Fukushima and the Chilling of Nuclear Power

IT is now one year since the Fukushima disaster took place that saw three reactors in Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Dai-ichi nuclear plant suffering core melt-downs and explosions. On March 11,  2011, an earthquake of 9.0 on Richter scale took place 130 kilometres off the coast of Japan.  Within an hour, a tsunami of unprecedented magnitude struck Japan, the tidal wave of water and mud cutting a huge swath of death and destruction through the coastal areas of Japan.

According to TEPCO, the Fukushima Dai-ichi I nuclear plant initially did not face a problem, even though power lines to the outside world had snapped. The three running reactors – Dai-ichi 1, 2 and 3 had shut-down safely and the other three reactors Dai-ichi 4,5 and 6 were already in a cold shut-down mode. However, the 14 metre tsunami that struck the Dai-ichi I plant, took out the back-up generators, starting a cascading train of events that saw explosions in the reactor buildings 1, 3 and 4 and partial core melt-down in 1,2 and 3.

Some reports now indicate that unit 1 already had its cooling system affected due to the earthquake and was on its way to a meltdown even before the tsunami struck. There is however no question that tsunami made a situation, which would otherwise have been difficult, to what Yoichi Funabashi of Rebuild Japan Foundation calls an “existential crisis” for Japan.

Even a reactor that is shut-down, releases enormous amount of heat and needs the cooling system to work. With electrical backup systems not available, the inability to cool the reactor core meant extremely high temperatures, releasing of hydrogen as the hot fuel rods reacted with water and steam inside the reactor. Primary containment vessels were breached leading to radioactivity release, as well as of hydrogen. The hydrogen eventually ignited causing the explosions in units 1, 3 and 4 blowing off the roof of the reactor buildings. The disaster could have been much bigger if the plant superintendent, Masyao Yoshida had not disregarded the TEPCO management, continuing to pump seawater in the reactors.

Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation released a 420 page report with independent experts showing how TEPCO at one point wanted to abandon Dai-ichi, which could have lead to a “demonic scenario” – large scale release of radio activity, causing other nuclear plants to also fail and the possible evacuation of Tokyo. Only direct orders from the then PM Naoto Kan, who stormed into TEPCO headquarters, prevented it from abandoning the plant and having the Fukushima disaster spiral completely out of control.

Though the plant is now in a cold shut-down and comparatively “stable”, it will take ten more years to seal the site from radioactive leakages from the plant. Decontamination will require radioactive top-soil to be removed from 2,400 square kilometres, with a three kilometres radius around the plant to be abandoned permanently. The plant will take a minimum of 40 years to decommission. It may be either entombed in cement like Chernobyl, after all the fuel rods have been taken out, or the reactor cores removed, and the reactor buildings dismantled piece by piece robotically, transporting all this to a radioactive waste storage facility.

The damages in Fukushima are estimated to be $52 billion already, and are projected to rise as the costly process of  decontamination and decommissioning is undertaken. It is still unclear how much of this will be borne by TEPCO, the operating company, the insurance companies and how much will be shelled out by the Japanese people through the government underwriting the expenses.

Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation report also talks about Japan falling victim to a twisted myth of “absolute safety” propagated by the nuclear industry and its supporters. Funabashi, in a recent article in Financial Times has written, “At its core, Japan’s nuclear safety regulatory regime was phoney. Regulators pretended to regulate; utilities pretended to be regulated. In reality, the latter were far more powerful in expertise and clout.”


It is this cosy relationship between regulators and the nuclear industry that lead to all warnings including that of earthquakes and high tsunamis to be ignored. In Japan, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the primary watchdog over the nuclear plants, was under the ministry economics, trade and industry (METI) and therefore lacked independent authority. Only after Fukushima, it has been moved to the environmental ministry.

There is little doubt that Fukushima has dampened the enthusiasm in the world about nuclear energy. A number of countries – Germany, Belgium, Switzerland – have decided to phase out their nuclear plants while others are reconsidering the introduction of nuclear energy in their country. In Japan, out of 54 reactors, only two are now on-line, the rest 52 being shut-down for stress tests and safety reviews. Instead of a nuclear renaissance, nuclear energy is now entering into the zone of a nuclear chill, if not a nuclear winter.

The problem with nuclear energy is that that more we learn about it, the more the need for new safety systems and upgradation of existing designs, adding to costs. The nuclear manufacturers then hike up the unit size to make the plants more economical. Increase in unit size, however, increases its complexity as well, creating again more chances of failure. This cycle of complexity, cost and large unit sizes, combined with a number of units in one location has multiplied the danger of possible accidents. If nuclear energy is to be a viable option, it must re-examine this paradigm and look at smaller, modular designs, and dispersing such units instead of 10,000 MW nuclear parks that it is currently promoting.

Indian nuclear energy program, as observed in Japan, suffers from a similar combination of technology hubris and cohabitation between the regulator and the nuclear plants.  In India, AERB is still a part of the Atomic Energy Commission and even in the new Act introduced in the parliament, it will be subservient to the commission. The Left has opposed these clauses in the standing committee of the parliament, but its voice has been overridden by the government and its supporters. The BJP has little stomach for engaging on any serious issue and chooses to play the role of a bystander when such matters come up.

On the safety of Indian plants, Dr A Gopalkrishnan, former AERB chairman has talked about the safety audit reports of AERB being kept secret. He has written that in the beginning of his tenure, he undertook a detailed safety audit. He states, “1995 AERB safety audit… detailed about 130 individual safety issues on which corrective actions were called for, of which 95 were of top safety significance…To date, no details are known about concrete corrective actions taken, if any, on each of these recommendations” (emphasis added).

It is true that India’s Candu reactors do not suffer from the kind of problems that occurred in Fukushima. But India has GE Mark I vintage reactors in Tarapur, which not only have very similar problems  that were uncovered by the accident in Fukushima but also have been warned to be unsafe by GE and US experts. They are also well past their design life of 40 years as were the Fukushima plants.


On the Kudankulam plant, the no-holds barred debate has been considerably worsened by the PM and PMO’s intervention virtually calling all opponents of the plant as foreign agents. This does not do justice to the complexity of the issues surrounding nuclear energy in the country.

There are 450 reactors operating in the world, out of which 22 are VVER’s with similar design as Kudankulam. It is also true that in Kudankulam – based on public statements issued by Atomic Energy Commission – there are additional safety features than available for instance in Fukushima. By itself, this does not prove that Kudankulam is safe; neither is it possible to argue that by definition all nuclear plants are unsafe and should be abandoned, as the opponents of Kudankulam are doing.

The government does not appear to have any serious intention of discussing the nuclear energy program or the safety of nuclear plants. Instead, the dreaded “foreign hand” is being paraded to explain away the questions that are being raised on nuclear energy.

The foreign hand charge must make strange reading, that too of an American hand, coming as it does from a government that has surpassed even the BJP led NDA government it its love for the US. The commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard in a recent Congressional hearing stated that American Special forces assist teams are stationed in India along with Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Admiral Willard went on to talk about the close relationships between the US and Indian forces on maritime security and also between “counter terrorism” operations. Though the UPA has denied Willard’s statement, let us not forget that the India US nuclear deal was preceded by a defence agreement which offered precisely what Willard now says that India is providing.

The PM therefore claiming how the US is sabotaging India’s development plans through some US funded NGO’s, that too affiliated to the Catholic Church makes little sense. If this indeed is true, then he needs to come clean and break his cosy relationship with the US and not just go after the NGO’s as he is doing. Then why this campaign?

This government for some time has been dealing with dissent in various ways. It does not want to engage with the actual issues, because it feels that it does not have the necessary credibility. Instead, it tries and uses underhand means to try and “control” dissent. We saw very similar methods being applied in cyber space, where major internet companies were called by Sibal, the IT minister and told to exercise private censorship regarding criticism of the Congress and its leaders. If they did not fall in line, then the provisions of IPC regarding hate speech, obscenity, etc, would be used against them. Once the discussions were leaked in international media, though Sibal backed off on pre-censorship, various private complaints have now been filed with the government providing tacit support to these complaints in court.

The nuclear agitation is a convenient tool to fire a shot across the bow of the NGO’s. The signal is clear – fall in line, otherwise your funding will be in danger. And indications are that the NGO’s will fall in line.

The nuclear energy issue needs an open discussion – not only with regards to safety but also its costs.  It beats all understanding why the cost of nuclear energy from Kudankulam and Jaitapur should be shrouded in such secrecy. The CEO of Areva is on record that the costs of the Areva reactors are being kept confidential at the behest of the Indian government. Similarly, in Kudankulam, the cost figures are ten years old. Why should the cost of nuclear energy, clearly a civilian issue, be a “State secret”?

It is precisely this mysterious secrecy that has created a distrust for nuclear energy. It is a sad day indeed that the prime minister of the country and all his nuclear experts cannot convince the people around Kudankulam regarding the safety of the plant. That a rag-tag band of NGO’s have more credibility than the Indian government and all its experts is a sad commentary for Manmohan Singh and the UPA. It is this aspect of his governance that the PM must examine rather than searching for a mythical foreign hand in Kudankulam.

What is needed is a body of experts who have public credibility to go into safety aspects of Kudankulam in transparent way. Only such a procedure in which people are given access to information regarding the safety systems in Kudankulam and can raise their objections before such a body, can create a climate of trust within which India’s nuclear program can go forward. State repression of the kind we are seeing in Jaitapur may win the government this round, but cannot sustain a long-term nuclear program.