Monday, April 18, 2011

Nuclear Power After Fukushima

(An All India radio Talk recorded on April 18, 2011)

The Fukushima nuclear disaster could not have come at a more inopportune moment for nuclear power around the world, particularly in India. The stage was set for an exponential expansion of nuclear power as a source of energy because of the scientific evidence that use of fossil fuels was positively harmful to the environment on account of the emission of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power, on the other hand, was seen as clean, long lasting and economical, compared to the other energy sources.

The world was on the verge of a nuclear renaissance, with nearly fifty new countries opting for the generation of nuclear power. The United States, which had built no nuclear reactors for more than twenty years, began construction of new nuclear reactors. China was poised to expand its nuclear power generation dramatically. India, which had an ambitious plan for generation of nuclear power, but was hampered by shortage of uranium and a ban on exports of nuclear material to India, was ushered into an era of expansion of nuclear power when the India – US civilian nuclear deal opened the option for India to import nuclear fuel and reactors from diverse sources. India saw nuclear power as the panacea for its power shortage and development constraints.

The world was not unaware of the danger of nuclear accidents when reactors were initially designed and built. The locations of reactors were chosen with extreme care to protect them from natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Heavily populated areas were excluded to the extent possible for fear of radiation in the event of a meltdown. Two major nuclear accidents, one on the Three Mile Island in the United States and the other in Chernobyl in Ukraine shocked the world, but they both turned out to be on account of human error, not design or functional faults. Other minor accidents also did not reveal any fundamental flaws in the science of nuclear power generation. Nuclear reactors withstood the onslaught of earthquakes and tsunamis by shutting themselves down and maintaining cooling systems to contain the generation of heat. There was a sense of comfort that nuclear reactors were safe, as long as normal precautions were taken and strict safety standards were observed.

Fukushima shook us in to the realization that calculations with regard to the intensity of earthquakes and tsunamis could go dangerously wrong and a combination of the two natural phenomena could bring havoc to reactors and endanger humanity itself. The Fukushima earthquake was more than 9 on the Richter scale and the tsunami, which followed, was of unprecedented proportions. Though the safety systems installed in the reactors kicked in as expected, they were knocked out one after the other, leading to a meltdown with grave consequences for human, animal and plant life. The reactors shut down instantly and the cooling systems began working, but both the electric systems as well as the diesel generators were devoured by the high tsunami waves, leaving pumping massive amounts of sea water as the only option to cool the reactor. It took the heroic Japanese workers several days to contain the damage, but not before Fukushima went into history as the worst nuclear accident in history, with consequences, as yet, unknown.

Many years will pass before we realize the full extent of the damage inflicted by Fukushima, but it has shaken the faith in the minds of many about the safety of nuclear power. Whatever may be its other benefits, nuclear reactors have begun to be seen as potential killers with transnational reach. Germany instantly announced its intention to phase out nuclear power as a source of energy. So did Switzerland. Other countries announced thorough reviews of their nuclear installations to reassure themselves of foolproof safety. Construction of new reactors was delayed, pending installation of additional safety features. Regulatory authorities were strengthened and peer reviews were invited. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered its own weaknesses in ensuring safety and called an international conference in June 2011 to take remedial action. Fears of a terrorist attack on nuclear reactors were also revived in the minds of the people in vulnerable countries. The traditional anti-nuclear countries and lobbies began a crusade against nuclear power.

The inveterate optimists, however, began searching for the silver linings on the dark clouds. They argued that deaths caused by the nuclear meltdown were much lower than those on account of fallen buildings and floods. They also took comfort in the thought that earthquakes and tsunamis of Fukushima were unprecedented in scale and might never occur again. The lessons of Fukushima would make the future reactors more safe and secure. It was also pointed out that it would not be easy for countries like France, China, the United States and India to abandon nuclear power for decades to come even if other sources of energy were developed at a fast pace. The only feasible proposition would be to strengthen safety and security to the extent possible and accept the risks.

In India, the Fukushima disaster has only caused some ripples, not waves. The official reaction is that Fukushima is a wake-up call and that all efforts should be made to make nuclear power generation safer and more secure. The scientists involved swear that the Indian facilities are safe and that the locations selected for the old and the new reactors are not prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. Further precautions will be taken by building additional features. But reconsideration of the role of nuclear energy is out of the question. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as recently as on April 15, 2011: “I am convinced that when all is said and done, when cool headed discussions take place about the future of energy, what are the problems with coal, what are the problems with hydrocarbons, in terms of their impact on climate change, there would be no reconsideration about the role of nuclear energy.”

The question, however, is whether Fukushima will fade away into memory like its predecessors did and business will continue as usual, with minor modifications in design and construction of nuclear reactors. Will the people of India, particularly those who live in the vicinity of nuclear reactors, accept the inevitability of living in the shadow of danger? Is it conscionable for us to condemn the future generations to constant fear of another Fukushima? Should we not think in terms of making a long term plan for developing alternate sources to such an extent that we can reduce and eliminate our dependence on nuclear power? India gave to the world a vision of a nuclear weapon free world. Should we not give to the world a vision of a nuclear power free world?

In my view, these questions have to be answered after relooking at the options available to us at this critical time. No doubt, India cannot abandon its path of relying on nuclear power in the short term. But while reviewing its policy, no option should be excluded, not even the option of a carefully orchestrated exit from dependence on nuclear power. Future generations should not challenge our wisdom in dotting our coastal areas with daunting metal domes of nuclear reactors, rather than the soothing windmills that rotate in the breeze and fuel our energy generation. The victims of Fukushima will not have died in vain if the accident leads to a relook at nuclear power policy around the world to ensure generation of power without undue risk to mankind.

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