By Rajeev Sharma
The quake and tsunami-hit Japan is struggling to prevent a third, and much bigger, crisis that is threatening to happen: nuclear radiation leak that can, at its worst, affect thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. The danger came alive on March 13, a day after Japan’s mega earthquake of 9.0 magnitude, when an explosion at the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, about 300 kilometers from Tokyo, apparently caused a reactor meltdown, though a meltdown does not necessarily mean a nuclear disaster. At least three Japanese nuclear power plants face the danger of a meltdown. The Japan crisis has put a big question mark on the safety aspects of nuclear power plants and may even kick up a debate whether the world needs to use this technology that can go out of hand and prove to be catastrophic.
India too has to quickly learn its lessons from the Japan crisis and lay more emphasis on making its nuclear plants with such inbuilt mechanisms that can withstand even mega quakes. The good thing is that the Indian Prime Minister assured Parliament on March 14 that the Department of Atomic Energy and its agencies including the Nuclear Power Corporation of India have been instructed to undertake an immediate technical review of all safety systems of all the twenty nuclear power plants that are operational. In a statement on earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Prime Minister said the DAE and its agencies have been told to ensure that India’s nuclear power plants would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes. The gist of the Prime Minister’s assurances in Parliament is contained in his following three quotes:
- Work is underway in the Department of Atomic Energy towards further strengthening India’s national nuclear safety regulatory authority.
- Two reactors at Tarapur, TAPS-1& TAPS-2 are Boiling Water Reactors of the type being operated in Japan. A safety audit of these reactors has been completed recently.
- Indian nuclear plants have in the past met their safety standards. Following the earthquake in Bhuj on 26 January 2002 the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station continued to operate safely without interruption. Following the 2004 tsunami, the Madras Atomic Power Station was safely shutdown without any radiological consequences. It was possible to restart the plant in a few days after regulatory review.
While India’s nuclear power honchos are claiming that its nuclear installations are safe from powerful earthquakes and even a missile strike, the focus is back on the proposed Jaitapur nuclear plant in Maharashtra. Jaitapur falls under seismic Zone III on a scale of I to V, though some anti-nuclear activists claim it comes under Zone IV. Zone III means it is a moderate risk zone from the view point of earthquakes’ intensity that can occur in the region. In the twenty-year period of 1985 to 2005, the region experienced 91 small and medium tremors, ranging from 2.9 to 6.3 on the Richter scale. The proposed Jaitapur plant has also been in the news for fears of becoming another Enron as the price at which it will generate nuclear power is said to be economically unviable. However, the latest safety concerns in view of Japan’s March 11 earthquake, fresh concerns have been raised over the Jaitapur plant.
For its part, the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, which operates all nuclear plants in India, has claimed since the Japan crisis that all Indian nuclear power plants are adequately safe and the inbuilt safety mechanisms are so strong that the plants can withstand even a missile strike. The NPCIL officials are dismissive of Japan-type meltdown of Indian nuclear power plants in the event of an earthquake. Though the NPCIL bosses admit that the Indian nuclear plants may not be able to withstand an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, they point out that India is not so much seismically volatile to experience a quake of that magnitude.
Stratfor, the American strategic affairs service that prides itself as “the shadow CIA”, quoted a report from the damaged power plant in Japan as indicating that exposure rates outside the plant were at about 620 millirems per hour. However, it was not clear whether that report came before or after the reactor’s containment structure exploded. Radiation exposure for the average individual is 620 millirems per year, split about evenly between man-made and natural sources. Stratfor said the firefighters who served at Russia’s Chernobyl plant during the 1986 disaster were exposed to between 80,000 and 1.6 million millirems. A 30-kilometer-radius no-go zone remains at Chernobyl to this day. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that an exposure of 375,000 to 500,000 millirems would be sufficient to cause death within three months for half of those exposed.
Stratfor pointed out many similarities in Japan to the Chernobyl disaster. Reports indicate that up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) of the reactor fuel was exposed, partially melted, and the subsequent explosion has shattered the walls and roof of the containment vessel. Chernobyl was not any different. It says the crucial question is whether the floor of the containment vessel cracked? This is something that has never happened before in human history. If it has, it is the nightmare scenario for a nuclear power event.
The Japan nuclear crisis is a reminder of latent dangers inherent in nuclear power stations and explodes mythical assurances and assumptions that nuclear power plants are safe because they are carefully designed. It will inevitably deal a blow to the rapid popularity of nuclear power in recent years because it is a non-polluting source of energy and provides a welcome break from dependence on the fast-depleting oil and petroleum reserves. The quake that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan on March 12 led to the first-ever state of emergency issued for nuclear plants, including the evacuation of a neighbourhood. It sent a clarion call across the globe to bring in necessary changes in the design concept of nuclear plants.
The situation in Japanese reactors is now very similar to the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the US where cooling water poured out of the core, nearly triggering a catastrophe. The problem in quake-damaged Japanese reactors erupted because the Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) failed to work in several reactors. The ECCS is considered the most important of the multi-tier safety mechanism that is put in place for nuclear reactors. The ECCS could not work because of a power outage. This calls for urgent and comprehensive changes in designs of nuclear power plants that are coming up across the globe.
Japan’s current nuclear crisis was triggered by a powerful earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, now upgraded to 9.0, that struck the country on March 12 afternoon at 2.46 pm local time and triggered a devastating tsunami. This led to issuance of tsunami warnings globally. The Hawai-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning across most of the Pacific Ocean and said the tsunami would threaten coastal areas of Russia, Taiwan, Hawaii, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia, the west coasts of the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America.
The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad, has categorically stated that India does not face the tsunami threat. Another relief from the Indian perspective is that there are no reports of any harm to any of the 25,000 Indians living in Japan. The March 12 quake in Japan is the fifth most powerful quake in the world since 1900. However, it goes to the credit of technologically highly advanced Japanese that the death toll, now feared to cross the 20,000 mark, is still far less than what it could have been in a developing country. In Japan itself, more than one hundred thousand people had died in the 1923 Great Kanto quake in Tokyo and its vicinity, though that quake measured only 7.9.
The energy released by March 12 quake was about 45 times that of the Great Kanto Earthquake that killed 140,000-odd people in the Tokyo area in 1923, and about 1,450 times that of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 that devastated much of Kobe and killed more than 6,400 people dead. The March 12 quake, that originated at a depth of around 10 kilometers 130 kilometers east-southeast in the Pacific off the coast of Ojika Peninsula in Sendai city, resulted in shutting down of trains across central and northern Japan, including Tokyo and severely disrupted air travel. East Japan Railway Co. suspended all services on its Shinkansen bullet train and other lines in the Tokyo metropolitan area. A fire broke out at the nuclear plant in Onagawa, triggering fears of another Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster of Russia a quarter century ago.
The tsunami triggered by the quake swept away a ship carrying more than 100 people. A second major earthquake of 7.4 magnitude was reported as aftershocks shook the region. Mobile phone networks were paralysed across central and northern Japan. Power blackouts affected about 2 million residents around Tokyo alone. Tokyo’s Narita airport shut its runways for safety checks. Prime Minister Naoto Kan held an emergency meeting and pledged that the government will work on the crisis with its “whole body and soul”.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])