Fukushima Disaster and Thereafter

Despite having made deep inroads in the sphere of Information Technology, and also good progress of development in the field of road connectivity, our country is way behind to be tagged along with the developed countries. The reason is not very complicated to understand. Primarily, it is the bad power sector. We see to run short of electricity, despite the fact that hydro-electric power generation in our country had been given lots of thrust by the Congress Government, under Pt. Nehru. Soon after Independence, the construction of the Bhakra dam started in 1948. During its inauguration, Nehru said, ‘these structures are the temples of modern India.’ Nehru was a visionary. He knew that India minus electricity will never be able to even think of competing with the developed nations.

It was in Nehru’s tenure, that the construction of the Tarapore Atomic Power Plant was taken up in 1962. This was again because of his vision and of course due to foresight of Homi J. Bhabha, the great nuclear physicist, who launched the development of nuclear energy in India.

In the post-Independence era as the demand for electricity increased in leaps and bounds, India switched over to thermal energy. During the period 2010-11, the distribution of energy generation in the country was as follows:

Coal: 67.01%,
Hydro-electricity: 13.42%,
Gas: 11.89%,
Lignite: 3.35%,
Nuclear: 2.65%,
Diesel: 0.49%,
Liquid fuel: 0.41% and
import from Bhutan: 0.78%.
         -   (After, India Energy Book 2012).

Of course to these figures the energy generated from other sources like solar, wind and geothermal are not added-as at present their input is minuscule But yes, locally every day we hear of a new solar power plant or a wind energy farm coming up.

All to all the scenario is that we need much more energy than we get. But the problem is how to generate that energy? There is a strong opposition against the hydro-electric power, mainly because it requires a river to be dammed and the people living in the upstream get damned by the dam. Though, the opposition is not because of the protests by dam victims. The opponents of the dam believe that the rivers of the north Indian plains are shrinking up because of the dams in Uttarakhand. Then there is a very strong anti-nuclear lobby. They come up every day with a new notion, creating fear in the minds of the people, as if the nuclear energy will lead to some kind of nuclear holocaust! It is because of such protests that the new temples of Power like Kudankulam Nuclear Plant have been delayed. Strangely enough, no one talks against the thermal plants and the solar plants and also the wind farms. Although all of them are meant to generate, much needed energy.

Let me start with a surmise that any form of energy is hazardous. Try to be careless in lighting the match-stick from the match box in your pocket or try to ignite the gas stove when the valve has been left open or the pipe is leaking and see the outcome. Probably you won’t be around to see that! Every day, we read of electrical short circuits and fires in some or other parts of the country and hundreds of lives are often lost. Situation is such that if you are negligent or careless even for a fraction of a second, the consequences can be disastrous.

Human errors apart, at times nature comes out with a vengeance. For example what happened at Fukushima on 11th March 2011 was unexpected and unheard of. On that day, there was a massive undersea earthquake close to the largest island Honshu in Japan. The magnitude of the earthquake can be understood from the fact that apart from the tsunami it generated, the Honshu Island was shifted 2.4m towards east and the earth’s axis was shifted by 10 to 25 cm by this earthquake. Never an earthquake of 9.03 magnitudes had struck in the history of Japan. Mind you such earthquakes usually occur at an interval of 1000 years. Tectonically Japan is situated on a junction of Plates and they keep shifting and adjusting. Consequently, Japan is highly prone to earthquakes.

Human beings are less adaptive than other lesser animals, but they are highly evolved and have developed technology to combat natural disasters with ingenuity. Japan is one such country which has one of the finest technologies to meet the challenges of natural disasters.

The Fukushima earthquake will no doubt go down the history as one of the worst events. It took away a toll of at least 15,703 lives, 4,674 went missing and at least 332,395 buildings, 2,126 roads, 58 bridges and 26 railways were destroyed by this earthquake. I have purposefully given these details as it has a connection with what next I am going to narrate.

Japanese are highly innovative. Knowing well that their islands are prone to earthquakes and Tsunamis, they had constructed a 30 m high wall around their Fukushima-Daichi nuclear plant. Since, the undersea earthquake was greater than anticipated and it was a nature’s freak accident that the tsunami waves scaled over the wall around the plant. That led to the pandemonium.

A nuclear plant needs a constant power supply to keep the coolant circulating around the core. In the instant case, the power supply from the grid was snapped due to the earthquake and as the luck would have been the tsunami waves submerged the stand by generators. The coolant circulation was stopped. Heat in the fission chamber rose and ultimately the worst happened-the whole system melt. Hats off to the dedication of the workers at the plant, they contained the worst nuclear leakage of the world at the cost of their personal risk.

These plants are designed in such a way that in case of a disaster or any accident, the plant is shut down immediately. Out of the six units, three were already shut for various reasons. Because of the earthquake the remaining three units were also shut down automatically. The emergency generators began to work the pumps to circulate coolant. But due to tsunami these generators too became defunct and the temperatures rose within the core of the plant in no time. It began to melt. In the process of controlling and containing the leak due to melt down, 37 persons were injured and two were hospitalized with radiation burns.

The disaster at Fukushima gave a shouting platform to the anti-nuclear lobby in India. Well everyone has the freedom to protest. But it is better to understand the whole picture before protesting. The thermal power in India, is the bulk power. Out of that Singrauli and Sonbhadra, respectively in Madhya Pradesh and U.P. have the largest share of power generation. This is mainly because of the abundant availability of coal at Singrauli. A recent report published by the Council of Science and Environment (CSE) says that due to a high mercury content of mercury in the coal from Singrauli, thousands of persons mainly children are suffering from Minamata disease. In fact the CSE says that the symptoms of neuralgic ailments are similar to those of the sufferers at Minamata Bay in Japan. The Japan government was strict enough to shut down the defaulter industry and compel them to pay the compensation to the victims. Despite the government’s firmness, the process took around 20 years.

In Sonbhadra the culprit thermal plant is being run by a PSU as such compensation is a far-fetched idea. The media too highlights even minor accidents like electrical short circuits in the nuclear plants, but hardly any newspaper carried the story of suffering of people of Sonbhadra in its headlines. People are still suffering there and will continue to do so-because the it is not a nuclear plant but a thermal plant.

India’s track record in the maintenance of nuclear power plants has been impeachable. The writer of these lines had the opportunity of seeing closely the working of the nuclear power plant at Narora (U.P.). The degree of alertness, the series of checks and counter checks they perform speak volumes about their preparedness. Many people complain that what happens inside the high walls of the nuclear plant is kept completely secret from the public. For that matter for security reasons, entry in to the thermal power plants is also regulated, but no one cries foul there.

I am not trying to project the nuclear power as one of the safest powers as already stated earlier no source of energy is safe. For using any source one has to follow a certain security drill. For example one is not supposed to smoke at petrol pumps-no one does. Yet no one complains or says it is fishy that they don’t permit smoking when their tanks are being filled!

As already stated we need electricity desperately. We also need to save our environment-particularly the atmosphere and the hydrosphere carefully. Therefore we need a power source which is least polluting. About coal, with the technology available, the lesser said the better. But yes if super-critical thermal plants are installed, which will not allow more than permissible limits of mercury and other toxins to reach the environment, coal will not be a bad option. But until when! That is a million dollar question-the availability of coal is limited.

People often shout hoarse that we should go Solar. No harm in using solar energy, as it is the cleanest and safest sources. But look at the costs. A power that cannot be purchased by an average consumer will be of no use. Moreover, as of today, large tracts of land are required to generate solar power. For example, if Delhi has to depend solely on solar power, then land area equal to the size of Delhi will be required to electrify the Capital. From where does one get such land tracts? As a kid our teacher used to entertain us with a story. She said, one gossiper told other, ‘my grandpa has such a large house that one has to use a transport to travel from one to the other end.’ The other gossiper retorted, my granny has a bamboo ladder, which she uses to reach the moon.’ ‘Oh really’ asked the first one, ‘where does she keep the ladder?’ ‘In your grandpa’s house,’ pat came the reply. Thus to run large Solar power plants we will need ‘grandpa’s houses’ to store the used panels…!

Lot of research is being done in developed countries in this field and attempts are to reduce the size of the Solar panels. That goal should be achieved any day and thereafter we won’t need any ones house to store or place the panels. Still, the cost of generation will have to be kept in mind. Our consumers are poor, they cannot afford high cost and the government will not be able to subsidize the costs.

Apart from the Solar, we have the wind energy too, which is very clean. But again, it cannot be generated everywhere. The coastal areas are supposed to be the best and wind farms are gradually coming up.

Incidentally, nuclear energy is one of the cleanest sources of energy and one of the cheapest too. But yes compared to other sources we have to be more careful in the generation of nuclear energy. We have also to remove the misconception from our minds that nuclear energy is linked with nuclear weapons. There is no comparison between the two.

Since we desperately need electricity, there is no harm in using a mixture of sources, including the Solar, Wind, Nuclear, Hydro and Thermal energies. Shunning any one of them exclusively out of the fear, or as some people guess due to pressure from some lobby will not be in the interest of the nation.


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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