The lessons we need to learn from Fukushima but are unlikely to

Dr. Surendra Gadekar

A well-known Indian anti-nuclear activist and physicist, Gadekar lives in the remote tribal village of Vedchhi near the Kakrapar atomic power plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There, with his wife, a physician, he runs a Gandhian school for young activists and monitors the Indian nuclear industry, conducting surveys of power plants, uranium mines, and nuclear-testing facilities to determine the effect on the public’s health.

In 1987, he founded Anumukti, a journal devoted to establishing a non-nuclear India.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Richard Feynman

Remember: “In future, nuclear energy will provide electricity too cheap to meter.” What about: “In an earthquake, the safest place to be, is inside the control room of a nuclear power plant.” Or: “The chances of an accident having radiation releases with off-site consequences, are less than one in a million years of reactor operation.” I could go on… Nature was not fooled and neither were the ordinary public. Too cheap to meter has morphed into the costliest electricity that cannot survive anywhere on the planet without huge subsidies. In India today, instead of producing plentyful cheap electricity, nuclear energy does not produce even three parts per thousand of our total energy needs. And as far as the million year boast went, nuclear energy has just had about 15000 reactor years of operation worldwide, and five core meltdowns already. It is enough to make one feel a million years old, which is probably what they meant in the first place. As for the safest place being the control room of the nuclear power plant, just tell it to workers who were in the control room at Fukushima when the lights went out.

What actually happened at Fukushima? There are a number of different narratives. Nucleocrats and the Japanese government claimed, that it was the unprecedented earthquake followed by a “beyond design basis” tsunami that overwhelmed the multiple “defence in depth” safety features. Truly an act of God in a technological space where no acts of God are permitted. However, this story is slowly falling out of fashion with nucleocrats in other countries. Nothing prevents such extreme events from happening in other places as well and the general public realises this very well. So we are now getting on with the other narrative. Fukushima was preventable if only the best practices in safety culture had been followed in Japan. There is some evidence that indicates that it was the earthquake itself that caused the coolant tubes to rupture, so that even if the pumps had been able to run, they would have just caused more flooding rather than cooling. Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer, in a recent article in a Greenpeace report on the first anniversary of Fukushima accident, states that a dismissive attitude on part of the nuclear establishment towards nuclear risk and consequent regulatory and institutional failure, was the key cause that led to the catastrophe. This is an extremely interesting and important article, espeacially for us in India, since the relationship between the regulatory authority and the supposedly tightly regulated nuclear industry is even more close in India than in Japan.

The first lesson for the public is: Governments all over the world, whatever political system they follow, lie. When the accident at Chernobyl took place 25 years ago, there was horror expressed by media about how the ‘evil’ Soviet system had tried to suppress news of the disaster from its “own people,” and only reluctantly admitted to the full extent of the accident after two whole days. Well, the Japanese proved better. They knew that the reactors were heading towards meltdown on the first day itself but did not admit to the possibility for two whole months. They had radiation dispersal data from a “state of the art” system called Speedi but was it used for helping people relocate safely? No way. While Nero is supposed to have fiddled while Rome burnt, the Japanese establishment just fiddled the numbers. They increased the “acceptable” dose limit to the general population twenty times. The lesson nuclear establishments and governments actually learnt from Chernobyl was that radiophobia (people’s fears about radiation) is a bigger danger and causes more harm than radiation itself. Nature will take its time to tell us whether this lesson was the right one to learn, or whether in its attempt to save nuclear energy from extinction the Japanese government has condemned the future generations of Japan and the world to a dark future.
The most important point to realize about nuclear energy production is that the very process that produces heat and generates electricity is also the process that produces a variety of poisons. These poisons are deadly poisonous in extremely small quantities and in nuclear power plants, they are produced in tonnes. Over the last sixty years, it has been proved time and time again that it is impossible to isolate these poisons from the environment. Some are routinely released, since holding them is too difficult and expensive and therefore, even without a major accident like at Chernobyl or Fukushima, people living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants pay the real costs in terms of their long term health and genetic damage to future generations. Of course, in case of a major accident, huge amounts of these poisons contaminate the environment not only in the immediate vicinity of the plant but to variying extent, all over the world.

The people who devote their lives to nuclear energy production are functionally blind to the many insoluble problems that beset this technology. Thus, to them, Fukushima dai-ichi is an unlikely event caused by an unprecedented earthquake followed by an impossibly severe tsunami. After this they would invariably tell you that while the earthquake and tsunami killed thousands, not one person died of the nuclear accident, completely overlooking the fact that while the rest of (the uncontaminated areas of) Japan have been able to move on after the tsunami, residents of Fukushima prefecture and other nearby counties live blighted lives while the company that did them in, continues to deny responsibility and seeks to minimize whatever paltry assistance they are thinking of providing the victims. Not only has no one died as yet, according to some of these people there is “No liklihood of any measureable effects on public health.” Unfortunately, it is these very people who can shut the damn thing down and there is no alternative to them.

With a mindset that refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem, is it any wonder that nucleocrats spend enormous efforts in “allaying public fears.” And with such a past record, is it any wonder as well, that the public refuses to have its fears allayed by these ‘experts’ as is now happening in Koodankulam and Jaitapur. On the top, we have a Prime Minister, who in his earlier avatar was supposed to be an economist but has now donned the costume of a stand up comic telling funny stories about foreign hippies financing antinuclear movements and cancelling issued visas to peace activists, all the while assuring foreign governments that they need not worry about their “investments” due to delays to reactor starts. Beneath him we have the whole atomic energy establishment that issued statements assuring the public that nothing like Fukushima could ever happen here within hours of the accident without conducting any kind of safety review. When they did conduct such a review of all our reactors they completed it in just a few weeks and came up with a clean chit to every one of them whether built or not. What a great surprise!

“Present review and re-evaluations conducted indicate that adequate provisions exist at Indian nuclear power plants to handle station blackout situation and maintaining continuous cooling of reactor core for decay heat removal. ”

Let us not forget that India is the only country in the world running Fukushima type Boiling Water Reactors that happen to be even older than all of the Fukushima reactors.

As for the other reactors, in words of the people who conducted the safety review:

“In the context of scenario at Fukushima, it may be recalled that pertinent incidents at Indian nuclear power plants, like prolonged loss of power supplies at Narora plant in 1993, flood incident at Kakrapara plant in 1994 and Tsunami at Madras plant in 2004 were managed successfully with existing provisions.”

An operator looking for gas leaks using a burning candle caused a fire in one of the reactors at Brown’s Ferry in Alabama in 1975 that resulted in the burning of all cables and complete loss of power to the reactor. Since then supposedly, the lesson of isolating and protecting power and control cables from fire and preventing common cause failure had been learnt by nuclear operators all over the world. Narora plant had not even been concieved till then. Yet when Narora was built, this lesson had been forgotten and when it had a fire in the turbine room, the very same place where previous fires had taken place at Kalpakam (23.7.83), Rawatbhata (25.7.’85) and at Kakrapar (5.9.’91); it came as a huge surprise to the clue-less authorities and did cause a common cause failure and resulted in the loss of electrical power for 17 hours. Narora was saved due to the bravery of its operating staff and the quickwittedness of the shift supervisor, but these heroes are not found even deserving of a mention in any safety analysis.

Similarly at Kakrapar in 1994, on 15th of June, the water level in the canal rose rapidly following heavy rains and the water rushed into the turbine building through the outlet pipes. In the absence of timely action the pumps in the turbine building drowned under 35 feet of water by the next morning. Mercifully the reactor was in a shutdown condition otherwise the chances of a disaster would have been quite high. The water did enter the waste managment facility and there was some amount of radioactive contamination of the plant premisis and a site emergency was declared. The plant authorities tried to hide the incident and did not even inform the civic authorities or the AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) though officially required to do so.

Nucleocrats claim that they study hundred years of rainfall patterns and water flows before deciding upon the height of the site location. The rain that day in 1994 though heavy was not the heaviest rainfall of the last 100 years. The reason for the flooding was that since in the earlier years it hadn’t rained heavily, nobody had bothered to see if the gates of the weir that controlled the flow of water in the lake, were still in working condition. When the need arose, they suddenly found that they did not. It was the nearby villagers who anxious to save their houses, who created a breach and drained the water from the lake and prevented an even more serious accident.

The tsunami of 2004 inundated the Kalpakam plant but not much is known about the damage it caused inside, because like nucleocrats everywhere, Indian nucleocrats also don’t believe in informing the public with truth. In fact, until the tsunami came and hit them, they did not believe that such an event was even possible since “tsunamis don’t occur in India.”

Leave aside learning lessons, India actually could teach the world a thing or two in accident technology. In Kaiga in 1995, there was an accident the like of which has not happened in the sixty years of nuclear construction anywhere in the world, when a slab of concrete weighing 130 tonnes just fell off the roof of the containment building while it was still under construction. If this event had just happened a few months later when the reactor was supposed to commence production, it would have been a unique accident. The way Indian nucleocrats handled this event was to enrich the English language with a new word, “delamination”.
What India truly needs to learn from Fukushima, is be honest with your own public, make their health your top-most priority, and abandon this death dealing, risky and costly technology. If they cannot do this immediately, the least they can do is to abandon the ancient reactors at Tarapur, decommision the already shut reactor at Rawatbhata and not build any more new ones and definitely not in a cluster.

What the Indian leadership is likely to learn in the short term is how to become more sophisticated in their lies and more opaque in their pronouncements. That is where the role of the public comes in.

“All but two of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors have gone offline since the nuclear disaster a year ago, after the earthquake and tsunami, and it is not clear when they can be restarted. With the last operating reactor scheduled to be idled as soon as next month, Japan — once one of the world’s leaders in atomic energy — will have at least temporarily shut down an industry that once generated a third of its electricity.” This has happened because Japanes reactors have to shut down after 13 months of operation by law, and many reactors are unable to start again because of unwillingness of local governments to grant them licenses due to public disapproval.
People in India too will have to continue their struggle with vigour and perfect non-violence so that the leadership finds the whole ‘business’ too risky electorally and just gives up.

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