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
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