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In Denial of Fukushima

by M. V. Ramana, 11 March 2012

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Tehelka Magazine, Dated 17 March 2012


The overconfidence shown by Indian officials on nuclear safety is unfounded and alarming

PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh’s seemingly unfounded allegations about the funding of the people’s movement against the Koodankulam nuclear plant has shifted attention away from the real issue: the huge divide between the government and the policy elite that seems to have decided on expanding nuclear power, and the opposition to this way of generating electricity among local communities that live near these facilities. This opposition is in part due to the real and proven risk of catastrophic accidents that nuclear power plants pose to these communities.

To the public, the overwhelming lesson of Fukushima was that nuclear reactors are hazardous and support for expanding or maintaining nuclear power decreased nearly everywhere. A poll in 12 countries that currently operate nuclear power plants, commissioned by BBC News and carried out by GlobeScan between July and September 2011, found that approximately 70 percent oppose the construction of new nuclear reactors. Protests broke out or intensified in countries around the world. Fukushima also demonstrated unambiguously that communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident, a lesson that hasn’t been lost on the local populations in Koodankulam and Jaitapur.

At the other end of the spectrum was the reaction of the people associated with nuclear establishments, who vociferously argued that it was essential to persist with nuclear power — not surprising, since it conforms to their self-interest. The arguments they used to make a case for expanding nuclear power are best illustrated through statements made by officials associated with the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL).

On 15 March 2011, NPCIL Chairman SK Jain trivialised what was going on in Japan saying, “There is no nuclear accident or incident in Fukushima... It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme... (that) the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.” Such denial would be laughable but when the person thus opining is in charge of India’s power reactor fleet, it ceases to be amusing.

Another strain of argument trivialised the consequences. In November 2011, the DAE Secretary claimed that the “total casualty due to... (Fukushima) was zero”. But it is well known that one of the primary impacts of exposure to radiation, the incidence of cancer, occurs many years after the exposure. Therefore, while no one is likely to have died of cancer so far, the Fukushima accident will likely lead to thousands of cancers globally over the next few decades. Further, hundreds of sq km will remain unusable for agriculture for decades because of contamination by Cesium-137, which has a radioactive half-life of 30 years.

The DAE Secretary has asserted that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero

A final argument was that even if an accident were to occur, the DAE and its attendant organisations could manage the situation efficiently. In September 2011, for example, the DAE Secretary claimed: “We are prepared to handle an event like Fukushima.” This assertion is belied by the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who testified to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2010 that it was “nowhere (near) meeting an eventuality that may arise out of nuclear and radiological emergencies”.

But by far the thrust of the statements by DAE and NPCIL officials has been to assert that the accident is essentially irrelevant, because no nuclear accident will ever occur in India. On more than one occasion, the DAE Secretary has made assertions that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero. In November 2011, for example, he stated that the probability was “one in infinity”. The public image sought to be created is one of great confidence in safety. Is such confidence justified?

The first point to note is that the very statement that the likelihood of an accident is zero is scientifically untenable; every nuclear reactor has a finite, albeit small, probability of undergoing a catastrophic failure. What’s more, because of the complexity of the system and the many ways in which accidents could occur, this probability is never calculable with full certainty.

All the major nuclear accidents so far have afflicted different reactor designs, have had entirely different causes, have progressed along different pathways, and have had different consequences. Even newer reactor designs are not immune. In the case of the VVER reactors constructed in Koodankulam, a particular concern is with the control rod mechanism. On 1 March 2006, for example, one of the four main circulation pumps at Bulgaria’s Kozluduy unit 5 tripped because of an electrical failure. When the system reduced the power to 67 percent of nominal capacity, three control rod assemblies remained in an upper-end position. Follow-up tests of the remaining control rod assemblies identified that in total, 22 out of 61 could not be moved with driving mechanisms. Control rod insertion failures can seriously compromise safety in an accident.

A second question: is the confidence on the part of officials about the zero probability of accidents good for safety? This is not a question about technology but about organisations. The problem is that because of the potential for accidents, nuclear technology poses extreme organisational demands. Some of these have been identified by a group of researchers led by scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, US. Based on field studies in air traffic control operations, aircraft carriers, and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, they found several good management practices that are necessary — even if they don’t suffice — for a relatively high degree of safety. These include political and organisational leaders placing a high priority on safety in design and operation; robust cooperation and joint learning between management and workers on safety issues; and the adoption of best design and operational practices. The DAE and its attendant institutions fail to meet many of these criteria.

The best evidence for the DAE’s failure in achieving an adequate degree of safety is the history of small and large accidents at its facilities. Many of these were easily preventable. A good example is the accident at the Narora reactor in March 1993. It started when two blades broke off from the turbine due to vibrations. This eventually led to a major fire that spread across the turbine building and burnt electric cables, which led to a general blackout in the plant. The reactor’s secondary cooling systems were consequently rendered inoperable. It took 17 hours for power to be restored to the reactor and its safety systems.

It was the DAE’s closest brush with a catastrophic accident. More worrisome is the evidence that it could have been foreseen and prevented. First, the failure of the turbine blades was avoidable. In 1989, GE communicated information about a design flaw and recommended design modifications, and the manufacturer responded by preparing detailed drawings for NPCIL. However, NPCIL did not take any action until after the accident.

Second, even if the turbine blade failed despite modification, the accident might have been averted if the safety systems had been operating, which they presumably would have if only their power supply had been encased in separate and fire-resistant ducts. By the time the Narora reactor was commissioned, this was established wisdom in the nuclear design community and had been ever since the fire at Browns Ferry in the US in 1975. This was even recognised in the 1989 safety assessment for Narora performed by DAE analysts, including Anil Kakodkar, who was to become head of the DAE in 2000. Evidently, organisational leaders ignored important safety practices needed to reduce the risk of fire.

NARORA WAS not a one-off case. Similar patterns of avoidable failures marked other accidents too. In the face of this history, it is ludicrous for DAE and NPCIL officials to argue that the probability of an accident is zero. Safety scholar James Reason once noted: “If an organisation is convinced that it has achieved a safe culture, it almost certainly has not.” The DAE and its attendant institutions appear to be convinced not just that they have a safe culture, but that the hazardous technologies they operate are incapable of undergoing accidents. This is not conducive to safety.

The risk of catastrophic accidents means that the pursuit of nuclear power is justified only if it is done democratically with the informed consent of the potentially affected populations. What the Koodankulam protest tells us is that these populations are not consenting to be subject to this risk. They deserve to be listened to, not dismissed as stooges of foreign funding. That is an insult to the intellects and minds of millions of people and to democracy itself.

(MV Ramana, Physicist, Program On Science and Global Security, Princeton University)


The above article from Tehelka is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.