‘OUR REACTORS ARE PRIMITIVE’

Praful Bidwai, eminent columnist and founder-member of Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), speaks with Hardnews on how we are sitting on an apocalypse with the obsessive quest for nuclear energy, despite the mass disasters in Japan and Chernobyl
Sadiq naqvi Delhi 

What is your assessment of the contemporary situation in Japan?
It is indeed a very grave crisis -  not as lethal as Chernobyl, perhaps, in terms of casualties, but certainly the worst disaster the nuclear industry has ever suffered in terms of engineering and technology. In a cascading effect, one reactor after another developed serious snags, there were explosions, and the radiation levels are still extremely high. Engineers are venting out the highly radioactive steam. Radiation levels are 1,000 times more than the normal prescribed limit at the gate. And this is Japan, a highly industrialised country, and till recently the world's second largest economy.

What went wrong?
The fact of the matter is that the earthquake and the 7.5-metre-high tsunami waves were just the triggers. The real problem lies with the reactors. They are not designed to cope with major accidents and such serious calamities. There were a slew of safety systems and all of them just went out after the waves struck. Excess steam and a possible crack in the vessel resulted in the formation of hydrogen which subsequently caused the explosion. These nuclear reactors are very complex systems. 

What happened after Chernobyl?
In Chernobyl, the Soviet Union was very late in evacuating people. The radiation had spread over the entire Northern Hemisphere depending on the direction of the wind. It was the worst industrial accident with over 6,000 confirmed deaths. However, nearly 34,200 people have died consequently, including the ones affected by radiation. The effect of the radiation was so far-reaching that sheep had to be slaughtered in Scotland where they had fed on contaminated grass. Likewise, reindeers in the Arctic Circle were butchered for they too had fed on contaminated vegetation. The Fukushima accident might not be as bad as Chernobyl, but it certainly is a wake-up call.  

Where is the nuclear industry headed after Fukushima?
The nuclear industry is in a crisis. Nuclear power is shrinking. Post 2006, there has been a 2 per cent decrease in its share, which came down from 14.5 per cent in 2006 to 12.5 per cent. A total of nearly 150-odd reactors are due to retire in the next 10-15 years. Less than 60 reactors are in the pipeline. The American nuclear industry is starved of orders since 1972, whereas the Europeans haven't had orders after Chernobyl happened. The situation will only get worse for them as several countries, including China, have put their nuclear programmes on hold.   

What are the lessons for India?
Firstly, no matter what precautions you take and the safety systems you install, nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to a catastrophic accident which can cause unimaginable damage to the environment and human life on the planet. Secondly, if safety is of paramount importance, is nuclear energy still worth taking a risk when so many human lives are involved? Thirdly, there is a need to rethink the idea of nuclear parks. In Fukushima, we have seen that more than one reactor at a site increases the risk. There is a cascading effect. Fourthly, post this accident, there may be a global tightening of the safety standards, and I fear India may not pass the test. 

Our reactors were designed in the 1960s. These are primitive designs. There is a generational difference and I fear the safety features may be poorer than what they were in Fukushima. In India, we do not have any agency which can set the safety standards, leave alone enforce them. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commmission has 50-plus volumes on safety, which have details of the material to be used, the positioning and precise size of the nuts and bolts, etc. We have shown no capability in building our own reactors. Rather, we have just aped foreign designs. India needs to raise its standards.

What should India do?
It should phase off the nuclear programme and declare a moratorium unless there is a new and safe design in the world. I don't see chances of such a design on the horizon.

Then what about India's burgeoning energy needs?
Energy needs are not centralised in India. Only 45 per cent of the population has access to electricity. There is a sizeable portion of people who haven't seen electricity as yet. So the question is, can a centralised grid connect them in a sustainable manner? The answer is perhaps no. We should look at the energy needs from the demand side. Nuclear energy is perhaps the costliest and worst option. We should perhaps go for other, lesser dangerous options.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011