Lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima: Nuclear Safety is an Oxymoron

Prof. T. Shivaji Rao

Prof.T.Shivaji Rao is the Director of Center for Environmental Studies,GITAM University, Visakhapatnam (India)


In the wake of the nuclear explosion at Fukushima on 11-3-2011 several expert committees investigated the sequence of events leading to the catastrophe.  Chancellor of Germany  Mrs. Angela Merkel discussed in depth with International experts on Fukushima disaster and concluded that nuclear safety is a pure myth and she declared  phase out of all German nuclear plants by 2022.  The former Prime Minister of Japan Mr.Kan and the present Prime Minister Noda also studied the tragic events at Fukushima and declared that nuclear safety is a myth.  In Japan 53 out of 54 reactors are shut down and due to public agitation they are not allowed to restart operations.   From 5-5-2012 Japan is going to be the first nuclear-free country in the world.   But the Indian Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu Jayalalitha are bent upon  promoting  large   nuclear plants in Kudankulam in Tamilnadu state and at other places like Jaitapur in Maharasthra, Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh and Bhavnagar in Gujarat, inspite of strong public opposition and by violating all the rules and regulations although there are more  inexpensive  and  safer energy resources like lignite coal in Tamilnadu which is deny to the state while being exported to  Uttara Pradesh for production of more electricity.  There are other  alternate energy sources like natural gas and renewable energy sources to meet the  power needs of Tamilnadu.  In this context  it is proposed to present the Fukushima nuclear disaster as a case study to prove how it is hundred percent impossible to  guarantee the safety of nuclear reactors and that to the proposed large size new varieties of reactors proposed at Kudankulam in Tamilnadu.

Chernobyl’s 26th Anniversary today..

On the occasion of the Chernobyl Disaster anniversary on 26-4-2012,people in all countries in the world must take an oath to fight against both nuclear plants and weapons as they are intended to destroy the life and culture of mankind .The Chernobyl reactor explosion occured on 26-4-1986 in Russia due to human failure.The resulting radio activity spread in parts of Western Russia and europe.About 5 lakh workers suffered ill-health and the economic losses were estimated at 18 billion rubles..A Russian Report places about a million premature cancer deaths upto 2004.About 3.5 lakhs of people were evacuated from the areas contaminated by the radio activity released from the explosion..In spite of these serious damaging impacts due to reactor failures,the industrialists are still promoting nuclear reacxtors all over the world to make easy money at any cost and such moves must be stopped by educating the people on the impacts of Reactor explosions at Chernobyl in russia and Fukushima in Japan.


Nuclear plants were originally proposed during 1950s when there was a serious cold war between Russia and the United States.  The rivalry between these countries forced them to take the extreme step of going for a nuclear war to establish their supremacy in the world politics.  For this purpose they had to produce nuclear weapons which needed enriched Uranium and Plutonium.  For obtaining substantial quantities of these hazardous materials, establishment of nuclear plants became inevitable and for their establishment the justification was made that they are needed for production of electricity for civilian purposes and for medical and scientific applications.   Subsequently the nuclear plant manufacturers found it as a handy instrument to make enormous amounts of easy and quick money by securing it for a special status by bribing the Presidents and Prime Ministers, influential politicians, bureaucrats, officials, pro-nuclear scientists and engineers in several countries.

During the second world war a Japanese Naval Officer Nakasone looked at the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 and said “I saw the nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima”.  At that moment, I sensed that the next age was the nuclear age, he wrote  in an essay in 1960s. Many Japanese were told that nuclear power is the only way for Japan to become more energy dependant in the aftermath of defeat in world war-II and it paved the way for eventual development of nuclear weapons because of the nuclear power links to nuclear arms.  Due to   Japan’s close ties with United States in nuclear matters , the leftist politicians and academicians became fierce opponents of nuclear power and as a counter measure the rightists groups automatically assumed the role of proponents of nuclear power by going all the way to stress on its absolute safety.  Thus the Japanese groups  have developed different attitudes so that each side has stuck to extreme positions on nuclear power even today.  Thus there is a widespread adoption of the belief called the “safety myth” that Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe and such an egoistic attitude made Japan single mindedly pursue nuclear power even though western countries began to distance themselves from the inherently hazardous nuclear power.


Infact the nuclear establishment in Japan led by the prominent industrialists and the Ministry of Trade have been spending since 1970s  hundreds of billions of dollars for advertisement and educational programmes on nuclear safety and the Government spent $12million per year. After the 1973 oil crisis Japan promoted nuclear plants under the pretext of energy security and began to spend about 400billion Yen per year for nuclear power while the industries invested 2 trillion Yen per year for nuclear plants.  The Government created many organizations to propagate on nuclear safety and one of the  organization  known as Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization gets 40% funding from Government and 60% from nuclear plant operators.  This organization sends nuclear power experts to propagate on nuclear safety in the high school and colleges all over the country.  With the result that even the Chernobyl accident could not raise the consciousness of the people about the risks of nuclear power.  Because the people became addicted to reflexively trust the Government and its assurances about the safety of nuclear power even though they were posing the greatest risk to the nation.  The Japanese people even after the Fukushima accident did not become aggressive in the beginning as they believed in the false statements on radiation exposure and reactor explosions presented them by the nuclear plant operators and the Government.  Japanese realized the truth of the statement by the nuclear reactor pioneer, Alwin Weinberg that “a nuclear accident somewhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.”   But as the damaging impacts were seen and experienced by the people over a period of time  they began to realize the truth that nuclear safety is a myth.  Consequently they are agitating for closure of all the nuclear plants in Japan and are demanding for generation of electricity from alternate sources like wind, solar and geo-thermal energies and other sources like oil and natural gas.  Due to public agitations against nuclear plants,  Japan has recently announced that from 5th May 2012 the country will be free of nuclear power.


It is an established fact that the major nuclear reactor accidents of Three Mile Island in US (1979), Chernobyl reactor explosions in Russia (1986) and Fukushima reactor explosions in Japan (2011) are man-made disasters.  The reactor accident resulted in cancers, ill-health and deaths and economic damages worth about Rs.4 lakh crores.  Thus nuclear reactors are neither safe nor economical as propagated by the nuclear plant organisations and the concerned Governments.  How nuclear safety is a pure myth can be visualized by the sequence of events that led to the reactor  explosions at Fukushima in March 2011 and how improper siting, under design of the plants including improper operation and maintenance and human failures resulted led to an avoidable disaster.  Shunichi Tanuka, a former  Chairman of Japan Atomic Energy Commission one said that nuclear promoters were always on guard.  He said  “If we even mentioned there is a slight possibility that nuclear plants were dangerous the anti-nuclear advocates pushed for shutting every plant down and so we just kept on declaring that nuclear plants were safe.  Another Japanese expert said “we believed Japans nuclear plant were top class.  But there was probably a bit of over confidence there”.  Such combination of over confidence among Japanese experts and trapping themselves with their own words gradually built up the “Safety Myth of nuclear power plants”.  A former nuclear plant operator said “You can take all kinds of possible situations into consideration but something beyond imagination is bound to take place like the Tsunami on 11-3-2011 at Fukushima.  The possibility of a worst case scenario should have been assumed and there should have been a reliable system in place with proper training to keep damage to a minimum.  If safe nuclear plant should not lose all its cooling functions as had happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant.


The massive earthquake of magnitude 9 occurred in the Fukushima  region in the sea at about 2:46 PM on 11-3-2011 and a huge tsunami water wave of about 15meters high  occurred 40 minutes later.  10 hours later at about 1:00 AM on 12-3-2011 the Prime Minister Of Japan, Mr.Kan  was getting worried and wanted to visit the reactor at Fukushima but he was prevented to do so.   At 2:00 AM on 12-3-2011 the Government told the plant operators to vent steam from the reactor.  At about 6:00AM the Prime Minister started by helicopter and reached Fukushima at about 7:00 AM and enquired if venting was done even after 5 hours of the direction from the Government.  After the Prime Minister left  Fukushima at 8:00 AM on 12-3-2011, the plant manager Yoshida, instructed his workers to carryout venting as he thought that venting radioactive steam from the reactor was needed to prevent an explosion,  although such an action was never taken before  in Japan.  At about 9.00 AM 6 workers carried nitrogen cylinders and batteries over their shoulders and headed for the reactor building and called their mission their “Last Service”.  As per Government orders evacuation of people within 3kms of the plant was completed by 12:30AM on 12-3-2011. At about 2:00PM on 12-3-2011 the venting operations were deemed to be successful.   Unfortunately  one and half hours after steam venting at about 3:30PM there was a hydrogen explosion at the reactor.

When Yoshida was asked why he waited for 7 hours delay to order workers to conduct the venting operations he seems to have cited slowness in evacuation of people in the neighbouring area as a reason for the delay in carrying out the venting operation.  It is speculated  that time was wasted in chalking out a working plan to fight the crisis from 6:30 AM  to 9:00 AM on 12-3-2011 and plant officials faulted the visit of the Prime Minister as a waste of their time as the Director had accompanied him.  But the Prime Minister is reported to have said that the plant operators are failed to respond promptly to the Government instructions to carryout the venting.

a)Police report on reactor accident disbelieved by authorities:   24 hours after the earthquake at 3:36PM on 12-3-2011 Fukushima police station told government crisis management center in the Prime Minister’s Office that an explosion occurred at Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant.  The nuclear safety agency in the Prime Minister’s office refused to accept this information on Nuclear reactor explosion by saying “that is not possible”.   But 5 hours later at 8:30 PM the Government accepted the news about hydrogen explosion and at 8:40PM the Cabinet Secretary told press reporters that the explosion destroyed the reactor building but the containment vessel containing the reactor has not been damaged and thereby he cheated the people that the reactor was safe. But the plant operators casually announced that they were just analyzing the reasons for the accident.


Special advisor to the Prime Minister on Nuclear Power Goshi Hosono said “No expert had predicted that hydrogen explosion would occur at the reactor building”.  The Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission Haruki Madarame said the containment has been refilled with nitrogen, so a hydrogen explosion would not happen” and this explanation was accepted by the  Prime Minister.  Most nuclear experts also ignored the risk of hydrogen explosion because they were imprisoned  by what is called commonsense among nuclear experts which turned out to be wrong and more like excessive self confidence or over confidence or ego which is part of human working culture.  A report prepared by the Fukushima plant operators and other nuclear companies in 2002 on the response measures to be implemented in the case of core melt down and other accidents stated “ there is no need to take hydrogen explosion into consideration”.  Such a belief came from the common knowledge that such an explosion will not occur if the containment vessel was filled with nitrogen which will keep the concentration of hydrogen at a low level.  Thus the Government safety  procedures are based on similar blind beliefs.  Yamada, Director of Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said “the reactor was designed to keep hydrogen from leaking out of the containment vessel into the reactor building.  In the safety screening we assumed that hydrogen explosion would not occur in the reactor building.  Due to this assumption measures to prevent a hydrogen explosion in the reactor building were not included in the list of safety measure evaluations.


According to the plant management when nuclear fuel at the No.1 reactor melted 16 hours after the earthquake  and tsunami at about 6:46 AM on 12-3-2011 before the Prime Minister reached Fukushima the pressure and containment vessels became damaged.  Hydrogen due to reaction between  Zirconium cladding and oxygen leaked out and began to accumulate in the reactor building. Workers failed to prevent a hydrogen explosion at No.3 reactor even on 14-3-2011.  The explosion at No.1 reactor has led to delays in responses to the Nuclear accident.  During reactor operation hydrogen is generated by the radiolytic decomposition of water and other chemical reactions.  Since hydrogen generation was not the cause of most past reactor explosions adequate attention was not paid to this phenomena during the Fukushima disaster.  But when cooling malfunction occurred in Three Mile Island reactor in 1979 a hydrogen explosion occurred inside the containment vessel in 10 hours after the malfunction began.  The reactor  building and containment vessel stood intact inspite of the blast.  A few hours later  the cooling system was restored.  But it took 4 days for eliminating the hydrogen and the catastrophe was avoided.  In November, 2001 there was a hydrogen combustion inside a pipe used for emergency core cooling at Hamawaka nuclear plant in Shizoka District causing an explosion.


The Mark-I Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) has small containment vessels and so the pressure  fluctuates causing difficulties in operation and hence a plant operator at Fukushima said “as Hydrogen accumulates easily, I felt a potential risk”.  In USA experts realize  the vulnerability of Mark-I BWR reactor to serious accidents but they did not ban them due to their large scale usage.  However since 1970’s as a safety measure they installed equipment that regenerates water from hydrogen in turbine buildings and they injected nitrogen in containment vessels.  In 1980’s they installed devices like venting system to reduce pressure in the containment vessel.  Mark-I reactors are operating safely in USA as they added more safety features.  But the reactor manufacturing officials lamented “the biggest problem is the lack of  knowledge of the workings of safety measures and devices that are vulnerable to the total loss of power at the plant.  Even the device that regenerate water from hydrogen cannot work if power is lost”.

According to Fukushima industrial representative “unexpectedly nuclear engineers are not so familiar with electrical systems”.  “18 hours after the earthquake the radioactive particles were detected at 6km from the plant at 8:40AM on 12-3-2011.  It means that nuclear fuel attained a temperature of 1000oC or 1632oF which implies that reactor core got damaged and radioactivity leaked into the environment.  7 hours later at 3:30 PM on 12-3-2011 a massive hydrogen explosion rocked the Fukushima No.1 reactor.


Although the Japanese nuclear disaster management planners are supposed to broadcast radiation doses every hour since 4:00 PM on 11-3-2011 to make evacuation recommendations the Government failed to inform the public because they were “afraid to inform the public because they were afraid of  triggering a panic”.  Surprisingly the national Disaster Response planners assume that the radiation levels due to an explosion must be done by local District government officials and that the Central government role is only supplementing to the duties of the District officials of the state Government.   In Fukushima crisis the District officials were unable to handle radiation measurement work on their own and hence on 16-3-2011 the central Government officials were directed to cooperate with the District officials in analyzing and broadcasting radiation data.  Sasaki the concerned Government minister said “both personnel and equipment were sorely lacking as there was no proper plan in place for central Government to take the initiative in addressing the situation.  On 16-3-2011 Moriguchi National Government Minister reported radiation doses of 330 mSv at 20km from the nuclear plant and when questioned about the possible health hazards he said “our duty is confined to providing the public with data”.  We have been restricted by the Chief Secretary not to make any comments on the data”.  But the Chief Secretary passed an order that evaluations of radiation data could only be done by the nuclear safety commission.  But commission never broadcast any safety evaluation because the chief was tied up in advising the Prime Minister and other Government leaders.  Surprisingly the Chief Secretary repeatedly told the press that radiation levels would not cause any immediate health damage.  On 23-3-2011 the Chief of Nuclear Safety Commission told at his first press conference “we are very sorry, but we cannot make any radiation evaluations because we are very under staffed”.


About 1150 years ago a massive Jogan earthquake and a Tsunami stuck the Tohoku region  to the North of Fukushima.  The damage was very serious including the drowning of 1000 people.  Research studies on this earthquake and tsunami conducted by the local University and the National Institute of Science and Technology confirmed that the Jogan earthquake had a magnitude of 8.4 and the tsunami was on the same scale as the one that occurred at Fukushima.  Another study by Tohoku University two tsunami waves equivalent to Jogan tsunami hit the Sandai plain in the North of Fukushima  in the past 3000 years.  Although academicians and research workers warned repeatedly at several National conferences that a massive tsunami could hit the Tohoku region in the near future the nuclear industry and the Government never cared for such disaster forecasts.  The National Disaster Management Agency and the Fukushima plant operators deliberately ignored such findings and never used them in their estimates of the damage that earthquake and tsunami cause to the nuclear plants in Japan.


Moreover the TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Corporation) argued that there is no evidence of damage by Jogan Earthquake and it is more appropriate to consider the Shiyozaki Earthquake of 7.9 magnitude that hit Fukushima District in 1938 with much smaller  tsunami.  Since the repeated warnings of research scholars were ignored while designing the Fukushima reactors the disaster of 11-3-2011 at Fukushima is not a natural disaster and according to Tokyo University Prof.Geller “It is a man-made disaster”.

Even the  Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, a wing of the National government in its annual reports predicted possible damage tsunami could cause to Fukushima plant.  The report stated that if a 13-meter high breakwater above sea level was hit by 15-meter high tsunami all power sources would be knocked out including outside electricity and emergency power generators.  In such a situation the cooling functions would be lost and the core would cause melt down.  But the break water at Fukushima was based on TEPCO assumption that the Tsunami hitting the reactor would be 5.4 to 5.7m high.  Unfortunately on 11-3-2011 the tsunami wave was 14m to 15m high.   Inspite of all these findings TEPCO officials said “we gave priorities for preparing  for high probability incidents, so we could not respond to everything”.  Wataru of Kinki University said “from a cost performance perspective it is difficult to prepare for low probability disasters and prevent all accidents.  But by thinking about things after an accident, it is possible to prevent worse situations.  Cost benefit analysis and economic factors are not the only reasons why nuclear industries are reluctant to take action on safety measures.   The industries also want to avoid losing the trust of the local residents.  Although several faults were detected since 2002, TEPCO believed that launching  repairs to solve these problems would make the explanations given by the company about the safety of the nuclear power to local residents ring false.  When people questioned the nuclear industry Minister Why Japan government failed to act on tsunami warnings? He said that his Ministry had blindly believed “Japan’s Nuclear Plants were the safest in the world”.  That is why an International Medico Environmental Expert Dr.Rene Dubois of USA said “a nation which blindly believes in its experts is a nation on its way to death”.


According to Dr.Kinichi, a Ph.D from MIT (USA)  Fukushima reactors would not have failed ­­if only human failures did not actually disabled them.  The actual reactor melt down started at 11:00 PM on 11-3-2011.  Zirconium alloy used for fuel cladding reacted with water vapour and produced large quantities  of hydrogen and Zirconium oxide which exploded and blew out the 3 reactor buildings on 12th, 14th and 15th.  The tsunami waves soaked the emergency diesel engines and batteries stored in the basement  of these buildings.  Out of the 13 emergency generators for the 6 reactors only one air cooled diesel engine was located on the top of the hill near reactor No.6 as its size was too big to be located in the basement and this diesel engine  was not dependent on water as a heat sink.  This air cooled diesel  engine was the only one that was not entirely submerged under water and its power was enough to save reactors No.5 and 6 which were brought down to a cold shut down within a few weeks.  That the same earthquake and tsunami destroyed 1 to 4 reactors while reactors No.5 and 6 were intact shows that if only one can provide a source of electricity through the air cooled emergency diesel engine located at an elevated place, other reactors could have been saved.  It  means that we should have multiple sources of electrical supply and cooling heat sinks instead of blindly arguing that the massive earthquake and a large tsunami wave were responsible for the natural disaster,  far beyond anything anyone could have imagined and planned for.


If an industry wants to operate nuclear reactor one should not assume anything about potential disaster like earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks or an aeroplane crash, internal sabotage or bombing.  If we want to operate a nuclear reactor no matter what kind of accidents may happen we must find a way to bring back the reactor to a cold shutdown in any type of emergency explosions and it needs a hundred percent dependable electric supply and also heat sinks.  One may make any number of assumptions on the possible causes of nuclear accidents and take engineering based precautionary measures so that the common people could feel rest assured by knowing that the reactor is safe.   Japanese also assumed that the probability of loss of external electrical supply in a country like Japan was very unlikely and hence did not plan over for prolonged power breakdowns and hence   provided only 3 emergency generator sets per reactors and they never imagined the possibility of breakdown of all external electrical connections.


If only the nuclear plant authorities  provided for external power generation by solar, wind, gas turbine or even a small gas based power station to back up the 6 reactors at Fukushima, this disaster could have been avoided even if the earthquake was of high magnitude and the tsunami wave was large.  Even when academicians  predicted a massive earthquake and tsunami  to happen infrequently the Japanese Government and nuclear industrial experts failed to realize that what may happen will certainly happen sometime or the other.  In this world nothing is absolutely safe.  The nuclear industry must build reactors that can reach cold shut down  with 100% certainty no matter what kind of accidents may happen in the nuclear plants.  If an industry has a working reactor and it is deprived of the last resort of power supply and heat sink the industry should not have taken the responsibility to operate nuclear plant in the first place and that is what is the key lesson that the Government and nuclear industries all over the world must learn from the Fukushima disaster.  It means that the emergency power should be provided from a multiple of means and locations and the heat sink should not be depended on existing water supply alone but on air and alternate water reservoirs.  The industry must realise that none of the safety measures like emergency core cooling systems, boric acid  sprays did not save Fukushima reactors because even the most critical emergency devices and methods are dependent on the availability of electrical power supply.


Many countries are misleading that since massive earthquakes and large tsunami waves are specific only to Japan and what happened to reactors at Fukushima in Japan on 11-3-2011 does not apply to other countries and that is a very fatal mistake to mislead the people.   Instead,  the nuclear industry must show how they can avoid core melt downs under any circumstances by realizing that the industrialists are being tested by nature and that God will keep testing the industry and the people and checking to see if the people are ready to ask the right questions to protect public health, safety of eco-systems and sustainable development of man and nature in the world.

All these above phenomena that led to Fukushima disaster clearly prove that nuclear safety is a myth.  The nuclear safety considerations are not at all clearly understood and assimilated  by the nuclear experts who select appropriate sites for location of the industry the experts who design the plant by underestimating the location  features like potential earthquakes and tsunami and their damaging consequences on the people and their environment.  The specialists who deal with manufacturing, construction and commissioning of the nuclear plants and the experts who get involved in the operation and maintenance of the nuclear plants are not fully informed.   The experts who prepare the Environmental Impact Assessment reports including Risk Analysis, accident scenarios, emergency response system including timely evacuation to safer places and the experts who operated and maintained the spent fuel storage tanks, the experts who are involved in decommissioning the nuclear plants and the experts who operated and maintained the waste treatment plants and restore the natural resources free from pollution and the experts  who monitor  the radioactive emissions and ensure the health and welfare of all plant, animal and human population in different ecological systems are not fully qualified as per section 45 and 51  of the Indian Evidence Act.  Hence it is the duty of the general public and educated people to debate on all these above crucial aspects  and stop all nuclear reactors and destroy all nuclear weapons to save mankind and nature in the interests of leaving this world in a better condition than what we have inherited from our forefathers in the interests of our future generations.


    Join discussion: leave a comment