The mad global nuclear rush- Giddy speed, zero preparation

Dr. E A S Sarma


Former Union Power Secretary, Govt of India

Know more about Dr. Sarma HERE.

Of course it is just like the Great Leap Forward,” Professor He Zuoxiu, one of China’s leading theoretical physicists, who worked on the country’s atomic bomb project, said. “It’s all about giddy speed and zero preparation. We have not solved the problems of technology, cost or safety but rashly rushed out an over-ambitious plan. I think it is a mission impossible.”

Indeed, China is rushing headlong into a dangerous nuclear future, initially allocating $120 billion to set up more than 50 nuclear power stations and increase its nuclear capacity from 9GW to 200 GW by 2020 and planning further to increase the capacity to 400 GW within the next couple of decades. On similar lines, India, which is struggling to find enough resources to feed more than sixty million below-the-poverty-line families, plans to commit a huge open-ended investment to add 55 GW to its existing 5 GW by 2031-32. South Korea too plans to join this bandwagon by adding around 10 GW to its existing capacity of 18.7 GW. By any stretch of imagination, this is a mind boggling situation.

IAEA’s Nuclear Safety Review (2010) made the following ominous statement well before the Fukushima disaster in March, 2011.

“Several countries expanded their current nuclear power programmes. In the Agency’s latest projections for nuclear power, the low projection foresaw an installed global nuclear power capacity of about 546 GW(e) in 2030, a 46% increase over the roughly 375 GW(e) currently installed. The high projection foresaw about 803 GW(e), which is more than double the current capacity, and therefore poses a significant safety challenge to the world nuclear community. In addition, plans for some new nuclear power programmes are moving faster than the establishment of the necessary safety infrastructure and capacity.

This prophetic statement from IAEA failed to wake up the high priests of the global nuclear industry till disaster struck Japan one year later. Of course, as usual, they are making desperate efforts to make light of the deep wound left by Fukushima on nuclear technology’s credibility.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the greatest tragedy that struck Japan was this deadly accident at Fukushima. The people residing in the vicinity of Fukushima suffered huge, untold suffering. Japan and the world are still struggling to assess the full magnitude of the radioactive contamination that followed from the accident. The liabilities on account of this accident for the Japanese tax payer may exceed $ 16 billion. It may take three to four decades for the country to clean up the radioactive mess from the accident.

Still, the nuclear establishment in Japan and its cohorts elsewhere continue to issue statements day after day that the situation at Fukushima is well under control in order to create a false sense of confidence in the safety of nuclear power. The well known theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, has most appropriately described this by saying that “the situation at Fukushima is relatively stable now… in the same way that you are stable if you hang by your fingernails off a cliff, and your fingernails begin to break one by one”.

Is the world acting prudently by rushing into such a dangerous nuclear future, when the problems that it will pose are not only formidable but not adequately understood and the solutions are practically nonexistent?

Are we unwittingly paving the way for more Fukushimas to happen? Have we learnt enough lessons from the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, Chernobyl in1986 and Fukushima last year?

The answers to these questions are clearly in the negative. The global nuclear establishment continues to adopt an aggressive stance, trying to lull the people into a false sense of safety. Instead of focussing its attention and effort on promoting research to find satisfactory solutions to the formidable technological problems, the nuclear industry seems to devote more effort to market the existing technology with all its inherent shortcomings and uncertainties.

The global experience with nuclear power has so far been meagre, confined to not more than 14,745 reactor-years. During this period, there have been thirty three accidents which, according to the definition given by IAEA , were of a “serious” nature, not to mention the hundreds of less serious but potentially dangerous events that took place, largely triggered by human and mechanical lapses. Any one of these “near misses” could have caused a trauma equivalent to that of Fukushima or even more!

The majority of the power reactors operating today have either outlived their age or will soon be ready for dismantling. Their vintage designs are inherently unsafe. Decommissioning them is not going to be easy. One should not be surprised if the regulators, who are mostly the alter egos of the nuclear industry and are pro-nuclear themselves, adopt the softer option of renewing the licenses of these obsolete reactors and expose the local populations to the perils of Fukushima-like disasters, than directing the operators to shut down the plants and decommission them outright. The nuclear industry across the world operates in a highly non-transparent environment, with little public consultation and practically non-existent openness to dissent.

It is ironic that the governments in the developing world look upon the subsidies given to the poor to ensure food security as bad economics but are prepared to go out of the way to justify showering billions of dollars of indirect subsidies on an otherwise non-viable nuclear industry in the name of “energy security”. It is tragic that the disastrous accident at Fukushima has not fundamentally changed this mind set.

Do we have a credible system of analysing the nuclear accidents, both minor and major, and drawing lessons from them?

On March 9, 1979, the experts of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC ) estimated.the probability of the next major accident taking place within the next 400 reactor-years to be less than 0.5. Within less than three weeks from that date, the Three Mile Island (TMI) meltdown took place, forcing USA to freeze its nuclear power development programme during the next three decades. Still, in terms of disaster anticipation, these experts continue to ignore the fact that it is the statistical outliers that one should worry about, not the statistical averages that can be misleading.

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 was many times more calamitious than TMI. Unable to decommission the Chernobyl reactors, the authorities there are constructing a cement concrete tomb around it to insulate the population from the dangers of the residual radioactivity. Still, neither the industry nor the regulators have cared to introspect on their strong belief that nuclear technology is infallible. They waited for another quarter of a century for Fukushima to wake them up once again. They seem to remain in a deep slumber till they are temporarly woken up by a TMI, or a Chrnobyl, or a Fukushima, which are unwelcome irritants that they should forget quickly, so that they may relapse into their comfortable slumber again.

It is ironic that more than a quarter century after Chernobyl and one year after Fukushima, Japan and Ukraine should decide to sign an agreement on “cooperation to advance aftermath response to accidents at nuclear power stations”! Undoubtedly, this is a welcome move, though highly belated.

While thirty one countries are in the nuclear club as of now, eleven more are joining it soon. Considering what the western MNCs are capable of, the number could rapidly increase in the coming years. Driven by the intrusive marketing strategies of the MNCs, more and more countries will start shifting in favour of nuclear power, thereby increasing the exposure of the global population to the potential dangers of the technology in the coming decades.

Apart from the risk of serious accidents, nuclear technology poses other dangers.

Each GW of nuclear power will leave an unenviable annual legacy of 27 tonnes of deadly radioactive waste. Those who have been in the business of producing nuclear electricity are struggling to find ways and means to store the large stockpiles of this accummulated toxic waste. No one knows any way to process the waste to make it safe. This is a problem that is going to become more and more formidable in the future.

In addition to the existing 436 power reactors in operation, there are more than 300 other reactors used for both civilian and non-civilian purposes. They generate 75 tonnes of plutoniam annually, which is sufficient to make thousands of Hiroshima-like atom bombs. The resultant accummulated stockpiles of plutonium will increase in size in the coming decades and their ready availability will surely fuel and escalate the existing regional conflicts across the globe. In a way, it runs counter to the ongoing international effort towards nuclear disarmament. On one side, through intense diplomatic effort and persuasion, the global community has been able to bring down the number of nuclear warheads in the world to 22,000. It is ironic that, on the other side, it should conciously switch on the green light for a nuclear arms race based on an increasing source of supply of weapon grade plutonium.

Like the mythological many-headed monster, Hydra, the risks of nuclear technology are going to be more and more multi-faceted, as the nuclear technologists are pushing it into new areas of application, unmindful of the potential dangers it poses.

Ever since the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, was launched in 1954, the surface water and underwater use of nuclear reactors has multiplied. Ranging from submarines to aircraft carriers and icebreakers, there are 140 such vessels operating today. They present a floating nuclear risk to the world, as some recent submarine accidents have demonstrated.

The latest fad is to fly drones powered by nuclear energy on the premise that they could fly unmanned for days without refuelling! Radioisotope thermoelectric generators have already found use in space craft and one should not be surprised to find nuclear technology proliferating on a much larger scale soon into satellites and space travel. As the technology expands its presence over the planet, its potential dangers to are going to increase.

Another worrisome aspect of the global nuclear rush is the inability of the world community to prevent the misuse of nuclear material by non-state actors. The Nuclear Summit at Seoul this year rightly resolved  “to prevent non-state actors from acquiring such materials and from obtaining information or technology required to use them for malicious purposes”.IAEA’s data base on illicit trafficking in nuclear material raises serious doubts about the ability of the governments and the regulators to minimise the existence of “orphan radioactive sources” that remain outside the regulatory oversight and could easily be accessed by anti-social groups for destructive purposes. The information available for the period 1993-2007 revealed at least 2,164 instances of the unauthorised use of radioactive material that could pose a serious challenge to nuclear security.

It is possible that the protogonists of nuclear technology will soon succeed in effacing the  memory of Fukushima from the public mind, by taking advantage of the fact that the hydrocarbon resources of the world are fast depleting and by flaunting the anti-carbon climate concerns of the global community, to push the world towards a nuclear future. They seek to project nuclear energy as a “clean” form of energy, obfuscatuing the genuine concerns about its safety. It is important that the global community become wary of this, as otherwise, at this crucial juncture, we may miss the opportunity of choosing the benign alternatives to nuclear energy, that are available in plenty.



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