Are we hostage to Nuclear Power?

3 cable layers assigned to restore power to stricken 4 reactors of the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) were exposed to severe radiation. In itself it was no news. What else one would expect when one is entering a nuclear facility severely crippled by the giant tsunami that rolled over in the wake of magnitude 9 temblor and the subsequent series of events it triggered. Plant operator TEPCO is under severe pressure to contain the radiation that has already rang alarm bells not only in Japan but across distant shores. Japanese workers may have accepted to commit themselves to this “harakiri”, one would be forgiven if it was so construed, for greater good of Japanese society. But when Tepco was forced to admit that the workers had not tested the radiation levels before commencing work on Thursday, 24th March, and had stepped into highly contaminated water – two of them without protective boots -; the initial concern should have turned into severe censure. FDNNP “accident” was elevated to level 6 on International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) of IAEA almost 10 days earlier, just below the 7 rating given to the worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Safety and security considerations should have been highest on the minds of TEPCO team in charge of containment and clean up. Yet such shoddy work practices were followed in a nation famed for its technological prowess and sophistication. But what may be explained off as “human errors” triggered by pressure of a grave crisis, actually are embedded in the character of TEPCO Company in particular, and nuclear power industry in general. Just 10 days before the earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO had admitted to faking repair and maintenance records.  Japan’s regulatory watchdog, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), concluded 2 days later : “Long-term inspection plans and maintenance management were inadequate, The quality of inspection was insufficient. We can’t say that the lapses listed in the report did not have an influence on the chain of events leading to this crisis”. Obviously, the Regulator is soft, Operator is lax and not diligent; and given an opportunity, suitable environment, & sufficient time, Human Errors are bound to happen. Already efforts are underway around the world in the Nuclear Industry to distance itself from “these acts” by branding them as “Japanese” in nature the way Chernobyl was “Soviet”. But there is nothing location specific about them; they all flow from the “nature of atom”.

Japanese health regulations stipulated an upper limit of 100 millisieverts (mSv) per year of radiation exposure as legal limit. This was so until the tragedy struck. TEPCO during the course of last week decided to raise the “acceptable limit of exposure” for its emergency teams to 150 mSv and regulator NISA went a step ahead to relax it to 250. Were such revisions mandated by some fresh medical evidence that showed increase in human tolerance to radiation? Did the new “limits” have some “quantitative” sanctity or sanity? Or were these simply a matter of expediency? The two hospitalised men, reportedly exposed to ? rays, were part of a six member crew that was assigned to restore power to cooling pumps, and had to wade in a puddle, whose radioactivity was later measured at 400 mSv/hour and air above at 200 mSv/hour. It has not been made explicitly clear in any report, if the new exposure limits are on per year or per hour basis. Radiation levels on the other hand are all being reported on per hour basis. This would mean that at least these six workers have already received their yearly maximum dose of radiation during the few hours they would have spent working on their task. It seems that nobody knows or wants it to be known as to the grave radiation risks facing the crews at FDNPP facility. If standards are changed in such cavalier manner, then it indicates a battlefield like do or die situation. But has anyone heard this being admitted to in so few words? Crisis of such grave proportions should have seen swarm of robots assigned to do these extremely hazardous tasks, which have been pushed onto mortal beings. Didn’t one hear the fabled Japanese prowess in robotics or for that matter of technologically most advanced power in the world, USA, who boast of such Sci-Fi gadgets like “Disaster Recovery Vehicles” that can operate in a nuclear or biological warfare scenario? If these are not needed now, then when would their time come? Or are these hi-tech wonders simply fictional?

Much is made of the fact that unlike at Chernobyl the nuclear fission was successfully brought to a halt at FDNPP. It is a mercy that automatic emergency mechanisms worked in response to the earthquake as designed. But what it attempts to do is distract attention from the grave radiation risks posed by the exposed “spent fuel rods” in the cooling pool & in reactor core, and the breach of reactor core. Deadly by products of the atomic fission like Iodine-131 (accumulates in Thyroid gland), Caesium-137 (affinity for muscles), and Strontium-90 (concentrates in bones) are continued to be produced even if chain reaction in a nuclear power plant is halted. Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Austria, has issued its findings based on global network of air samplers put in place to monitor Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) : “Fukushima Radioactive Fallout nears Chernobyl levels”.  The “Spent” prefix to “fuel rods” only expresses that they are useless for nuclear power. But there is nothing “spent” in their ability to emit damaging radiation. That is the reason spent fuel rods have to be contained by keeping them submerged under circulating water. The danger posed by exposed spent fuel rods are best captured in this technical article “Doomsday scenario at Fukushima” : “…Ten tons is the amount of irradiated fuel that would be contained in a shipping container or cask used to transport the fuel. Why so much more caesium than the Hiroshima bomb? Because an atomic explosion occurs in milliseconds, but a nuclear reactor operates continuously for years. Many more fissions means much more fission products, including caesium. You do the math. If Unit 4 operated for 35 years and produced 30 tons of irradiated fuel per year and each ton is equivalent to 24 times the amount of cesium-137 produced by the Hiroshima bomb, then each fuel pool could contain on the order of 24,000 times the amount of cesium-137 produced by the Hiroshima bomb, if all the produced irradiated fuel remains in the fuel pool”. Even if most of this potential radioactive material is never released into environment, what it should bring home is the colossal amount of risk it carries and the length of time for which it has to be carried by vigilantly guarding over it. Engineers while designing reactors employ “defence in depth” to mitigate this risk. Depth essentially refers to successive counter measures built around the “scenarios”, which would result from “What if that happens or fails” analysis. Some measures are like protective walls : cladding fuel rods in Zirconium, putting the reactor core that contains these fuel rods submerged in water into a steel pressure vessel, building an all steel primary containment structure around this pressure vessel, and finally housing all this in a steel & concrete secondary containment structure. Then there are measures that initiate actions : thrusting control rods into the mesh of fuel rods in the reactor core in case of an earthquake, or starting the diesel pumps based secondary cooling system if the electric power fails, or having a battery backup if even diesel pumps fail. In FDNPP some measures worked very well while others failed miserably. The sequence of events that led to the damaging explosions in 3 of the reactor buildings out of 6 has been professionally detailed in this Economist article.


Reasons of failures are blamed on the “unusual” scale of earthquake and the “monstrous” tsunami it threw at Japan’s north-eastern shore. Design considerations for FDNPP were Richter scale 8 earthquake and tsunami waves of 4 to 7 meters height, depending on different reports. Tsunami waves that crashed in to coastal areas were 10 to 12 meters in height (14 meters by some latest accounts) and unleashed a force of 40 tons per square meter. Was this “unexpected”? Nature has always taught to expect the unexpected, but humans have proved to be poor learners in their hubris of mastery over nature. Earth’s behaviour has steadied and calmed down slowly since its violent & fiery origins over 4 billion years ago. It took some 700 million years before life – simple unicellular organisms – gained a tentative foothold. Insects had to wait until another 2,300 million years, and genus homo appeared only 2.5 million years ago. This journey has been anything but smooth. It has been stormy, violent, and full of cataclysmic changes. Earth’s mass – roiling and seething atoms excitedly fusing & releasing bursts of energy – was torn away from solar nebula and is still not free from the shadows of that turbulent pasts. Solidity of the earth –what geologists call crust – is literally skin deep like the skin of the apple.


Crust is fragmented, and its pieces float on the underneath mantle, and at places these pieces termed as tectonic plates move over each other causing subduction zones. Release of stresses built up in these subduction zones have caused nine of the ten largest seismic events in last 100 years. This somewhat lengthy detour was to show that what in hindsight are called “catastrophic events” are only to be expected. That they are the norm, and humanity’s inability to bear this in mind or her arrogance that it can overwhelm nature is what causes “catastrophes” and not what nature does. Nuclear wastes are somewhat like human infants. Extended vulnerable childhood means parents need to vigilantly watch and guard over infants for long time before they could be safely left to their own devices. Nuclear radiation was discovered by Marie & Pierre Curie in 1886, but not its risks. That took a while. “Radiation in fact is so pernicious and enduring that even now her papers from the 1890s – even her cookbooks – are too dangerous to handle. Her lab books are kept in lead-lined boxes and those who wish to see them must don protective clothing”. The huge time spans over which radioactivity lasts dictates that nuclear wastes too have to be isolated, contained, and rigorously insulated from outside world for centuries. A period within which the possibility of an “unexpectedly massive” natural event occurring is guaranteed. In fact just in the last decade several “catastrophic events” have occurred as Arun Gupta reminds us : “This century, barely out of the box, is already flush with mega-disasters: Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s earthquake, the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami, the BP oil spill, Cyclone Nargis and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and now Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns”. In almost every case these events became catastrophic not because of what nature did, she has already told us again & again what she is capable of, but because how some humans unwisely chose to or others were forced to arrange their affairs within their given circumstances. It is no one’s case that one can eliminate damage completely. Yet, if human affairs were arranged by respecting nature, then it would not only certainly minimise risk, but also make the society more egalitarian and happiness index healthier.

One of the most common and supposedly clinching arguments put forward by the apologists of nuclear industry is based on balance of probabilities. They argue that chances of dying in a road accident or airline crash are far more than in a nuclear accident. But do we give up motoring or air travel because of the risks involved? Then why give up “Clean” nuclear energy, which could save us from climate change. Prima facie the logic looks water tight, but it doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny. If what they say is true, then why do Insurance companies baulk at covering risks on nuclear power plants, which are supposed to be so “safe”, but merrily would cover risks of motoring or air travel, where accidents are relatively so “sure”? Such conundrum arises because only half the truth is told. Shorn of complexity, the way insurance company assess risk of an event is :

RoE (Risk of an Event) = PoE (Probability of Event occurring) x DRE (Damage resulting from the event).

Even if PoE for a nuclear accident is held to be low, the DRE is colossal. Therefore, the RoE is too high when compared to motoring accidents or air crashes, wherein DRE is too low. Such sophistry in assessing risks, pursuing safety, sharing information, and general opacity are some of the reasons why critics of nuclear power industry are wary of trusting it in any way. Here is an example (When the steam clears) of how it makes it hard for others to trust : “FEAR and uncertainty spread faster and farther than any nuclear fallout. To date the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan, laid low by the tsunami of March 11th, seems to have done little if any long-term damage to the environment beyond the plant’s immediate vicinity or to public health. In fits and starts, and with various reverses, the situation at the plant has come closer to being under control”.

NHK world, a Japanese news channel, is my principle source of information on the FDNPP crisis. A person exposed to western channels like CNN, BBC, Sky News, and so on, where anchors in studios coordinate an army of “news specialists”, reporters on the ground give “sense of the situation” as it unfolds, “experts” and “strategic thinkers” provide “sure footed analysis” & “cocky perspectives”, and computer nerds create “superb animations” that simplify and make digestible all the “wisdom” flowing out of TV screens; is confounded by the bizarre style of NHK World. For one, it may be cultural difference, & for other, it could be the difficulties of rendering in English the discourse that is taking place in Japanese. But even if allowances are made for these, the fumbling, unsteady, tentative, pronouncements that greet the viewer accompanied by amateurish handmade models & graphs or diagrams drawn on paper do not aid communication. A country where “electronic pets” & “digital sweethearts” are a rage should have done a competent & professional job of briefing. It is more so, when officials from TEPCO – the plant operator, NISA – the regulator, and Professors – the academic experts, are the ones who carry out these briefings. Unfortunately, it is not the case of despite them, but because of them that the briefings seem to go wrong. Sample this : “the first priority is to cool the reactor core and spent fuel rods. To do that TEPCO must start the circulating pumps that will send the cooling water. The power has reached the control room, but the tsunami has damaged some equipment and submerged the pumping station. The now contaminated water should be removed from there. But sudden spike in radioactivity meant that workers had to be pulled out of the plant. Situation remains serious, but is stabilising. TEPCO is working on how to start cooling the operation”. Back to square one, and same story repeats in every bulletin day after day until there is something “different” to report. Like yesterday it was reported that the water in the cooling system of reactor no. 2 was found to have radioactivity 10 million times higher than the safety norm. Today, TEPCO apologised for the “false alarm” saying its readings were wrong, and now it is established that the levels are only 100,000 times higher. One would like to believe that an honest attempt at transparency in an industry not familiar to it is leading to such blunders and bungling. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It appears more like the case of the Emperor and his beloved parrot. “An unreasonable Emperor, are they otherwise, once entrusts the care of his favourite parrot to some attendants with an injunction that anyone who brings the news of his death would have his head severed. Parrot dies as he had to someday. No one forgets the royal injunction. Who will be the bearer of news? Everyone loves dear life. But news must be reached. A wise man then advises the petrified attendants. One of them picks up the courage and tells the emperor; Sir, the parrot is lying on his back. So what? One of his wings is twisted and legs are stretched out. What’s the matter?, tell me clearly! He is not moving at all. Emperor hisses, so you mean to say parrot is dead”. The NHK briefings tell me that the story at the plant is far more grave than what it is made out to be. This seems to be borne out by the IAEA report, “High levels of beta-gamma contamination have been measured between 16-58 km from the plant. Available results show contamination ranging from 0.2-0.9 MBq per square metre… We have no contamination measurements showing that contamination levels are high at greater distances than 58 km from the plant, but this cannot be excluded”. Though, IAEA has left it at that, Dr. Chris Busby has used these figures to make a meaningful comparisons with Chernobyl and conclude that “Fukushima Daichi as serious as Chernobyl”.

However, the way FDNPP withstood “largely intact” the effects of the Earthquake and Tsunami has in fact given so much hope to George Monbiot as to argue, “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power”. His main argument runs like this : “No energy source just like a potent medicine is without side effects. The dangers of radioactivity have been wildly exaggerated, and though no complacency is to be tolerated, he proposes perspective. In case nuclear energy option is abandoned, then most economies will fall back upon fossil fuels including coal. He asserts coal is 100 times more damaging than nuclear power on every count (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges). Though he supports Renewables wholeheartedly, he says impact and costs of renewables increase dramatically as their proportion in total energy grows beyond 50% or 70% because the need for storage and redundancy climbs rapidly. Beyond this share even the carbon footprint of renewables exceeds that of nuclear”. These appear to be serious arguments that need thoughtful consideration. The easiest place to start is to consider what impact phasing out current nuclear power plants will have on carbon emissions. The age wise distribution of number of nuclear plants operating in the world is captured in the following IAEA graphic.

According to the estimates of UN Environment program, about 2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions were saved in 2009 because of these plants. Further, to have a reasonable chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees centigrade, the CO2 emissions would have to be brought down to 44 billion tonnes by 2020 from the business as usual figures of between 54 to 60 billion tonnes. The gap is anywhere between 10 to 16 billion tonnes and withdrawal of nuclear power from the scene through phasing out would only impact these figures from 20% to 12% if pro-rata replacements were made with other fuels. Based on this the carbon impact of phasing out nuclear power seems to be definitely manageable. Looking at the demand side of energy management, most analysts assume stable standard of living in the developed countries and seek to cater to growing demand from developing countries that dream of moving closer to western levels of consumption. Whatever energy mix anyone may dream of, the exponential growth that such ever growing consumption spree predicates is impossibility on a finite planet. It is not just about energy, though it may be the largest factor, but about other natural resources such as fresh water, foods, habitat, forests, ores, minerals, and what have you. All are depleting fast, and what is left over is of increasingly poor quality and harder to get at. The waste streams that all these activities are generating are getting bigger & bigger, and harder to put away safely. Unless human affairs are rearranged in such a way that populations in developed countries accept and learn to manage with much less and a different way of life so that populations elsewhere get opportunity to climb out of abject survival to decent living; the future looks bleak even if abundant inexhaustible energy is found. Future “Lifestyle Footprint”, not just carbon footprint, of human race would have to be necessarily smaller. How large that smaller lifestyle could be has to be quantified. The green or sustainable movement has unfortunately until now abjectly failed to present a comprehensive and overarching vision of this future. It is therefore largely seen as a force that is opposed to this or that or everything, but one that doesn’t show a constructive alternative. If it is to be successful and have people buy into its mission, then it has to prepare and present a comprehensive document illustrating that vision.

Lastly, one needs to answer : Are the renewables by themselves able to support such worldwide sustainable and equitable lifestyles? The other major problem with renewables (barring hydro-power), as Monbiot has observed, is that they cannot produce energy consistently and continuously on 24x7x365 basis. How could the difficulties this poses be solved? Mark Jacobson and Mark Deluchi have quantified their plan for renewables in Scientific American : “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables”. Their plan has ambitious vision and they argue with figures how renewable future is feasible without fossil fuels of any kind or even nuclear energy. They propose that 51% of energy be provided through 3.8 million wind turbines each rated at 5 megawatts and all these giants together with mandatory intervening spaces would still occupy only 1% of the earth’s surface. For photovoltaic they propose a mix of 30% from rooftop panels on buildings, and balance 70% contributed by 89000 photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants averaging 300 megawatts apiece.  The latter they say should take no more than 0.33% of planet’s surface. Balance they propose to obtain from 900 hydroelectric stations out which 70% are already in place (the additional 30% to be built would pose difficulties at least in some countries if not all). Intermittency problem with renewables they contend can be addressed by using hydropower, and by developing geo-thermal and tidal energy. One may argue with finer details, but certainly it gives a grand vision of how the energy requirements can be met sustainably. So, one need not despair that there is no clean future without accepting the grave dangers in handling, processing, storage, and monitoring of  nuclear fuels and wastes that nuclear energy option poses.

Anecdote : An old man in Sendai was saved when Tsunami lashed his city because he chose to rely on his knowledge & instinct, and ran away from Sea for the highway, which he knew was on higher ground than rest of the area. When he did that he acted against the emergency evacuation plan prepared by experts and bureaucrats for his city. Plan directed people to reach for the designated shelter – a school building – that was closer to the coast. Had he listened to experts he would have perished along with others, who kept faith in authority. What is galling about this whole affair is that some citizens had submitted a proposal to change the emergency evacuation plan early last year to the authorities. It got entangled in bureaucratic red tape. This story was told on NHK world.




Published on March 28, 2011




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