Are Our Nuclear Plants Unsafe?

The massive earthquake in Japan and the consequent tsunami created a worldwide scare about leakage from the nuclear plant at Fukushima. The disaster at Fukushima cost 13,000 lives and 14,000 went missing. However, A. Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission confirmed that despite the tragedy there have been no nuclear health issues in Japan. He further elaborated that the dose permissible radiation is near normal, except for some localized regions in Fukushima.

For that matter the atomic scientists claim that Kerala beaches are famous for sands containing nuclear material and people have been living close to these beaches since generations without any effect. Similar vies have been aired by the scientists of the Regional Cancer research Centre in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala that there is no connection between natural background radiation and cancer. Of course people exposed may have a greater risk factor!

While the Government has already opted for nuclear energy, a debate is on whether to opt for it or not. If we trust the scientists with the government they say the fears of nuclear accidents are unfounded. However, no one has answer for a Chernobyl like situation or a scenario of natural calamity worse than Fukushima.

Quoting S.Bannerji, Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) The Hindu of March 15 2011 said ‘there was alarming news from Japan but it was not factually correct. Quoting Bannerji further, The Hindu said ‘It was wrong to say there was a nuclear cloud over Japan and what had happened was a chemical explosion and not a nuclear explosion.’ Well as a scientist he was perfectly right in his stand. Technically these plants are made to withstand earthquakes. They had also built a ‘Tsunami Wall’ along the beach. But the nature, unpredictable as it is, bluffed the man again. The tsunami waves entered the plant by over-riding the wall and the cooling plant was affected. It was forced shut by the tsunami.

Such incidents make the common man believe that the scientists take things for granted. They go by the simulated conditions of the worst possible scenarios near a nuclear plant. The common man however, imagines the worst and lives in a scare.

S.K. Jain, chairman of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) says that strict measures have been taken for all the plants in the country specially keeping the Japan incident in mind. There are regular safety audits and licenses are reissued accordingly. The plants have been reassessed for earthquake hazard, keeping in mind the threats perceived as per the latest studies.

There is ageneral conception that the eastern coast of India is more vulnerable for tsunami than the west. But this concept is wrong. The mega events of the nature are repeated at an interval of 1000 years or more. Therefore, detailed geological and hazard history of the areas where the nuclear plants are located must be kept in mind and steps taken accordingly. At present detailed information from Japan is being obtained by the NPCIL to evaluate the risk hazard for our plants.

One may be thinking, ‘we have so much potential for hydro-power then why this race for nuclear power?’ As per the population our future need for power is projected as 40% of the total energy produced in the world. That is a whopping amount. Considering the requirement, our resources are limited. Coal, oil and uranium reserves will last for another 10-12 years, similarly the hydroelectric power generation viable potential is around 5% of total energy requirement. The scenario is in fact quite dismal.

One might claim that we have many rivers hurtling down the slopes of the Himalayas and they have a vast potential. It is not so because viable options which also include consideration of earthquake safety are much lesser.

This leaves two options i.e. Solar and Nuclear energies for India. The Solar energy prospect is theoretically very bright. But in practice much of it is still in infancy. The economic viability is still a major stumbling block. With the possibilities of use of carbon nano tubes in future for tapping Solar Energy it may be possible to dream about it. At present I personally feel that the scenario of Solar energy in India is somewhat like that of computers in 1964. Those days the Oil and Natural Gas Commission had a huge hall in a building where the computer a punch card machine was installed. Now it is faded from our memory but those days common man never thought that someday the microchip will make it so convenient to communicate that he will hold that behemoth of ancient machine in his palm in a revolutionized form! Therefore one should be optimistic about the future of Solar energy in India.

There have been other hypothetical ideas too of tapping non-conventional energy sources. Like Anil Kakodkar said that Carbon Dioxide could be recycled to an artificial fluid hydrocarbon and used as a fuel. This would also reduce the impact of Carbon Dioxide on the atmosphere and help controlling the climate change.

But such ideas on a commercial scale require lots of tests before they can be really put to use! The pro-nuclear energy lobby is in favor of light water reactors and application of fast breeder technology to make India self-reliant in energy. This lobby vehemently reiterates that the advanced heavy water reactor of India is a technology that is fool proof even under dire circumstances.

The safety projections of the experts are well taken; still the common man on the street is chary of the situation. The global psychological impact of the Fukushima episode of Japan says Pervez Hoodbhoy in Science Development Net exceeded the Chernobyl’s and left the world unsure if the nuclear energy is the answer to our crisis!

Japan has undergone the worst holocaust after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Undaunted the Japanese became stronger and they not only developed the bomb stricken region, they also applied stringent regulations when it came to development of nuclear energy plants in Japan. Fukushima reactors were geared up to face the worst earthquakes and tsunamis. The power sensors shut down the plants, everything appeared safe. But the 20 feet high tsunami wall was easily scaled by 30 feet high tsunami waves the electric power essential for cooling the plant was snapped. Once the radiation travels to the atmosphere it is like a cloud riding the winds and it can travel in any direction irrespective of political borders. Thus the plume reached as far as Canada.

The fallouts were many. For months together in widespread areas of Japan the vegetables and many edibles were found to have radiation doses many times higher than the safety limits.

That was Japan. In India the poor are forced to consume the dead floating fish in the river which are killed due by the toxins poured by the industries on the banks. Poor and powerless villagers in India were affected by uranium and thorium mining and they were forced to withdraw their court cases, says a report. Under such circumstances the hypothetical talks of safe reactors appears to be day dreaming. 

Despite the criticism if we wish to develop, there is hardly any option but to go nuclear. However, the government should consider safety aspect foremost and go for reactors which are potentially safe and never trust the oceans as far as the tsunamis are concerned - they cannot be wished away! The reactors should be built in areas with scant population, earthquake safe parts of the country. And above all take lessons from Fukushima and take lessons from Jordan. The country has other resources too yet considering the future they have decided to go nuclear by 2035. However, the Fukushima episode compelled them to consider the safety and a strict safety audit of the sites selected is on and only areas found geologically and environmentally safe will be taken up for construction work by 2013 says a report.

The present crisis in Tamilnadu seems to be taking more of a political turn. It is time that the government rises above party politics and takes up the people into confidence before pushing the nuclear button!


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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