious lesson here is that siting multiple reactors in a single location is inadvisable. It increases the vulnerability to a common-cause, such as an earthquake or a flood. Further, an accident in one reactor might increase the likelihood of an accident at another. Likewise, rescue operations and emergency actions at one might be hampered by the accident at another.
The RJIF report reveals that in the days following the accident, Prime Minister Naoto Kan secretly instructed the chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission to draw up a worst-case scenario for the nuclear accident, which was submitted on March 25. In this worst-case, “all residents living within 170 kilometers or more of the Fukushima plant might need to be relocated, and relocation might need to be advised for those living within 250 kilometers…evacuation of the 30 million residents in the Tokyo metropolitan area could become necessary, depending upon wind direction”.

Before exploring the implications of this contingency, a semantic nitpick might be in order. Though called the “worst-case”, it is easily possible to imagine worse scenarios. For example, one of the reactors might not have shut down safely. When coupled with loss of cooling, this could have led a massive power excursion. Such an eventuality is by no means an impossibility. For example, control rods, which are meant to absorb neutrons and stop the chain reaction, may not be inserted properly. This has been observed in at least one instance in a VVER reactor (the kind that has been constructed in Koodankulam). On 1 March 2006, a circulation pump at the Kozluduy atomic power station (unit 5) in Bulgaria failed because of a short circuit. When the system reduced the power to 67 per cent of nominal capacity, three control rod assemblies remained in an upper-end position. Follow-up tests of the remaining control rod assemblies identified that in total 22 out of 61 could not be moved with driving mechanisms. These control rods did not move because they were “sticking” to the drive mechanism. Such failures when coupled with a massive earthquake might well prevent a safe shutdown in case the magnitude of the earthquake exceeds the value up to which the reactor is designed.

As an aside, the reaction of the Bulgarian government was typical of many governments: officials never talked about anything out of the ordinary occurring at the reactor. According to a diplomatic cable from the U.S. consulate in Sofia that was released by Wikileaks (see) the Minister for Economy and Energy told the press that speculation surrounding the incident was the work of people who have done “everything they could to discredit Bulgaria’s energy sector and the country as a whole”.

Back to the issue of the emergency contingency of evacuating Tokyo. It must be apparent that there is almost no way this can be done without extensive advance planning. Even with such planning, it is most likely to lead to massive chaos, a host of further accidents, and other failures. But without such planning, it is practically futile. One lesson that could be drawn, therefore, is that emergency planning zones from nuclear reactors should be greatly enlarged. In other words, everyone who lives within a certain distance from a nuclear plant should be appraised of the possibility that they may have to evacuate in the event of an accident. Corporations and municipalities, hospitals and schools, and a host of other institutions will have to make plans about what to do in such an eventuality. Presumably, some of the necessary goods to house and clothe and feed the millions of evacuees should be procured in advance and stored.

What should that planning distance be? In the first few days after the Fukushima accidents got underway, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that U.S. citizens living with 80 kilometers of the Fukushima plants evacuate the area. The Japanese Atomic Energy Commission considered the contingency of evacuating everyone up to 170 and possibly 250 kilometers. All of this would suggest that such planning zones should extend up to something on the order of a hundred kilometers, possibly more.

How does this distance correspond to the locations of current or proposed nuclear plants in India? The distance to Connaught Place in Delhi from the Narora Power Station is approximately 125 km, while the distance from the proposed site in Fatehabad in Haryana is approximately 175 km. Likewise, the distance from the Kalpakkam atomic complex to Chennai is approximately 60 km.

All of this is not purely hypothetical. In the case of the accident at Chernobyl, an area of over 3000 square kilometers (almost the size of Goa) is still officially evacuated because it is contaminated with a radioactive element called Cesium-137. This area is not uniformly spread out around Chernobyl, but has a complex pattern of hotspots, some at significantly large distances from the accident site (see). A surrounding region that is thrice as large is designated as an area of strict radiation control, requiring decontamination and control of intake of locally grown food. It takes 30 years for the radioactivity from Cesium-137 to halve, which means that this situation is unlikely to improve soon.

Such consequences would be particularly devastating in India, where millions of people are dependent on land and water resources for their livelihood. An accident in an ecologically fragile area like Jaitapur would ruin the surrounding agricultural lands, mangroves and fisheries. In interior sites like Fatehabad in Haryana, no matter which way the wind blows, large tracts of agricultural lands would get contaminated; the only water body to release radioactive effluents from reactor control operations in an accident would be one branch of the Bhakra canal.

Fortunately, the Fukushima accident did not require such large scale evacuation. But many of the people who had the misfortune of living closer to the plant – an estimated 80,000 people – had to be evacuated. Some may never return to their homes. Their lives have been greatly disrupted, as is the case for people who live somewhat further out. In the case of the latter, the disruption comes from the constant exposure to low-level radiation. This has led to difficult choices. Parents and teachers, for example, don’t let children play outside because of contamination of playgrounds from radioactive fallout.

There is also enormous concern about the likely psychological impacts of the accident. In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum convened by the International Atomic Energy Agency testified to “an increased sense of anomie and diminished sense of physical and emotional balance” amongst the survivors of Chernobyl resulting from “complex web of events and long-term difficulties, such as massive relocation, loss of economic stability, and long-term threats to health in current and, possibly, future generations,” unleashed by the accident.

Surely, one of the lessons of this devastating impact on local communities is that their consent must be obtained before constructing a nuclear facility in their midst.

RJIF also cataloged a number of lapses in preparedness and then went on to asking the important question: “Why were preparations for a nuclear accident so inadequate?” One factor they identify was a “belief in the ‘absolute safety’ of nuclear power. This myth has been propagated by interest groups seeking to gain broad acceptance for nuclear power: A public relations effort on behalf of the absolute safety of nuclear power was deemed necessary to overcome the strong anti-nuclear sentiments connected to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.

Now, at first glance, one might think that this effort is peculiar to Japan – after all that country is the only one to be subject to atomic bombings, other countries having only planned to carry out such bombings – and hence of no applicability to other countries. But that would be the wrong conclusion.

First, another semantic nitpick might be useful. What is meant by anti-nuclear sentiments is really just the normal response of most people to a hazardous technology, in the absence of the kind of brainwashing effort that occurred in Japan. This is what has been widely observed the world over in the aftermath of Fukushima, with poll after poll in many countries finding large numbers of people opposing the construction of new nuclear plants.

Second, in response to this widespread public sentiment, nuclear establishments around the world have embarked on a massive public relations exercise in trying to make nuclear power be seen as safe. This is precisely what happened in Japan, and thus the Japanese case is by no means unique. I have described some aspects of this campaign in the case of India in my article in Tehelka. Elsewhere, too, members of the nuclear industry and regulatory agencies have tried to find arguments for why nuclear accidents would not occur in their country. And they would be wrong. As Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said last year, “The phrase, ‘it can’t happen here’, has been a harbinger of trouble in the nuclear industry”.

The same happened after the Chernobyl accident. The problem, according to the World Nuclear Association, was that “Chernobyl was of a design” that bore an unacceptable risk. On the other hand, “Western-designed nuclear installations” had “high engineering and risk management standards.” This attitude was partly to blame for the disaster at Fukushima that struck reactors built by General Electric and Toshiba.

Among the people who seem to be anxious to reassure members of the public that nuclear reactors are safe are nuclear regulators. This was the case in Japan too, and one reason for this was identified by RJIF: “the sweetheart relationships and revolving door that connected the regulatory bodies and electric companies, academics, and other stakeholders in the nuclear community”. We see similar movements of people (“revolving door”) between the different institutions that are connected with nuclear power in other countries too.

The lesson here is that such assurances about the safety of nuclear reactors and the impossibility of accidents offered by those with a vested interest in the continued operation and expansion of nuclear power cannot be trusted. There is another reason, besides this vested interest, to distrust them. Almost without exception, they have not learnt any of the above-mentioned lessons that flow from investigating what happened in Fukushima. They have continued to construct (or plan to construct) multiple reactors at a single site, whether at Jaitapur or Koodankulam, Kakrapar or Rawatbhata. They have not engaged with members of the public who live in the vicinity of current or proposed nuclear plants about plans for emergency evacuations and other contingencies for accidents. They continue to believe in the absolute safety of nuclear power, at least in their countries.

The scientist Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. Likewise, a solution to the risks associated with nuclear power cannot come from the nuclear establishments and governments that created the risks in the first place. We need to look elsewhere.