<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Open+Sans%3A400italic%2C700italic%2C400%2C700">Fukushima Prefecture Archives « Aam JanataSkip to content

The last post ends with a table of nuclear incidents in India. The thing is that when it comes to radiation, there isn't too much difference between clean and safe. Contamination is unsafe. It is also expensive. So, these posts may take specific perspectives, but they are interlinked.

Radiation is not safe. Experts are increasingly in agreement that while we all get some dose of radiation as a part of normal life, there is no level of radiation that can be declared safe. However, for purposes of this article, that will sound paranoid, so let us look at only the more outstanding examples.

I have absolutely no clue and have not encountered anywhere the parameters that have been used to conclude nuclear power as safe. In a world hyperventilating over nuclear war, we have in any given reactor hundreds of times if not thousands of times the quantity of fuel found in a nuclear bomb. Security can be breached as was spectacularly demonstrated in a recent Greenpeace protest in France, where the activists got into the nuclear plants by stealth to make their point. The last activist took ten hours to be found. The activists were hounded for compromising security, but it could just as easily have been a terrorist.

Humanitarian expectations would be that nuclear facilities are not targetted in times of war. The question here is if things have come to such a breakdown of relations between two entities that they are resorting to killing each other to find a winner, which side would trust the other to not target facilities? Is it a worthy risk to count on non-targeting of facilities by enemies for own civilians to be safe? Sure, the facilities can be defended, but all it would take is to knock a power plant off whack - be it a direct strike or damage to any of many factors keeping the reactor safe. It could be done with operatives. If a Mumbai style assault were made on a nuclear plant, would our security still be able to prevent penetration? What if twice the number of terrorists came? Twenty, even fifty isn't such a large number. One busload.

Like I said, these are dramatic examples, but a security problem can be much smaller, like uh... the dome of a reactor voluntarily collapsing without being attacked. It has happened. Just google Kaiga Dome collapse to see what I mean. This was during construction itself. Expert assesments were clear that if the reactor had been in operation, the dome collapse would have prevented a safe shutdown  very difficult. 130 tons of concrete falling 13 meters to the automatic control rods below would be messy to put it in very polite terms.

In Narora, in 1993, problematic turbine blades recommended replacement by the manufacturers themselves (BHEL) had not been replaced, and resulted in a massive accident where a blade sheared off during operation, cut off other two blades and the resulting disturbance broke pipes carrying hydrogen, which caught fire, which spread and the safety back up wiring being installed along with the regular wiring, got destroyed at the same time, and workers took risks to stabilize the plant, and manually dump liquid boron into the reactor to slow the reactions because the power lost in the accident - both regular power and backup was restored after a blackout of 17 hours. This could have gone very, very wrong and we could have easily had our own dead zone if not for gutsy workers and a heck of a lot of luck.

These are just a few samples. Kaiga First? Kaiga and Other Nuclear Stories by M V Ramana and Ashwin Kumar is a mind boggling read on the state of security of Indian nuclear installations a jaw dropping collection of everything from patterns of minor accidents and fires to missing people and heavy water leaks that can only be blamed on people with security clearance acting in irresponsible ways for whatever reason. No, you will rarely find persistent questioning of these issues - issues with the capacity to turn vast tracts of the country into permanent no-go zones - in the regular media. On the subject of nuclear power, the mainstream media is impeccably coloring within lines drawn by a government determined to pursue nuclear power at all cost without paying it the due respect of safety.

In fact, our determination to ignore risks of nuclear power is so great, that there is a voluntary gag on events unfolding at Fukushima Daichii in Japan. You simply don't hear all this in Indian media. As far as India is concerned, the accident in Japan was a terrible thing, but it is under control, procedures were followed, and lives were saved. A far cry from the reality of devastated livelihoods, crippling economic losses, contamination above safety levels repeatedly raised after the accident even outside the dead zone. India rarely gets to hear of the contaminated buildings, mutated vegetables, radioactive pollen and other excruciatingly sad stories coming out of there.

A nuclear plant that is still spreading contamination, dead workers, children with holes in their hearts, thousands of animals mercilessly killed, abandoned pets starving and freezing to their deaths, a seafood loving cuisine forever blighted by unacceptable contamination, desperate farmers marking their contaminated produce as coming from other places in order to make a living..... the list is endless. The government is not even able to monitor all the things that need monitoring, and where they do monitor, the results have often been so shocking that they have been silenced, only to emerge through independent monitoring or leaks. To put it mildly, this is not safe. Japan is not safe. For that matter, by the time this crisis is over, there is no telling how far this unSafety will have expanded.

In India itself (and other parts of the world) independent studies have established a greater incidence of cancers near nuclear plants that nuclear bodies have consistently dismissed. And here's the deal, after both Chernobyl and Fukushima, the trend is fairly clear that a chunk of radiation related deaths other than the immediate ones from radiation poisoning happen not of cancer, but heart attacks - which is something we aren't even monitoring - or at least nothing has been released to the public.

In still other news, if you read the archives of Tehelka, you will discover the appalling lack of safety in our uranum mines where people working in radioactive dust don't even wear facemasks, and radioactive ore is carried for refining in open trucks covered with tarpaulin sheets that do little to prevent contamination of areas they pass through. Villages often have contaminated objects in them. There have been instances of contamination of local streams through the run off from nuclear plants or breaches in the tailings ponds.

There is a vocal condemnation of anti-nuclear activists as anti-national, criminal, funded by foreign interests and what not, and the usual process of pulling suspects out of hats has happened. However, while the government has been able to fund radio jingles (of all things) to try to make nuclear energy sound attractive to people, it apparently hasn't found the time to answer crucial questions raised by them, or the commitment to safety to address important issues with existing facilities as a token of intent with regard to safety.  For example, there is absolutely nothing unreasonable to want to know evacuation plans in existence. Or to want evidence based reassurances with regards to risk to livelihood (in other words, more than "Don't worry, nothing will happen"). I think it is absolutely vital for local communities to be provided equipment to monitor radiation levels at will and to call for shutdowns or inspections if alarmed - after all, is is their lives, livelihoods, lands and entire ways of life at stake. In fact, it can prove to be an excellent failsafe - except that the government doesn't want to do anything that gives locals any power over what happens in their vicinity. Would you trust our government this blindly?

On the other hand, the sweet talk continues. Articles continue to be written about the foreign funded NGOs that have nothing better to do than to harass governments. Latest advances in nuclear energy are flaunted . You have PR exercises launched to influence public opinion. Massive nuclear reactor clusters are called "nuclear parks" - sounds most health conscious - a place you'd definitely take your kid for a pecni Another article describes a stage in the storage of nuclear fuel as thus: "radioactive waste is first converted into inert and stable materials which are kept inside stainless steel canisters sealed with lead covers." Understand this straight. If radioactive waste were rendered inert and stable, there wouldn't be any need to store it safely, no? But few stop to question. It sounds exceedingly safe with further redundant safeguards and such, but the reality of the matter is that we have had serious security issues that are not being owned, serious information missing that can make all the difference between life and death. For example there is no plan B if something were to happen to a BARC reactor - incidentally a site that also has a lot of used fuel stored. What is a Mumbaikar to do if there is a nuclear alert? Nothing is freely available to the public explaining precautions to be taken, preparedness tips and other information that ought to be freely accessible.

The safety concerns around nuclear reactors are so high that it is impossible to cover them comprehensively here. US has not built  a nuclear reactor in the last three decades. Last month, DAE in India finally admitted to employee deaths to rare bone cancer linked with radiation exposure.

There is no nuclear reactor in the world that is insured by an insurance company. None. Strange, seeing as how nuclear power is promoted as safe. If the probability of an accident was as low as claimed, the high premiums would have insurance companies dancing to the bank and more lining up to get a piece of the action. Instead, you have reactors subsidized by tax payer money, and insured by the government. In other words, if a reactor goes kaput, it is the tax payer bailing out everyone, because the dumb tax payer doesn't stop to ask why should something safe be refused insurance.

There are a lot of fantasies fed to us in the name of nuclear power. How we need it, how it is the only real option for the power we so desperately need, how it isn't all that dangerous and so on. There is no space for an alternative view. The government is clear on what it wants to do, and promotes all opposition to nuclear projects as against the interests of the country. The media carefully walks the same path.

There are three key components to the nuclear power halo, and there will be three posts here looking at these claims. Clean, Safe and Cheap.

This, the first is about the Clean.

Before we get into any worst case scenarios, let us see the normal operations of a nuclear plant. Even a brand new plant vents radioactive gasses, and cycles contaminated water from the reactor to be decontaminated and reused or released into the environment. They have "allowed" levels, since these activities are part of the normal functioning of the plant. Monitoring for radioactive contamination is not possible (or methods available) for the entire known range of contamination that can happen. It is unclear what kind of monitoring is actually carried out in India. This data is not publicly made available at the very least, though it is of significance to the public at large.

As nuclear plants age, the chances of leaks rise significantly. These may be in the form of gasses, or pipes and valves that wear out. In theory, the high risk environment means that monitoring for wear and replacement is high priority. In practice, almost every plant in the world has had leaks - great or small. Many argue that it is a matter of working efficiently. However, that is debatable, considering that a factor like piping alone involves hundreds of kilometers of pipe in a single reactor. The risk of lapse will always be there.

Then you have the actual incidents of contamination. These may be security breaches or equipment or facility failures. Depending on the kind of contamination and the half-lives of the materials released, the severity can be as minor as the radioactivity dying out in a week or so to the area becoming permanently radioactive.

And you have the severe accidents a la Chernobyl or Fukushima, where the reactors are destroyed, massive radiation releases happen, vast areas become permanently out of bounds for humans and incalculable destruction of life, health, property loss, economic loss and loss of resources like food and water happens. It is entirely debatable if such loss can ever be considered a worthy risk no matter how much electricity and profit a reactor makes.

Today, most Indians barely hear anything at all about Fukushima, but almost a year from the incident, the crisis is still unfolding. Contamination is still being called in from new areas. The initial optimism of reclaiming contaminated lands (upto 100mSv within a decade and 200mSv in two decades) has been replaced with a resigned acceptance that areas measuring more than 50mSv will be permanently out of bounds for humans. The losses in livestock, farming produce, fishing, property and health are still unfolding a year from the crisis. It is still not possible to conclude about how much loss has happened.

And it is a long way from over. An entire Spent Fuel Pool (SFP) is on a rickety structure that is one good earthquake away from catastrophic collapse. And any of the reactors or SFPs going critical or even developing a massive leak (very possible) will require evacuations that will set off more. A year from the crisis, we still have no clue where the fuel from the reactors actually is.

The live cameras still show suspicious steam and flashes at the nuclear plant routinely and people working at the plant have died of heart attacks regularly. For that matter, people working on the decontamination outside the evacuation zone have also dropped dead after handling the radioactive sludge and other waste. The last known incident was yesterday, and we'll be lucky to go a week without hearing another.

Indian media has put the trauma of Fukushima firmly behind them and are currently busy describing how anti-nuclear NGOs have suspicious funding. However, while we haven't got a Fukushima or Chernobyl yet, we have had our own history of nuclear accidents that should raise the hair of anyone not obsessed with dismissing them.

Here's the list in Wikipedia, though details of these and more will soon be a section on this site. The summary of "clean" in India. The summary of such "clean" in the world is beyond the scope of this article.

Nuclear power accidents in India

(in millions

2006 US$)

4 May 1987Kalpakkam, IndiaFast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam refuelling accident that ruptures the reactor core, resulting in a two-year shutdown0300
10 Sep 1989Tarapur, Maharashtra, IndiaOperators at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station find that the reactor had been leaking radioactive iodine at more than 700 times normal levels. Repairs to the reactor take more than a year078

The on line hours of unit 1&2 in 1990 were 7772 and 7827 hrs (source IAEA PRIS. Repairs lasting more than one year from 10 Sep 1989 can not yield such on line hours.surely something is wrong.

13 May 1992Tarapur, Maharashtra, IndiaA malfunctioning tube causes the Tarapur Atomic Power Station to release 12 curies of radioactivity02
31 Mar 1993Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, IndiaThe Narora Atomic Power Station suffers a fire at two of its steam turbine blades, damaging the heavy water reactor and almost leading to a meltdown0220 The cost data is not on comparable basis. 2400 or so US 2006 dollars for TMI and 220 for NAPS unit 1 is wrong.
2 Feb 1995Kota, Rajasthan, IndiaThe Rajasthan Atomic Power Station leaks radioactive helium and heavy water into the Rana Pratap Sagar River, necessitating a two-year shutdown for repairs280
22 Oct 2002Kalpakkam, IndiaAlmost 100 kg radioactive sodium at a fast breeder reactor leaks into a purification cabin, ruining a number of valves and operating systems030