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Monday, April 11, 2011

Japan’s Nuclear Catastrophe: Lessons for India

It was a once-in-a-century kind of an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude on Richter scale, followed by a gigantic tsunami, that hit Japan badly. As though it was not enough, Japan faced the worst nuclear crisis since the Second World War at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The reported partial meltdown of radioactive fuel rods, release of radioactive material into the reactors’ containment vessels, pressure buildup and the risk of explosion—all because of failure of the plant’s cooling system—that threatened the life around the plant, have also cast a shadow over the ‘nuclear renaissance’ that the world is looking forward to, for a carbon-free source of electricity.

True, nuclear accidents, like terrorist attacks, make a deep furrow in public’s consciousness. And paradoxically, technological development appears to have bred more risk-aversion than otherwise. But without risk-taking there will be no technological advancement, and nor will there be any betterment in human welfare. Just as we have not given up offshore drilling for oil, despite the collapse of a rig in the Mexican Bay, we cannot give up nuclear power production. All that we need to do is to learn from the Japanese nuclear crisis how to manage risk but not to be cowed down by it. 

Source: NHK World
That said, let’s take a look at the accident for some take-home lessons. No doubt, the crisis is an outcome of the earthquake and tsunami; nevertheless, the sequential order of events reported to have happened tells a different story: one, immediately after the tremors, the reactors were automatically shut down; two, the diesel generator that was supposed to pump water into the reactor in the event of power failure to cool the reactor core failed to function; three, the batteries did not run for long; four, nor was there enough alternate inventory of water for ensuring cooling of the reactors, as is indicated by the fact of plant authorities’ resorting to pumping in seawater immediately. Cumulatively, pressure was built up in the reactors leading to, perhaps, meltdown of fuel rods, explosions and release of radioactive steam/plume into the atmosphere. This story forces one to wonder if the backup machinery was fit enough to perform the function of the principal equipment. Which is why, what is needed is to revisit the functioning of all our reactors with a safety audit and ensure that requisite systems are in place to manage all predictable eventualities.

We need to constantly evaluate the safety requirements and their suitableness to manage risks. It is commonsensical that India’s growing economy needs increased supply of power. And nuclear energy is the way forward for India to reduce its reliance on external sources for energy and also to cut the emission of carbon dioxide, while, of course, meeting the surging demands for electricity. 

Secondly, in the intensity of the Japanese catastrophe, what is lost sight of is: failure to communicate about the happenings at the nuclear plant site clearly in unambiguous terms and promptly, as is reflected in the exasperation of Japan’s Prime Minister when he, seeing the television reports about the explosion before he heard it from the Tokyo Power Company, blurted, “What in the world is going on?”

One important lesson that Indian nuclear power regulatory authorities must learn is: facilitate communication about the failures, if any—however small and inconsequential they might be—so that people’s confidence can be won. And more importantly, it alone paves the way for the much-needed speedy correction of the situation. 

If India has to sustain its current rate of economic growth, what is required is, not saying goodbye to nuclear power production, but staying the course—diligently managing the risks associated with the generation of the contemplated 40,000 MW of nuclear energy by 2030.

GRK Murty


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