Fukushima Daichi and nuclear safety

By | December 3, 2011

Contrasting bits of news coming in from Fukushima Daichi in Japan. And I think, as a country with a raging debate about nuclear power, we need to pay more attention to it. We need to evaluate for ourselves the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power and see how we can achieve safe nuclear energy or it doesn’t make sense to pursue nuclear power.

The government has invited IAEA to review our nuclear facilities. As a responsible method for assessing safety, it makes sense. But if you see the political scenario, it is very closely linked with our reactor  at Kudankulam and other regions, where anti-nuclear protests threaten the very existence of the nuclear plants. It comes among other initiatives like catchy radio jingles to persuade people to support nuclear power. As always, the feeling is that we have missed the mark completely.

In all seriousness, IAEA shouldn’t be invited to have an opinion unless it is established how that opinion matters. What information are we looking for and if we are looking with a view to prove safety, do we see ourselves accepting if it is deemed unsafe? As we see in Japan, when things go to hell in a handbasket, the first thing to suffer is transparency.

As a result, few have an idea of what is really happening.

Consider these facts:

  • TEPCO has released a simulation that shows that the core may have eaten into the concrete, but the primary containment is intact. Now compare this with what we know. If the primary containment were intact, the radiation would be contained and we wouldn’t be discussing this at all.
  • The same day as TEPCO released the information about the core eroding the concrete, it spoke about achieving cold shutdown by 16th December based on the information that the temperature of the reactor had dropped to acceptable levels. If you are following news, you can’t but help wonder what the reactor temperature being under control means at all, if the core isn’t in the reactor anymore.

On the other hand, citizens are stepping up to help clean up the residential areas and make them safer. There is a lot of anger against the government when people should be coming together to maximize resources. There is low trust. This low trust is well earned.

To anyone following the Fukushima nuclear accident, one thing is clear. There is a polarization in the response to the accident.

People all over the world who are interested in preserving nuclear power as a source of energy tend to look at the “bright side” of things. As though there is any bright side to a catastrophe. Those are the ones who will keep talking about how safe nuclear power is, when we have lost one vast area in the Chernobyl disaster and another is in the way with the Fukushima disaster. That is within a realtively short span of time. Many people who aren’t too old have lived through both stories. And it will be a long time before they start being habitable. Not in your lifetime or mine. Middle aged people, not like having been alive at the time of the World wars. It is no small deal. At this rate, we won’t have enough place on earth to escape radiation in a few generations. There simply aren’t enough sweet words to make this sound good. And we aren’t even talking about contamination in the world, on the sea floors, where it can’t be fixed, cancers, loss of property, money, lives uprooted.

There are other people who look at the worst side of the disaster. They are the ones talking about China Syndrome and hydrothermal explosions and massive nuclear wasteland and so on. There is no specific explanation as to why a core being flooded with water – no matter where it sinks, water sinks too – will be superheated and cause an explosion on contact with underground water. Maybe it can happen, but in any nuclear accident, it hasn’t happened so far. There is no explanation for why a molten core will not naturally disperse when it mixes with soil, burns its way through, gets debris mixed in, etc and will remain exactly as pure a ball of burning nuclear material all through to China. That all cooling efforts will comprehensively fail. Sure, nuclear energy is a lot of energy, but if things were that bad, we’d have discovered it right along with the discovery of uranium and experimenting with it. No?

More than who is right and who is wrong, this debate seems to be a metaphorical stand over nuclear energy. Those who dislike it notice the worst side, those who like it see its best. And they refuse to meet about obvious things, because metaphors are not to be debated, they are expressions of stands not directly stated.

This is unhelpful, and it is a lesson for every country in the world to look at the conversations around nuclear power. If people living near a nuclear power plant don’t feel heard when they voice concerns, if their concerns are dismissed, they are going to raise their voice and keep raising it – this is about survival for them, not an intellectual debate over safety systems. The more very real bad things happening are ignored, the more opposition for nuclear power will become visible. Similarly, the more extreme the forecasts of doom get, the more they will be dismissed. There needs to be a middle way and the roots will be in transparency.

Honesty is much needed here. It is lack of information, more than anything else that leads to superstition. An example of this lies in the comments of a blog that found the live feed from the nuclear plant showing a fire. Two days since, there is still no explanation. Some smaller update type articles said that hydrogen was being burned without referring to the fire. Now that doesn’t explain anything either. There is nitrogen being mixed so that the hydrogen doesn’t ignite, so it doesn’t make sense that the venting caused it to burn, and if it didn’t burn on its own, there is absolutely no reason to do anything further with it once it is out of the reactor. People are concerned. There are numerous theories ranging from some kinds of lights mounted on vehicles in foggy air to nuclear fission chain reaction. But no one has bothered to explain. Not the governement, not TEPCO. Why wouldn’t these anxious people never want nuclear power near their homes?

India has a similar mindset. Things simply don’t get noticed till there is a scam breaking news. Misinformation, disinformation and refusals to accommodate concerns are routine. This doesn’t help build a convincing case for nuclear power. We need knowledge to arrive at informed decisions anywhere in the world, and we are not exempt.

There is a list of recommendations on how we should approach nuclear power in an earlier article about nuclear power in India. Do read, do comment.


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