Dr. E A S Sarma

Former Union Power Secretary, Govt of India

Know more about Dr. Sarma HERE.

An unprecedented disaster struck Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan on March 11, 2011. It was apparently triggered by a severe earth quake followed by a huge tsunami. The rest of the world witnessed the traumatic disruption that the accident caused to the lives of the people residing in and around Fukushima. However, the global nuclear establishment’s immediate response was that nuclear technology per se was 100% safe, that Fukushima was merely a natural disaster, an aberration in an otherwise blemishless scene of safety and that nuclear power was an inescapable option for ensuring global energy security.

On the other hand, the people of Japan who had witnessed the full fury of the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and once again had to bear the brunt of Fukushima last year, had a different perception. Millions of Japanese took to the roads and raised their voices against Japan deciding to continue its dependence on nuclear power and demanded that all the existing plants should be shut down.

It was against this background that the Parliament (the National Diet) of Japan enacted a law on October 30, 2011 for investigating the circumstances that led to the Fukushima accident. Thereafter, the Diet constituted a 10-member Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission headed by Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa on December 8, 2011. What that Commission did during the next seven months was monumental, to say the least.

The Commission conducted all its meetings, nineteen to be exact, in the full view of the public. Its proceedings were broadcast to viewers throughout Japan. The Commission’s proceedings extended over 900 hours. The Commission examined 1167 witnesses and made nine site visits. It received 1,70,000 complaints. It surveyed the families that were in the vicinity of Fukushima and elicited 10,663 responses. Its teams consulted international experts. The findings arrived at by the Commission are truly revealing. Some of its observations are reproduced below for the sake of authenticity.

“For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey – especially to a global audience – is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster. What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.”

“Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

“This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization. Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety”

“Only by grasping this mindset can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; and how it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents. It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.”

“As the first investigative commission to be empowered by the legislature and independent of the bureaucracy, we hope this initiative can contribute to the development of Japan’s civil society.

Above all, we have endeavored to produce a report that meets the highest standard of transparency. The people of Fukushima, the people of Japan and the global community deserve nothing less”

Do these words not sound familiar and ominous for us in India?

When the global protagonists of nuclear power joined forces to brush aside the concerns arising from Fukushima, the Indian nuclear establishment lost no time in joining their bandwagon and stepping up its own public relations campaign to convince the people that the nuclear power plants presently operating and those under construction are “100%” safe. In abundant caution, the industry even threw in a couple of obliging celebrities into the arena of public relations to add sheen to its campaign. Instead of promoting scientific questioning and debate, the establishment produced volumes of one-sided literature to justify its opinionated statements.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) headed by no less than the Prime Minister himself and its PSU, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) were quick to announce to the Parliament and the people that the Indian nuclear industry had learned all the lessons it could from Fukushima and that its own safety systems were fool-proof. In fact, within months after the Fukushima disaster, even before the full facts of Fukushima emerged, NPCIL conducted a hurried safety evaluation exercise and triumphantly published its report to say that its power plants were so designed that they could withstand all unforeseen eventualities. NPCIL even came up with an “expert” report that the incidence of cancer in the vicinity of the nuclear power plants was found to be less than elsewhere!

Earlier, when the regulators in Finland and other countries had expressed reservations on the safety features of European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) to be supplied by Areva to NPCIL for its controversial Jaitapur nuclear power project, there were public apprehensions on the desirability of the project itself. In its anxiety to put these concerns to rest, the Prime Minister’s Office in India assured the public on April 26, 2011 that DAE would make a public disclosure of all the past safety audit reports on the existing plants and the inform the public about the action taken on them. As on date, the only document one can find on DAE’s website on safety is an outdated (September, 2007) National Report on the Convention on Nuclear Safety submitted to the IAEA. NPCIL’s corresponding website window displays a wish list on safety, in addition to a long, impressive list of the “safety” awards received by it from the National Safety Council of India,an organisation promoted by the government itself. Not a whisper about the past safety audits and the action-taken reports on them! These websites are equally silent on the post-Fukushima radiation accidents at Kakarpar in May, 2011 and the more recent one in which there was leakage of radioactive tritium at Rajasthan Atomic Power Project (RAPP) in June, 2012.

Transparency has never been the strength of either DAE or NPCIL.

The non-disclosure clauses in Section 18 of the Atomic Energy Act are an anachronism in this age of right to information. Under Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, DAE and NPCIL are under an obligation to disclose all such information that has relevance to the safety of the people. By not complying fully with this, DAE and NPCIL have consciously violated the Act. The opaque manner in which DAE functions has compounded the fears of the people who have witnessed the Fukushima disaster shown by the TV channels all over the country.

While the Independent Commission travelled an extra mile to involve the people in its deliberations, in our case, most civil society associations were branded “anti-development” and even “anti-national”! At Jaitapur, the State government, in its anxiety to promote the interest of the French company, Areva, took the extraordinary step of “externing” the activists from their own villages to suppress their dissent. The State took coercive measures to quell dissent. At least one person lost his life as a result of this. The people’s movement against Kudankulam project in Tamil Nadu had its genesis in 1988 when the government signed an agreement with the Russians. DAE and NPCIL closed their eyes and ears to the mounting dissent from the people. When the agitation became formidable during the last one year, post-Fukushima, the government conveniently invoked the much hyped “foreign hand” theory to silence the voice of dissent with force. In Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh, where NPCIL has joined hands with an American MNC to import reactors, the Corporation has conveniently kept the residents of the area in the dark about the implications in terms of the Exclusion (1.6km around the project site), Sterilised (5km) and Emergency Planning (16km) Zones. Most residents are unaware that their houses fall within these zones.

One should note that there are only 440 nuclear reactors in operation today all over the world. The majority of them are obsolete in design and have outlived their age. The global experience of nuclear reactors is hardly 14,500 reactor years. There have been three major accidents already, one at Three Mile Island, another at Chernobyl and more recently at Fukushima, apart from thirty odd near-miss accidents. NPCIL’s repeated assertions that the fact that no major accident has taken place in any one of its reactors betrays its lack of appreciation of the science of statistical estimation. there are huge gaps of knowledge in the science of predicting seismic events and several of NPCIL’s plants are located close to the eastern and the western tectonic fault lines, the movement of which is difficult to predict. The existing ways to manage the spent fuel and waste leave much to be desired. Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown how difficult it is to decommission an accident-stricken or even an aged power plant. The science that deals with the health impact of low-intensity radiation is in itself in its infancy. To make fool hardy assertions on the safety of nuclear power against this background is unfortunate.

Coming back to the Japanese “mindset” that the Independent Commission has cited as the single determining factor for the Fukushima disaster, the nuclear establishment in India too is so hierarchically designed that it has the same “ reflexive obedience” and “reluctance to question authority”. It is “insular” to voices of dissent and new ideas. Once DAE has latched itself on to the senseless programme of adding 60,030MW of capacity on the basis of imported reactors, the Department has adamantly stuck to that programme, no matter what the world witnessed on March 11, 2011. The nuclear establishment is a part of a global group of protagonists of the technology, who are constantly in search of arguments to justify its predetermined plan of capacity expansion.

Knowing well that imported reactors cost twice as much as the indigenous ones, the bigwigs of the Indian establishment have no qualms in opting for the import option, that too without any competitive bidding, merely to benefit the western MNCs. The liability claims in the case of Fukushima have already touched the mind boggling figure of Rs.33 crores per MW. DAE had no compunction in piloting a civil nuclear liability law with the ridiculously low cap at Rs.1700 crores on the liability that can be passed on to the reactor supplier in the event of an accident attributable to him. Under pressure from the MNCs, the establishment went one step further to dilute the liability claim by framing rules that exceeded the Act itself! Can there be a better example of the officials placing their personal agenda above the interest of the nation?

As in the case of Japan, our own nuclear establishment has consistently dragged its feet when it came to taking the people into confidence. Till date, NPCIL has not transparently disclosed the nature and the maginitude of the two post-Fukushima accidents, one at Kakarpar and the other at RAPP. The blanket of secrecy that surrounds its operations at Kudankulam has alienated the people residing in that area.

In the words of the independent Commission, our establishment too has developed sufficient resistance to absorb the lessons due from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima.

The Japanese approach has been unique in the sense that it is the legislature that empowered the Commission and made it totally independent of the bureaucracy. It symbolises the supremacy of the Diet and the supremacy of the civil society. No wonder that the Commission’s central theme was to ensure total transparency and secure people’s involvement. The Commission minced no words in saying that the nuclear regulators, the nuclear establishment and the bureaucracy that was involved were ill-prepared to handle the disaster and were fully aware of it. The Commission even went to the extent of saying that Fukushima was a “man-made” disaster. Its report was comprehensive and its findings forthright. In its words, “the people of Fukushima, the people of Japan and the global community deserve nothing less.”

There are important inputs from this report for our own Parliament. There are lessons to be learned for the DAE. One can only hope that someone senior in DAE mulls over the report, introspects on it and wakes up to the voices of dissent against nuclear power all around!

Even before Fukushima accident took place, IAEA’s Nuclear Safety Review (2010) made the following ominous statement.

“plans for some new nuclear power programmes are moving faster than the establishment of the necessary safety infrastructure and capacity”

India is among the few countries where such ambitious capacity expansion programmes have been taken up, without commensurate application of mind to the crucial aspect of safety.

It is time that the Parliament and the people of India raise the same questions that Japan’s Independent Commission addressed the authorities in Japan. One should not be surprised to find that the situation in India is no better than in Japan. Fukushimas are waiting to happen on our own soil.