The recent earthquake (measured 9.0 on the Richter scale) and the consequent tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) and has caused much concern over nuclear power. In the immediate international panic that ensued, bloggers and news outlets have compared the tragedy at Fukushima Daiichi to the disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 or the Three Mile Island (TMI) incident in the US in 1979. Some have even gone as far as to compare Fukushima with Hiroshima (to be fair, this was an alarmist headline to a story about someone affected by Hiroshima). Furthermore, the Chinese and American governments immediately put their nuclear expansion plans on hold and the Germans have moved to accelerate their withdrawal from nuclear energy. Spain, Russia, and Britain have ordered a comprehensive safety review of all their NPPs. Although any breach at a NPP, let alone a natural disaster of this magnitude, is of concern, it is necessary to put things in perspective.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, constructed between 1971 and 1979, consists of six boiling water reactors (BWRs) and is rated at about 4.7 GWe and there were plans to upgrade it to 7.5 GWe by 2017. On March 11, 2011, when the tsunami hit the NPP, reactors 4, 5, and 6 were shut down for routine maintenance. The other reactors were shut down automatically as the earthquake was detected. The flooding caused by the tsunami knocked out the power generators to reactors 1, 2, and 3 which were required to cool and control the reactors. The earthquake and flooding also prevented immediate assistance being brought from elsewhere. Over the next ten days, there has been evidence of a partial core meltdown in reactors 1, 2, and 3, multiple fires have broken out in reactor 4, and the spent fuel rods of reactors 1, 2, 3, and 4 in their storage swimming pools began to heat up as water levels dropped precipitously. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation at the NPP, the Japanese government declared a containment zone of 2 km radius and extended it quickly to 3, 10, and then 20 kms. Finally, on March 20th, as the situation was brought under control, Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, announced that the plant would not re-open due to the heavy damage to the reactors and their buildings and radioactive contamination throughout the site. According to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) which measures the severity of nuclear accidents, the accidents at reactors 1, 2, and 3 were at Level 5 in a 7-point scale – for comparison, Chernobyl was at Level 7, TMI was at Level 5, and the Vandellos incident was at Level 3. (For more on nuclear safety records, click here).
Much to the glee of anti-nuclear activists, the future of the nuclear power industry has been significantly damaged by the events in Japan. Given the natural propensity to fear that which one does not understand and the image of the mushroom cloud now indelibly printed on our minds by countless movies, newspaper and journal articles, and the internet, more and more people have started to question the safety of nuclear energy. This is quite unwarranted. It must be noted that the event that caused the crisis in Japan was an earthquake, not the failure of a NPP. In the chaotic aftermath, it is a true testimony to the procedures in place that the damage was contained and things are returning back to normal despite massive damage in the region from the twin natural disasters. The three reactors that were online automatically shut down as the earthquake was detected; immediate generators were available on standby in case of the failure of the main generators; helicopters supplied hundreds of thousands of gallons of seawater to the engineers at the plant to maintain the fuel rods at a temperature within their safety range; the move by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to use seawater doped with neutron-absorbing boron to cool the reactors despite virtually guaranteeing the inusability of the reactors afterwards; volunteers worked despite the danger of overexposure to radiation to contain and clean up the damage; by every safety and procedures yardstick, the Japanese have handled the crisis remarkably well.
However, the critics have not attacked Fukushima specifically but point to it as a problem for nuclear energy as a whole. So what are the issues with nuclear energy?
Safety: It is true that waste products from nuclear reactors have to be stored carefully. However, in the Indian case, if the thorium-powered reactors come online, there will be less waste production in the first place. Existing reactors do produce waste but these have been stored without hiccups so far. However, waste cannot be the single criterion by which to attack an industry – if that were the case, we should be seeing groups attacking paper, gold, bottled water, and cotton as well. We don’t, and it is asinine to think that these industries do not produce toxic waste – in fact, with weak environmental laws in India, they get away with dumping their byproducts in rivers and open dumps. It is also true that other forms of energy have seen greater casualties on the job than nuclear power plants. We must also remember that the problems at Fukushima arose not from the operation of the NPP itself but from a natural disaster. Perhaps Fukushima should have been built more carefully, in an area less affected by the vagaries of nature, in Fukushima’s case, the sea. That is not entirely possible since power stations require large quantities of water for steam generation and in the case of nuclear plants, cooling and storing waste fuel (although NPPs have their own desalination station to provide pure water to the reactors). However, plants can indeed be built by large lakes and rivers inland. Again, in Japan, this has not been a real alternative. India, however, is not plagued with tsunamis and tornadoes, nor does she not sit on the circum-Pacific seismic belt, also known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which accounts for 90% of the world’s earthquakes. Safety concerns raised by the Japanese experience, therefore, are not applicable to most countries in the world. As long as India keeps its NPPs far away from the Himalayas (which has strategic reasons as well), she should be able to steer clear of a Fukushima-esque incident.
Environment: It is amusing to note how many critics of nuclear power cite environmental concerns without pausing for a second to think of the massive amounts of carbon emissions being released by power plants that burn fossil fuel. The fight against global warming cannot, presently, be won without substituting coal and oil for nuclear power. The tactics of anti-nuclear activists are based upon spreading fear and doubt – what IF something goes wrong? By that logic, we are all doomed one way or the other because something is bound to go wrong in every system. What is necessary is a well-planned system that rarely makes errors, and if it does, small ones. WHEN things go wrong, there need to be adequate precautions to contain and ameliorate the effects. Nothing in life can ever be an ironclad guarantee – to expect as much is reminiscent of the Indian opposition to the Indo-U.S. nuclear energy bill three years ago, an equally childish position.
Alternative energy: In response to the problems caused by pollution, alternatives such as wind, tidal, and solar energy have been pointed out. I am all for further research and development of these technologies but until they can replace traditional sources of power, we should not do away with nuclear power. Not to mention, these sources also have their own problems – solar panels are not sufficiently efficient and even if they were, I need not remind anyone of overcast skies during the monsoons in India. Should we go without power for three months of every year? Wind turbines simply do not produce energy on the scale we need. More turbines means more land is required, and these giant modern windmills certainly do not factor easily on the eyes. Tidal power is still in its infancy and no one is sure what its full potential is yet. The Gujarat government has decided to set up a tidal power station by approximately 2015 and only then will we know if tidal power is truly a substitute for fossil fuel. Admittedly more predictable than wind and solar, tidal energy is still quite expensive and there are limited sites where such power stations can be situated.
In an era where India still does not have full electrification, in a situation in which coal found in India has a high ash content, it is a folly to dismiss nuclear power after the high drama in northern Honshu. The Indian government has pushed ahead with its nuclear expansion plans, and that is a good sign. It has also launched measures to ensure the safety of present and future nuclear power plants and this is also welcome. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.