Avik Roy

Avik Roy is a Senior Sub-Editor at The Pioneer, and an environmental activist by passion. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

Article courtesy: Daily Pioneer

While past disasters have convinced some Western countries to move away from this dangerous technology, India wants to embrace it at an enormous human and economic cost

It is said that the best sight is hindsight. This is true with every facet of life and it is dangerously true for the nuclear power industry. Because with nuclear accidents, one doesn’t get a second chance to escape. Radiation permeates the body, irradiates and permanently damages the cells and organs within it silently, without touch, smell or visibility. It could take days, weeks or months before the symptoms show, by when the damage has been done and there is no way to undo radiation-induced damage. Worse, it causes severe genetic deformities which are propagated from generation to generation resulting in a myriad problems for all future generations.

The best possible safety measures may not be of any use, in nuclear power plants, either because of human error, equipment failure or natural disaster. In fact, all three have already happened: In the US, the Three Mile Island meltdown occurred due to equipment failure; the Chernobyl disaster in Russia happened due to human error; and the Fukushima disaster in Japan was a culmination of faulty design, disregard for safety and natural disaster (an earthquake and a tsunami simultaneously). Hence, it is well-established that we cannot predict when or how a nuclear accident will occur. Also, past performance is not a guarantee for future safety. Safety cannot under any circumstances be compromised especially when the extent of damage cause is unlimited and lasts thousands of years.

Fukushima reactor and the leaking water tanks where they continue to store the highly contaminated water. They have to use more water daily to cool the reactors and in turn have to deal with more contaminated water. The elevated ground below the reactors that was supposed to be a safety layer can now collapse. Important lesson is, when it comes to nuclear, a safety layer can become a vulnerability in 'out-of-design' situations. And nuclear engineers actually spend their lives inside the design. Photo Courtesy: New York Times

Fukushima reactor and the leaking water tanks where they continue to store the highly contaminated water. They have to use more water daily to cool the reactors and in turn have to deal with more contaminated water. The elevated ground below the reactors that was supposed to be a safety layer can now collapse.
Important lesson is, when it comes to nuclear, a safety layer can become a vulnerability in ‘out-of-design’ situations. And nuclear engineers actually spend their lives inside the design.
Photo Courtesy: New York Times

Yet, countries like India are falling into the trap of embracing this extremely dangerous technology to harness energy at an enormous human and economic cost. This in itself is a long and endless debate, so let’s stick to one major issue: What India needs to learn from the US, Germany and Japan.

The TMI accident in the US in 1979 did not cause any loss of life directly; there were injuries, but nobody at the plant or outside died due to the radiation fall-out (probably the effects of radiation were manifested later among the populace). Still, it took 14 years and one billion US dollars to clean the contamination. Immediately after the accident, the US Government put in place additional safeguards and made the licensing, approvals and standards extremely stringent. It understood the gravity of the situation and brought in major legal and policy changes. People too did not want nuclear reactors set up near their homes due to the constant radiation and accident fears. The net result: For over 30 years after the 1979 accident not a single new nuclear power plant was built in the US.

The Fukushima accident in Japan on March 11, 2011, is an on-going struggle to control a situation that is rapidly going out of control. The massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami left four nuclear reactors in a perilous condition due to loss of cooling, resultant excessive heating and the consequent hydrogen blasts. There is no certainty on the total number of human casualties or injuries, as the operator of the plant says that the deaths should be attributed to the tsunami and not to the reactor meltdown and radiation exposure — to escape liability and also to cover up the faults.

Based on radiation levels in different Prefectures and Fukushima, the consumption of vegetables, poultry as well as seafood was banned. The level of Caesium-137 released far exceeds the amount that was released during the Chernobyl accident. Two-and-a half-years since the incident, the waters of the Pacific Ocean near the Fukushima plant have recorded dangerously high radiological substances and some reports suggest that it has reached the US west coast. A number of countries have banned import of food and fish from Japan.

In Germany, the Government had already taken a conscious decision to move away from nuclear and fossil-fuels even before the Fukushima disaster happened. Berlin, however, seized the opportunity and the public outrage to decide on early closure of its nuclear plants and concentrate on renewable energy. Germany has already become a global leader in renewables. Nuclear plants are being phased out and some of the German nuclear giants have either closed shops or moved to other countries.

But, what has India learnt from all this? Sadly, nothing!

Even as the horrors of Fukushima unfold, the sole nuclear operator in India — the Nuclear Power Corporation of India — is going ahead with gusto to build nuclear plants in Kudankulam, Kovadda, Jaitapur, Gorakhpur, Mithivirdi, Chutka and Haripur and identifying additional sites in Rajasthan and Bihar. It is also adding additional reactors at existing sites and building a dangerous Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam. It’s time India learnt its lesson from countries affected by nuclear disasters, and bring in effective safety regulations.