March 19, 2011 3:56:53 am
The full and cumulative effects of the earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan are still unclear,when it comes to the nuclear power plant complex at Fukushima Daiichi. Japanese authorities,assisted by the IAEA and the international community,are straining every nerve to contain the damage at the site.
There is a 12-mile exclusion ring around the nuclear plant,and countries like the US have advised evacuations for anyone within a radius of 50 miles around the site. The situation is still fluid,with threat levels having been recently raised to 5 on the INES scale (where Chernobyl was 7) the same as the Three-Mile Island disaster.
As the battle to contain the situation goes on,there is now universal concern about the safety of nuclear power and its future,in a context where only recently a nuclear renaissance of sorts had been held out as the answer to our growing energy needs. This debate is especially intense in India,given the special stress that our planners had placed on nuclear power. Those who had opposed nuclear energy in any form,for civil or strategic purposes,have exploited these new doubts to the fullest. The controversy over the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant has added to this furore. It is worth asking,therefore: first,are nuclear power plants unsafe? Second,what is the track record of Indian nuclear power plant operators? And third,what are the lessons to be taken away from the ongoing Japanese experience?
So far,the performance of nuclear power plants has been exceptionally good. The number of reactor-years logged by the civil nuclear power industry runs into hundreds of thousands. With the exception of the Chernobyl accident which was an exceptional case for more reasons than one there has been only one incident of level 5 in the INES scale,the Three-Mile island case,and even there was no radiation leak or any radiation exposure to anybody even though the plant experienced a fuel meltdown as is happening now in Japan. Whats more,there had been no other nuclear accident above level 2 so far,with the exception of the current Japanese case. The IAEA terms events at levels 1-3 incidents and only events in the scale 4-7 as accidents. Even at Fukushima,the reactor withstood,without any damage to its structure,an earthquake of magnitude 9. It was the tsunami that followed the earthquake that caused the off-site damage which impacted the reactor. Therefore,there is nothing in the history of power reactor operation to indicate that they are unsafe. Nevertheless,the IAEA,with the help of member states,is constantly examining the safety features of reactors,and there is no doubt that this accident at Fukushima will only go towards making subsequent reactor and off-site designs more robust and safe.
As for Indias reactor operation in the past decade,there has been only one incident at level 2,and that too over six years back. With the newly enhanced concerns about nuclear safety,one hopes that Indian nuclear operators will be even more cautious about the safety of their operations.
What are the lessons to be learnt from the Japanese situation? First of all,the need for developing a well-established and followed procedure to alert the public,and adequate precautionary measures. In Japan,the relevant law requires that the plant operators notify the nation prefectures,cities and towns promptly,in order for them to take necessary action. The speed with which the Japanese notified evacuation of people,first within a 3 km zone,later expanded to 10,20 and 30 km,and the efficiency of these evacuations,is telling. Without such efficiency,there is little doubt that some of the people in the area would have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Second,both the operator Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency were regularly communicating to the public through their website,with details of the ongoing developments at the power plant site and the levels of radiation intensity at all the monitoring sites around the plant. Third,the people also deserve much of the credit for the apparently at least so far limited radiation damage suffered by them. The promptness and discipline with which the population responded to the authorities call for evacuation contributed in no small measure. All these are features transparency,discipline,corporate responsibility and regulatory agency efficiency that have a long way to go in India. We would do well to imbibe these lessons,as Japan goes through the greatest nuclear damage it has experienced since the end of World War II.
The writer is visiting fellow at IDSA and the National Maritime Foundation
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