The Fukushima Factor

The growing opposition to nuclear projects in India is linked as much to the livelihood issues of rural people as to the changed realities of a post-Fukushima world. On both counts, a criminal denial seems to be the preferred option of the establishment

PK Sundaram Delhi 

At the beginning of August, Japan’s nuclear regulator was forced to accept that the radioactive leak from the crippled Fukushima reactors is ‘worse than what was thought’ earlier and the government of Japan officially took up the clean-up drive. On August 7, the government accepted that more than 300 tonnes of heavily contaminated water was leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day. TEPCO, Fukushima’s operator company, admitted that up to 40 trillion becquerels of contaminated water may have leaked into the sea since the disaster.

Compare this unnerving development to the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), V Narayanasamy’s nonchalance in the Rajya Sabha on August 8, when he said that the possible impact on the affected population is “practically insignificant”. This was in his reply to a parliamentarian’s question on the disaster preparedness of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). He expressed his confidence in the bumbling National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), universally discredited for its abjectly inefficient handling of the recent ecological disaster in Uttarakhand. In his statement in Parliament, he  quoted selectively from the conservative reports of the World Health Organisztion (WHO) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), published in February and May this year. 

WHO has a 1959 vintage written agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), another nuclear promoter body, giving IAEA a veto on all nuclear-related activities and reporting on nuclear radiation. UNSCEAR has been widely criticized for underplaying nuclear accidents; in Chernobyl, it estimated just 64 deaths while WHO suggested 4,000. Later research in Russia, based on long-term global health surveys between 1986 and 2004, attributed nearly 985,000 deaths to the Chernobyl fallout.

There have been several independent assessments of the potential impact of the reactor meltdowns in Fukushima which reveal the horrendous extent of contamination and complete administrative failure even in an ‘advanced’ country like Japan. This has also exposed the diabolical nexus of the nuclear industry and the political establishment.

400 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel sitting atop the Reactor No. 4 building have made it so fragile that another strong earthquake can knock it down. The 1,300 fuel rods contain 14,000 times the radioactivity which befell  Hiroshima. Scientists are calling this building the most dangerous place on earth 

The report of the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima accident, submitted to Japan’s National Diet in July last year, was a wake-up call. Calling the Fukushima accident “man-made”, the report held that the “accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO… They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from
nuclear accidents”.

More recently, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Anand Grover, penned his report on Fukushima. He scathingly criticized the Japanese government’s contempt for the people’s right to health. It underlined the inefficient handling of the evacuation and clean-up process and inadequate response on serious questions of health, safety and employment faced by lakhs of Fukushima evacuees who have no hopes of returning. As Prof Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute argues, “Things have not gotten worse at Fukushima, we have just gotten more clarity about how bad they have been all along.”

 

All that TEPCO did over the last 27 months was to pour cold water in the melted core of the reactors and the spent fuel storages to prevent further melting and localized criticality, resulting in accumulation of millions of gallons of extremely contaminated water. It has built more than 1,000 tanks that can store 380,000 tonnes of water, but 85 per cent of their capacity is already used up. Worse, these tanks are leaking and TEPCO has confessed it has little control over them.

The company has no plans regarding what it will do after three years by when it seeks to double the water storage capacity. TEPCO has tried extremely desperate measures over the past few months to prevent this water from passing into the sea — sinking an 800-metre-long steel barrier along the coastline, injecting the ground with solidifying chemicals, and freezing the ground. Not one of these desperate measures has helped.

However, the worst is yet to come. The Fukushima reactors’ elevated position, that was supposed to provide them an additional layer of safety, is itself posing a risk as the huge amount of leaking water is threatening to soften the ground beneath and could topple the reactors and unleash an unimaginable catastrophe. In addition, the 400 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel sitting atop the Reactor No. 4 building have made it so fragile that another strong earthquake can knock it down. The 1,300 fuel rods contain 14,000 times the radioactivity which befell Hiroshima after the atomic bombing. Scientists are calling this building the most dangerous place on earth.

TEPCO has started removing this spent fuel, a process fraught with heavy risk. Reactor No. 4 was closed down for maintenance when the earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, but if anything goes wrong, the spent fuel pools would cause a bigger havoc than Chernobyl and
Fukushima combined.

The lesson to be drawn from the Fukushima accident is transparent. Be it the zirconium cladding on the radioactive fuel that led to hydrogen blasts when it touched water, or the elevated point now threatening a major escalation, the nuclear power technology is so complex that a component or system designed for increased safety can turn into vulnerability when an out-of-design situation strikes. The third-generation safety mechanisms, much touted by the nuclear industry globally, are nothing but several layers of these independent and complementary safety features — defence in depth, as it is called. As seen in Fukushima, more safety layers might not be a guarantee of safety and in various circumstances might collide with each other and lead to unforeseen vulnerabilities.

However, the nuclear promoters’ obsession with a narrow, engineer’s notion of safety, prevents them from a comprehensive view of nuclear safety. More than its probability, actually, the unique, irreversible and long-term consequences of a nuclear accident make it unacceptable.

Indeed, in India, the government and mainstream media’s view of the post-Fukushima world is based on a pathological myopia. The under-estimation of danger is not a recent invention. In the initial week after the Fukushima accident, on March 14, 2011, when reactors were exploding in Japan, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited’s (NPCIL) Managing Director, SK Jain, and the then Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman, Srikumar Banerjee, said in a press conference in Mumbai that there was no nuclear accident in Fukushima and all that was happening was just a well-planned emergency preparedness programme. Later that year, the DAE asserted that the chance for a nuclear accident in India is zero — “one in infinity”.

The mechanical denials have seeped into the entire system now. The recent Supreme Court judgment on Koodankulam also suffers from the same anachronism. Going through its 250 pages, most of which are long verbatim quotes from Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) safety manuals for pressurized heavy water reactors while the Koodankulam reactors are of an entirely different design, one can only wonder if the Fukushima accident ever happened. Justice Dipak Misra simply dismissed apprehensions of far-reaching consequences of radioactive effects as having “no basis”! The judgment says: “Nobody on the earth can predict what would happen in future and to a larger extent we have to leave it to the destiny …apprehension is something we anticipate with anxiety or fear, a fearful anticipation, which may vary from person to person.”

The truth is, Indian nuclear expansion is taking place in complete denial of the real and insurmountable risks inherent in nuclear technology, as revealed by the Fukushima disaster. Besides, every form of democratic dissent and even the government’s own norms are being bulldozed by this one-dimensional nuclear obsession. In August, the DAE joined political parties in demanding exemption from the Right to Information (RTI). Interestingly, it said that its “international commitments” require strict confidentiality!

The DAE has refused to share the Site Evaluation Report with the local people in Koodankulam and has dodged questions on liability provisions against its Russian suppliers in case of an accident. While the supplier company Zio-Podolsk is facing criminal investigation in Russia and one of its directors has been jailed for supplying sub-standard equipment, the reactor has been given the green signal in brazen negligence of this crucial development in India.

 

Not just safety  issues, the Indian government has completely overlooked the steady global decline of nuclear power which has predated Fukushima. Worldwide, the nuclear industry reached its peak in 2006 with a total installed capacity of 2,660 Twh before dropping by 12 per cent in 2012 to 2,346 Twh. In terms of its share in the overall electricity generation, nuclear power crossed its global peak in 1993 with 17 per cent contribution while the same in 2012 was a little more than 10 per cent (source: World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013).

In MP, the administration was forced to postpone the public hearing on July 31 on the environmental impact assessment of the Chutka nuclear power station a second consecutive time when thousands of people came out in protest

 While the adverse economics of nuclear power is the main reason for its decline, the nuclear industry is pegging its hopes on countries like India and China which can subsidise both reactors and nuclear accidents from public money. India remains blind to this reality by choice because its rulers have promised to buy reactors under a deal in which they have bargained away the Indian people’s safety for a seat in the ‘elite club’ of nuclear weapon states.

 The Supreme Court’s verdict on Koodankulam also seemingly went along with the official view that renewable sources provide only a small share of our total electricity. On the contrary, even today, renewables account for 15 per cent of the total installed capacity, which is actually six times more than the share of nuclear power.

 Not surprisingly, scores of eminent policy experts and independent scientists have come out in support of people’s agitations in various parts of India against proposed nuclear power projects. Undeterred by the setback in Koodankulam, these movements are intensifying, from Jaitapur to Chutka and Mithi Virdi.

 In Madhya Pradesh, the administration was forced to postpone the public hearing on July 31 on the environmental impact assessment of the proposed Chutka nuclear power station a second consecutive time when thousands of people came out in protest. In the same week, an Indian People’s Charter on Nuclear Energy was adopted by representatives of all grassroots anti-nuclear movements in a national convention organized in Ahmedabad. The protesters from all over the country also visited Mithi Virdi in Gujarat for a protest meeting of villagers who have been relentlessly opposing the proposed US-imported reactors.

 Evidently, the growing opposition to nuclear projects in India is linked as much to the livelihood issues of the rural people as to the changed realities of a post-Fukushima world. On both counts, a criminal denial seems to be the preferred option of the establishment.   

The author is Research Consultant with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP).

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2013