Infernos in Fukushima: Need to Re-think Nuclear Energy


Even before we could grapple with the losses due to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, news of a horrendous nuclear accident from its north-eastern prefecture of Sendai started pouring in. Three nuclear power stations – Fukushima, Onagawa and Tokai – have been badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Out of these, the situation at Fukushima (which houses a total of 10 reactors on its two sites – Daiichi and Daini) has become too dire. From Hiroshima to Fukushima, Japan has made a tragic journey.  
Unfolding Crisis
The massive earthquake and 13-meter high tsunami waves damaged the cooling systems in the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Even the diesel-based auxiliary cooling pumps and the third back-up of battery operated emergency cooling were crippled by the tsunami. This led to alarming rise in temperature inside the reactor vessels. Simultaneous on-site and off-site blackout was a situation that the operator TEPCO had never imagined. In a totally out of manual desperate attempt to avert a Chernobyl like total meltdown, they resorted to pouring sea water into the reactors. This saline sea-water, reacting with the Zirconium claddings of the nuclear fuel, produced hydrogen and high pressure inside the main vessel. Even after venting out this radioactive vapor repeatedly over next three days, the hydrogen pressure kept increasing and led to explosions in Daiichi No. 1, 2 and 3. At least 8 workers have died immediately in these explosions. Damage to reactor vessel in No.2 and No.4 is also feared. The spent nuclear fuel, kept in the upper section of the building in the GE Mark-I type reactor designs, has also got exposed releasing huge amount of radioactivity to the atmosphere. At the time these lines are being written, desperate attempts to stabilize the crisis are on. External power has been established in Fukushima but the cooling apparatus is badly damaged and the situation is yet to come entirely under control.
Radiation levels 1000-times higher than normal have been detected in Fukushima, and in the neighbouring prefecture of Ibaraki and Yamagata, radiation levels have gone as high as what was measured in Belarus post-Chernobyl. Low radiation has been detected in Tokyo and other parts of the country and experts have warned about spread of the radiation plume to other countries in the Pacific – from Philippines, Hawaii up to US and China depending on the wind direction. The government has gradually increased the evacuation area from a 3-km radius to 20-km, while the maximum permissible radiation for the on-site workers has been raised from 100 to 250 mSv/year. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has advised its citizens to evacuate the 50-km area surrounding Fukushima. The operator of Fukushima reactors, TEPCO, has increased the crisis rating from 4 to 5 on the INES scale which is above the rating given to the Three Mile Island accident, while France has officially criticized Japan for underplaying the crisis and not providing enough information. Japanese operators, like their counterparts in other countries, are known for being callous and secretive.  In a similar case of hiding necessary information illegally, the TEPCO chief had to resign in 2002. 
This horrible accident has raised concerns and questions about nuclear power in the whole world. While thousands of people in Berlin came on to the streets spontaneously to oppose nuclear energy, governments in China, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Poland and Philippines have issued a moratorium on their nuclear expansion plans.
Will India Heed the Warning?
While the whole world is witnessing an unfolding nuclear disaster, the Indian nuclear establishment is busy claiming how safe and disaster-proof its reactors are.  Although the Prime Minister and the MoEF have made statements asking for stricter safety audits, this is more for public consumption as India remains the only country where the nuclear regulator – the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, comes under the Department of Atomic Energy and has little independence. India has a poor safety record in managing nuclear reactors and there have been a number of accidents and incidents exposing its safety claims. In the 1980s, radiation exposures to power plant workers were ten times the world average for each unit of electricity. Accidents involving high radiation exposures to workers were reported as late as 2003. The only safety measure that we know of after that is that the NPCIL has stopped publishing data on such incidents.
Adding to the spin of global nuclear industry which has started blaming ‘old reactor design’ in Fukushima while until recently nuclear power in Japan was touted as exemplary, the higher officials of the DAE were trying to outdo each others in underplaying the situation and reassuring the global nuclear corporates that India would go ahead with its nuclear expansion. S K Jain, heading the NPCIL declared, “There is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan's Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shut-down following a major earthquake.” He also added that “India was uniquely placed as it had a centralised emergency operating centre with well drawn procedures scrutinised by regulators.” The procedure that he was referring actually is nothing but a regular safety audit that NPCIL does after every 2 years. India’s nuclear expansion is taking place in earthquake-prone zones and seashores like Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Kalpakkam and Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, Haripur in West Bengal and Mithivirdi in Gujrat. The existing reactors in Kakrapar, Narora (UP) and Tarapur are also located in densely populated earthquake-prone areas.
Among the several core sectors encouraged in the independent India, its nuclear programme has been the worst performer despite the heavy funding, insulation from auditing and accountability and posterboy status it received. Producing just 2% of electricity, around 4000 MWs, its performance flies in the face of the tall claims of the DAE. Although the decision to import reactors under the Indo-US Nuclear Deal was taken by the UPA regime largely without consulting the DAE and evaluating the future nuclear energy scenario, the nuclear establishment has suddenly found all merits in it. Its 2008 projections match the claims of 40 GWe supply by imported reactors exactly, though its 2004 projections were more modest, promising to achieve 25% electricity generation from nuclear energy by 2052. 
The DAE’s expansion plans are dubious and totally inconsistent with its past record. The future projections of increasing nuclear power production by 100 times depend on critical advances in fast-breeder reactors and thorium technology. Fast-breeder is known to be ‘the technology of future whose time has passed’. All the initial champions of fast-breeder technology – including US, France and Japan – have shunned it, owing primarily to unmanageable costs and problems in handling sodium coolant. On the other hand, the Indian DAE is hugely subsidized and least bothered about public and environmental safety. The tsunami in southern India in 2002 had swept the Prototype Fast-breeder breaking the boundary walls. But apart from heightening the boundary, the DAE didn’t try to re-think its design and viability near the seashore. While it lauds itself on handling the damage caused by tsunami well, the truth is the reactor designs in Kalpakkam – both the MAPS and FBTR designs – hadn’t foreseen the tsunami hitting the reactors. It is important here to note that the recently passed Nuclear Liability Bill exempts both the supplier and operator from any compensation in case of damage due to natural disasters such as earthquakes and puts the burden on the public exchequer.
However, the ruling class of our country, unfazed by these concerns is forcing the country deeper into the nuclear abyss. Thanks to Wikileaks, now we know that sordid behind-the-scenes greased palms, with the connivance of the US, influenced the outcome of the vote in Parliament that saved the US-backed Nuke Deal.
The Indian ruling establishment has resorted to every possible method to rehabilitate the declining global nuclear corporates. When the catastrophe in Japan was unfolding, the DAE ex-Chairman Anil Kakodkar was convincing the legislators in Maharashtra assembly about the necessity of the Jaitapur project. The Jaitapur nuclear power park would be much bigger than Fukushima in capacity and is being built on French nuclear giant Areva’s untested EPR reactor design about which 3000 objections have been raised by the European nuclear regulators. Even when the experts have pointed to problems with this environmentally disastrous, economically prohibitive and extremely risky project, the government is unleashing violent repression on the people of Ratnagiri area. While the activists and experts – even ex high court judges, government environmental panels and an ex-Navy Chief – are being labeled as provocateurs and outsiders and prohibited from entering the district, the administration has given externment orders for local activists and implicated dozens of them in false police cases. The only insider for the government seems to be the French company Areva.
Nuclear is Just Not the Answer
In a massive and global PR campaign in recent years, the nuclear industry has re-branded itself as being ‘green’ and a solution for climate change. Contrary to this claim, the nuclear reactors have huge carbon footprints – in carbon-intensive processes starting from mining to transportation, construction up to decommissioning.
In a press conference organized by the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo last week, Masashi Goto who was an engineer during Fukushima’s construction testified that a tsunami of this scale just wasn’t imagined 40 years ago during the construction. One of the costly lessons from Fukushima is that the nuclear option is least advisable in an unpredictable climate change scenario as it is virtually impossible to take into account all the safety measures required in the future.
Also, it is important to put the energy security question in proper perspective. Nuclear energy is neither safe nor reliable, and it is not a solution for our growing energy needs. Even after the massive expansion, nuclear will contribute only 6-7% of the total electricity and around 2.3% of the total energy consumption. No source can provide guaranteed supply of energy for the unending growth fetish of capitalism. And in capitalist growth, only a limited part of electricity generated goes for actual consumption and the rest is consumed by energy-guzzling sectors such as advertising, military industrial complex, excessive bureaucracy etc. If a post-capitalist world could be won, socialized production could minimize these wastages and ensuing environmental damage substantially without really curbing any of our genuine energy needs. The nuclear energy question calls for an overhaul of the political economy of energy, and therefore needs an urgent intervention from the left ranks.

The Fukushima crisis has led to an upsurge of public opposition to nuclear power worldwide. This would also mean stricter safety norms globally and would render a nuclear renaissance more expensive and politically sensitive. We must ensure the government in our country doesn’t succeed in making this country a dumping ground of this effectively obsolete and dangerous technology.