Outlook Magazine

by Praful Bidwai

N-power isn’t the low-risk option the deceitful, inept DAE says it is

The colossal hubris, ignorance and smugness of India’s nuclear czars take one’s breath away. The day Japan’s crisis took a decisive turn for the worse, with an explosion in a third Fukushima reactor and fresh radiation leaks, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) secretary Sreekumar Banerjee declared that the nuclear crisis “was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section(s) of media”. Nuclear Power Corporation chairman S.K. Jain went one better: “There is no nuclear accident or incident. It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators…are carrying out to contain the residual heat after…an automatic shutdown”.

This is proof, if proof were at all needed, that our nuclear power programme is in the hands of men who are totally cut off from reality and have a default conviction in their own omniscience and infallibility. Their denials are as despicable as their pathetic parroting of the virtues of India’s nuclear installations and their safety.

Let’s get this straight. The Fukushima crisis is the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. The earlier (partial, largely contained) meltdown at Three Mile Island (1979) pales beside it. The Fukushima reactors have spewed large amounts of radioactivity into the air. The vessel containing the core of Reactor 2, which fully lost water cover for hours, has been damaged. The fire in Reactor 4 released yet more radiotoxins. At the time of writing, only a miracle can prevent further radiation release.

The Fukushima disaster is the world’s first multi-reactor crisis; controlling it is more difficult. It also poses three special problems. Large quantities of spent fuel, containing extremely radioactive nuclear wastes, are stored in pools in the reactor building, following General Electric’s design. These are no longer being cooled. A spent fuel leak, spreading due to the flooding, could have unspeakably lethal effects.

Second, Fukushima reactors’ primary containment—similar to India’s Tarapur reactors, also GE-designed—has been found by a US laboratory to be vulnerable to molten fuel burning through the reactor vessel, eventually breaking out. Third, Reactor 3 burns a mix of uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX). Researchers say mox generally increases the consequences of severe accidents with large radioactivity releases, resulting in a five-fold increase in latent cancer fatalities.

Even if the Fukushima crisis doesn’t worsen further, it highlights the inherent hazards of nuclear power, in which small individual mishaps can precipitate a runaway crisis. The reactors were shut down by the earthquake; and their still-hot cores were no longer cooled. The diesel back-up came on, but went out in an hour. The loss of coolant led to the explosions and radioactivity releases.

That this happened in industrially advanced Japan, with high nuclear safety standards, underscores the gravity of the generic problem with nuclear reactors. They are all vulnerable to a catastrophic accident irrespective of safety measures. Nuclear power generation is also bound up with radiation exposure, harmful in all doses, and radioactive waste streams, which remain hazardous for thousands of years.

India’s nucleocrats have been in denial of these problems and suppressed their abysmal safety record. The list of failures is long: a serious fire at Narora, which moved from the turbine to the reactor room amidst panic-driven abandonment of fire-fighting procedures; collapse of a containment-dome safety system at Kaiga; frequent radiation exposure of workers and lay public to doses above the permissible; and the spiking of drinking water with deadly tritium in Kaiga. India has the distinction of running two of the world’s most contaminated reactors.

This necessitates a radical reform of the DAE, the government’s worst-performing department, which has never completed a project on time and within budget. We must have an independent, credible nuclear safety audit, with outside experts and civil society representatives. We must review our nuclear power policy for appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance, based on a holistic view of the best ways of meeting our energy needs. If nuclear power emerges as the least desirable option, we should discard it. The environment ministry must also revoke all conditional clearances granted to nuclear projects, including Jaitapur.

Nuclear power has subjugated our energy policy and budgets to an unaccountable, self-perpetuating, pampered technocracy, imposed unacceptable hazards upon unwilling populations, and degraded our democracy. The juggernaut must be halted.

(Praful Bidwai is a columnist and activist of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.)