Their Dreams and Our Children’s Nightmares: Nuclear power in a fast-changing planet

V T Padmanabhan 

VT Padmanabhan is a researcher in health effects of radiation. He has led epidemiological investigations among people exposed to high radiation in Kerala. He has also studied the occupational radiation hazards among workers of Indian Rare Earths, genetic effects of children exposed to MIC gases in Bhopal, health hazards to workers in a viscose rayon unit in Madhyapradesh and reduction of birth weight of babies near a beverage bottling plant in Kerala. He has visited several contaminated sites in Belarus and Japan and had extensive interactions with the survivors.

His papers have been published in International Journal of Health Services, Journal of American Medical Association, International Perspectives in Public Health, the Lancet and Economic and Political Weekly.  He is a member of the European Commission on Radiation Risk, an independent body of experts appointed by the Green MEPs in Europe.

The scientists and politicians who designed and created the atomic complexes in Fukushima, Japan and Tarapur, India and elsewhere were dreamers who sincerely wanted to raise the standard of living of their people by generating nuclear electricity which was then thought to be too cheap to meter.  Fission technology was invented in the weapon factories of the Manhattan Project in USA in Dec 1942.  During the past seven decades, there have been close to a dozen major reactor accidents in nuclear submarines and at commercial power stations.  Studies by epidemiologists, radiobiologists and nano-toxicologists during the past five decades reveal that the health hazards of ionizing radiation are several magnitudes higher than the old estimates.  Besides, the earth system is also undergoing dramatic changes.  These new insights demand a fresh look at the safety of the existing and the proposed nuclear power plants. The mid-twentieth century nuclear dreams have already gone sour and may become nightmares for our children.  The nuclear agenda needs to be reassessed nationally as well as globally.


Recap of the Fukushima Nuclear disaster

11 March 2011, 2.46 pm

The Tohoku Chihou Taiheiyo Oki earthquake happened in the sea, 200 km east of the Fukushima Prefecture in North East Japan.  The 9.2 magnitude quake was followed by a tsunami with wave height of 15-24 meter.  The quake had en energy yield equal to 480 million tons of TNT, 30 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.  The tsunami poured some 678 cubic km of sea water into the island and impinged the 6 meter high protective walls of the Fukushima DaiIchhi nuclear complex that housed six reactors and their spent fuel pools.  At that time, there were 6415 people (5,500 of them were contract workers) inside the complex. Three of the reactors were operational while the remaining three were shut down for refueling and maintenance.

The designers of the Fukushima complex were aware of the seismic history of the island and they had taken abundant precaution against an earthquake and tsunami.  “Official records dating back to 1600 CE inspired the deterministic or mechanistic safety analysis design of the plant to withstand the strongest earthquake at 8.6 magnitude.  The 1960 Chilean earthquake (magnitude 9.5) and the subsequent tsunami waves of 3.3 meter height was used as the reference point for seismic and tsunami resistance.”[1] No other human venture has been  as cautious and caring.  However, the 2011 earthquake was twice as powerful, while the tsunami waves were 5 – 8  times higher than that in the blue print.

The three operating reactors were shut down immediately after the quake. A transformer that supplied electricity to the complex located 10 km away tripped during the quake.  This was restored in 50 minutes. There were 13 diesel generators, 8 of them in the flooded basement. The generators and the DC battery backups did not function. The nuclear campus suffered a station black out.

Unlike a coal fired thermal power station, a nuclear reactor core will generate heat from the radioactive decay of fission products even during the shutdown mode.  Immediately after the shut down, the core will generate 7% of its design heat energy. For a 1000 MW(e) reactor, that is equivalent to 210 MW of thermal energy.  Within five hours of shut down, the temperature inside the core of reactor No 1 rose to 2800 C, about 10 times its operational temperature.  This caused an unusually high build up of hydrogen inside the No 1 reactor.  Part of the gas moved through a common pipe to the reactor No 4, that was shut down for maintenance.  All the four reactors experienced explosions and meltdown.

The failure of the diesel generators and the batteries at 3.41 PM had sealed the fate of the reactors.  The operators notified the crisis only 55 minutes later at 4.36 PM. A nuclear emergency was declared at 7.30 PM.  People living within 20 km radius of the plant were ordered to evacuate as radionuclides had already invaded their living spaces.  They are still living in temporary shelters.  More people are waiting to be evacuated as radiation is building up beyond the existing evacuation zone.

Commenting on the Fukushima catastrophe, Michio Kaku, well known physicist and popular science writer observed that the cause of the disaster was grid failure and not the tsunami per se.  He also warned that the grid can fail for other reasons also and many of our 445 nuclear power plants and their spent fuel pools can experience similar fate.

The final balance sheet of the Daiichi disaster has not been prepared.  The disaster still continues, as all the reactors and spent fuel pools have suffered structural damage and are leaking.  These structures will be sealed hopefully in 2022, some 11 years from now.  The total radioactive burden to the environment from Fukushima so far is equal to ten Chernobyls.  100,000 people who were living within a radius of 20 km of the Fukushima nuclear complex are now in camps.  As contamination spreads, the evacuation area will be extended to 30 km.  42,000 children in age groups 4-14 years go their schools wearing radiation dosimeters usually worn by radiation workers and military men participating in atomic bomb tests.

The Chernobyl Explosion of 26 April 1986

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is known as Chernobyl on steroids.  The nuclear disaster of 26th April 1986 in Ukraine had dispersed about a hundred kilograms of fission products like cesium, strontium and iodine into the earth’s atmosphere.  Within a couple of hours of the accident, 150,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

The estimated release of radioactivity from Chernobyl was 1.5E+19 Becquerel (Bq -a measure of radioactivity = one nuclear disintegration per second.)[2] , 90% of this consisted of short-lived radionuclides with half lives less than one year.  Important from an environmental health perspective are radioisotopes like carbon14 (half life 5730 years), strontium90 (half life 29 years) and cesium137 (half life 30years).  Total cesium137 from Chernobyl is 7.52E+16 Bq.[3]  Cesium being chemically similar to potassium, the plants and planktons accumulate this from soil and water. The element thus moves up in the food chain.  In animals and humans, cesium is stored in muscles and almost all other organs.  Cesium also travels forward to the next generation through sperms and ova.  Farming and trading of grains and meat in areas with high contamination levels in large areas of Europe are still under restrictions.  The Sami, the Aadivasi who depend on reindeer meat is among the worst affected.

All of us, the entire bio-sphere, land, ice sheets, glaciers and oceans are carrying the signature of that accident.  A million square km of land in Europe has been contaminated with the toxic fission nanoparticles.  In Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, 10,000 sq km of land, 16 times the area of Greater  Mumbai,  has been fenced off from all human activities.  This land will remain uninhabitable and uncultivable for the next 300 years.

According to the United Nation’s Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), the radiation dose to the public from the operation of a 1000 MW(e) nuclear power plant is 0.4 Sievert (Sv or 40 rems) a year.[4]  The dose from cesium released from the Chernobyl reactor to the entire population of the Northern hemisphere is 600,000 Sv, one and a half million times the annual operational dose.[5] A report by Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko and edited and published by the New York Academy of Sciences shows that 950,000 people from Eastern Europe died due radiation from the accident till 2005.[6] The toll from other countries has not been estimated.

The Chernobyl reactor complex has been covered by a steal and concrete structure (known as sarcophagus) in order to avoid further radiation releases.  The sarcophagus is now leaking; a new structure has to be erected by 2015.  Ukraine does not have money for this.  The International Atomic Energy Agency has appealed the European Union to support this project.


Main unresolved safety issue of nuclear fission

Seventy two years after Elizabeth Meitner observed the fission of Uranium atoms in a Berlin laboratory and 69 years after the first nuclear pile erected by Enrico Fermi went critical in the Manhattan project laboratory, the humankind and the eco-system of the planet have to grapple with more than a thousand fission reactors and over 250,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel.  Over seven decades of research and 10,000 reactor years, the health, ecological and economic costs of fission technology now appears to unmanageable.  Some of the major issues are listed below:

  • The  generation cost has skyrocketed as a series of major accidents have necessitated expensive design modifications for prevention of accidents.
  • Studies by epidemiologists, nano-toxicologists and radiobiologists reveal that the biological effects of ionizing radiation are higher than the half-a century old estimates by several orders of magnitude. Thirdly frequencies of natural calamities like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and cyclones have increased significantly during the past couple of diseases.
  • Global warming and climate change is expected to cause a reduction in availability of water.  Water is required not only for generating electricity, but also for preventing catastrophic accidents of the reactors and the spent fuel pools.
  • Once in a century space weather anomalies like solar flares, coronal mass ejection and solar proton events are projected to knock down the national electricity grids for months and years.
  • Proliferation of acts of terrorism and the sophistication of the weaponry of the non-state actors.


Impacts of Natural Calamities on Nuclear Safety

The rate of natural calamities like floods, droughts, wild fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes has registered a steep and significant increase during the past couple of decades.  Some of these have been attributed to global warming.  We will look at two of the more serious natural calamities.  The first one is earthquake and the second one is spacequake.  The former is fairly well known, while spacequakes is a new head ache now known among the space scientists and military establishments.


The United States Geological Services (USGS) has the biggest database on earthquakes globally.  The following analysis is based on USGS database.  There were 21503 earthquakes measuring 5.0 and above on the Richter scale during 2000-2011.  The events per day was 3.96 during 2000-04, 5.47 during 2005-09, 5.89 during 2010 and 7.46 during the current year.  The incidence has almost doubled in 11 years.


  Number of Earthquakes Worldwide for 2000 – 2011 (13 Oct 11)
(Located by the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center)
Magnitude                                        2000-04              2005-09



8.0 to 9.9





7.0 to 7.9





6.0 to 6.9





5.0 to 5.9










Events per day





* Till 13 Oct 2011
Source: (Accessed on 13 Oct 2011)


Earthquakes with magnitude of 5.0 and above –

Events per year 20th Cenutry


There were 16 great earthquakes with magnitude above 8.0 during 2000-2011.   Of these, 4 events occurred during the first half of the 20th century, 7 during the second half and 5 during 2000-11.  The incidence per year is 0.08, 0.14 and 0.45 respectively- a five and a half time increase between 2000 and 2001.  The data for 1900-1999 also shows a doubling of all earthquakes above 5.9 on the Richter scale during the last century.

The reasons for the increase in earthquake are not precisely known.  In 1989, Gary T. Whiteford, Professor of Geography at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, presented the most exhaustive study yet of the correlation’s between nuclear testing and the Second Annual Conference on the United Nations and World Peace in Seattle, Washington. (Earthquakes and Nuclear Testing: Dangerous Patterns and Trends). Whiteford studied all earthquakes of more than 5.8 on the Richter scale between 1900-58 and found that the incidence more than doubled during 1950-88.  He attributed this to the nuclear weapon testing.  The connection was dismissed by the US military. This dangerous phenomenon has not been analyzed.  Whatever the cause, the earth is quaking, more frequently than in the recent past.  This has serious implication to potentially dangerous technologies including nuclear power.



While earthquakes are well known, space quake is the source of concern among the space scientists and the nuclear safety establishment.  It has been known for long that the earth is bombarded by radioactive subatomic particles from the Sun and stars from other galaxies.  Most of these particles are blocked or deflected by the Earth’s magnetosphere.  An estimated one million tons of particles arrive the Earth in a normal year.  Like a one-in-a-century flood, there are abnormal eruptions.  In the biggest ever solar event during the past 500 years, the Solar flare of 1859 ejected more than ten billion tons of plasma within a few hours.  This caused a geomagnetic storm on the Earth.  All the telegraph lines were disrupted across the globe in September 1859.  This event was also recorded by the magnetograph at the Geomagentic Observatory at Colaba, Mumbai.

The next major eruption occurred in 1921.   Solar events of smaller magnitudes have happened several times during the past half a century.  Of these, the most well-documented one is 1989 Quebec event.  This smaller geomagnetic storm damaged several high voltage transformers in North America.  In Canada alone, 5 million people were rendered “powerless” for nine hours.

The same super storm also damaged a transformer at the Salem Nuclear power plant in New Jersey.  The scientific keyword ‘space weather’ was coined in 1990 a year after this event.

There are 996 satellites orbiting the Earth today.  These serve almost all the sectors of modern human lives like business, entertainment, science research, weather and military services.  There have been several small solar eruptions in the past causing radio black out and destruction or damage or loss of orientation of satellites.

Space science establishments like NASA, European Space Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) have been tracking the Sun with the aid of more than two dozen satellites for over two decades.  These agencies predict that a super solar storm, one in a century type can hit our planet during the solar cycle No 24.  (The 24th cycle began in 2009 and will end at 2010, with peak solar activities in 2012/13. Solar storms can happen any time during the cycle, but there is higher risk during the solar peak.)

In 2008 the United States National Academy of Sciences (US NAS) published the deliberations of an expert committee consisting of scientists from NASA, NOAA, military and utilities.[7]  Among the conclusions are that a super storm as big as that a 1921 or 1849 type event can cause widespread un-repairable damage to the electricity grid throughout the Earth.  The lead time for replacement of the transformers weighing more than 100 tons is about one year.  In the US alone, this will interrupt the power supply in more than three-fourth of the regions.[8]  Most of that nation’s 104 nuclear power reactors are located in the region likely to be hit by the power outage.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now considering a private petition seeking additional backup arrangements for pumping the coolant water to the reactor cores and the spent fuel pools in the event of a prolonged station black out.[9]  The existing back up is adequate for operating the pumps for a maximum of two weeks.  Since prolonged disruption of the grid will hit the supply chain, the reactors and the spent fuel pools will heat up and explode once the supply or diesel exhausts.  The petitioners are requesting to install wind and solar energy systems that will not need constant provision of fuel and human presence.

Each nuclear power station will required about 10 to 20 KV of electricity to run its safety related pumps and equipments.  Setting up alternative power sources are economically and ecologically viable.  The proposed reactors at Jaitapur and the ready-to-be commissioned ones at Kudankulam pose an additional risk.  The source of coolant for these reactors will be the desalination plants which will purify sea water.  These plants are highly electricity intensive.  A 1000 MW(e) reactor and its spent fuel pool will require about 10 million liters of water a day.  A station will have the reserve for about three-four days.   Water will have to be transported using about 1000 tanker trucks daily.

Other keywords for space weather events – Carrington Event, Geomagnetic storm, Solar proton event, Solar flare, Coronal Mass Ejection.


Concluding Remarks

Natural disasters will impact on all aspects of our lives.  The effects on nuclear power stations and the spent fuel pools are several orders of magnitude higher than other technological infrastructures.  Thousands of square kilometers of our land will be lost for ever due to radiological contamination, as has been experienced in Chernobyl.  The March 2011 events in Japan affected more than 22,000 structures.  Those damages will not have a lasting impact on ecology and human life.  A nuclear catastrophe is beyond space and time.




[1] M Ragheb,  Fukushima Earthquake and tsunami station blackout accident, 2011

[2]  This is equal to 15 billion-billion, or 15 followed by 18 zeros.  Each of those disintegrations (or Bq) is a nano-bullet which can damage the nucleus of a cell.  This can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease or other diseases in the exposed individual.  If the target cell is sperm or ovum, this can cause genetic disorder in the offspring.

[3]   United Nation’s Scientific Committee on   Effecats of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) 2000, ANNEX J Tables 1 and 2
Exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident

[4]   United Nation’s Scientific Committee on   Effecats of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) 2000, ANNEX C, Table 24, page 285.

[5]  United Nation’s Scientific Committee on   Effecats of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) 1988, Exposures from the Chernobyl accident, Table 24, page 69

[6]  Alexie Yablokov et al, 2009, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences , Volume 1181…

[7]  “Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts,” Committee on the Societal and Economic Impacts of Severe Space Weather Events,” Workshop Space Studies Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, 2008

[8]  High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System June 2010, A Jointly-Commissioned Summary Report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the U.S. Department of Energy’s November 2009 Workshop, |

[9] Petition To Nuclear Regulatory Commission To Require Installation Of New Back-Up Safety



*Paper presented to the People’s Tribunal organized by the Human Rights Law Network, Ratnagiri on 19 Sep 2011 —-#






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