Saturday, September 24, 2011

Clouds over nuclear power


Fukushima has dropped off the radar screens around the world even as the affected people and the Japanese government are still trying to cope with the devastation caused by the nuclear meltdown. The situation is still so sensitive that the Japanese minister of trade and industry was forced to resign after making thoughtless remarks on what he saw in the affected areas. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stopped issuing daily updates, but with a dire statement on June 2: “Overall, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious”, nuclear power enthusiasts around the globe cannot but remember the words of the IAEA evaluation group: “Nuclear designers and operators should appropriately evaluate measures for protection against the risks of all natural hazards and should periodically update these assessments”. Fukushima continues to cast its long shadow on nuclear power everywhere.

The renewed protests and fasts at Koodankulam have received little attention in India, but questions are being asked in nuclear circles about the safety standards of the reactors there. Russian technology, tainted by Chernobyl, has always been of concern, but Koodankulam is vital for India’s nuclear power development. Even before the India-US nuclear deal, it was possible for Russia to supply reactors and fuel as the contract dated back to the pre-NSG days.

No doubt, Koodankulam has to go forward for our immediate needs and any setback will be costly. The only option for the government is to take necessary and immediate action to convince the people about safety and to rehabilitate the displaced people. A disaster relief programme should also be put in place. We should take Sri Lanka into confidence about the safety standards at Koodankulam because of its proximity to the nuclear station. Issues raised by clustering of nuclear stations raised after Fukushima should also be examined. The call by the Tamil Nadu chief minister, followed by a resolution of the Tamil Nadu Cabinet, to halt the project till the settlement of the issues raised by the protesters is realistic and timely. The concerned central minister has assured the protesters that safety will take priority over power production. This is the principle that should apply in general to every power project that is constructed. No amount of declarations by scientists will allay the fears, because they are presumed to have vested interests. What will reassure the public more is an assurance that India will develop alternative sources of energy to reduce its dependence on nuclear power.

At the very time that the Koodankulam protests were gathering momentum, the chairman of our Atomic Energy Commission announced at the general conference of the IAEA that the first unit was set to begin operation and that the second unit was also on course. This is not the first time that the disconnect between science and politics has been on display in India.

A report by a number of Russian government agencies submitted to President Dmitry Medvedev has revealed that Russian atomic reactors are grievously under-prepared for both natural and man-made disasters. In an annex to the report, 31 serious flaws that make Russia’s nuclear industry extremely vulnerable are catalogued. This contradicts Russia’s claim that its reactors can withstand any natural calamity. The authorities have responded by saying that heavy investments can rectify the flaws. The question is whether our authorities have taken note of the report and taken follow-up action with the Russians.

An explosion in a French furnace dedicated to melting of low level radioactive waste on September 12 has been treated as an industrial rather than a nuclear accident on the ground that there was no radiation outside the plant. But it is still not clear what set off the explosion. Considering that every part of the nuclear industry raises safety issues, are we in touch with the French to learn more about the accident? The IAEA appears silent on this as it was only an industrial accident. Our involvement with France is deep already and it is likely to be the expanded further. Any development in the nuclear industry in France should be a matter of anxiety to us.

The latest report from Vienna is that India intends to delay the import of French reactors till we get new test results. According to the French energy minister, India wants a ‘post-Fukushima’ certification before finalising the multimillion dollar contract. This is welcome news for those in Jaitapur and elsewhere.

The recent earthquake of 5.8 magnitude, followed by cyclone Irene, on the east coast of the US also had its impact on the public perception of nuclear power. The earthquake caused the shutdown of two reactors in Central Virginia. Fortunately, the safety measures kicked in promptly and nothing untoward happened. At least 18 reactors at different locations in the US declared unusual events and six reactors scaled down production during the cyclone period and these are still being investigated and analysed.

A new country to disavow nuclear power is Taiwan. In Germany, Siemens has just declared that it will keep out of the nuclear industry. As for Japan itself, it is now well known that its nuclear industry is poised to shrink dramatically over the next decade. If the Daiichi plant was decommissioned in February this year, when it completed its life span, a major tragedy could have been averted.

India can no longer ignore the clouds gathering on the nuclear firmament and proceed with business as usual. Fukushima has caused reactor orders around the world to be scrapped, frozen or delayed. India’s own ambition to export our small reactors may have become unrealistic. The argument that the movement against nuclear power has arisen out of vested interests cannot be sustained any longer. The development argument can be accepted in the short term till we develop alternatives. But India can no longer stick to its position that it will pursue the path of developing nuclear power for all time to come. There is force in the argument that the seven per cent nuclear component we want to achieve in our energy mix can be replaced with other forms of energy if we have the will to do it. We should be able to envision a nuclear power free world in the long term so that the people will accept development of nuclear power in the short term. The concern is basically more about the hazards for future generations than about immediate danger.

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