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Is it time for India to Quit Nuclear Power?

Once, US stunned the world with the power of nuclear bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, and a messy war abruptly ended. Then, atomic energy could also be used for peaceful purposes! India was a newborn country with little more than a reputation for crippling poverty and a colonial self-image we were clawing out of. But we had a lot of people, and a lot of smart people too. Pursuit of nuclear power was a goal as important for military might as for a certain technological status. I don't think it was ever about electricity for electricity's sake.

The world has changed. Nuclear energy no longer has the fiction of "near free" attached to it. In fact, it is so expensive, that nuclear energy in any country is not feasible without government subsidies and government responsibility in the event of an accident. For all the claims of "safe" and "cheap" no insurance company insures a nuclear plant. The world at large seems to be moving away from nuclear energy. A quick look at the age of reactors worldwide:

Operational reactors by age - worldwide

A more telling way to look at this is the Nuclear Capacity Installed by year chart - all official IAEA PRIS:

Nuclear Capacity Installed By Year

There have been very few reactors commissioned since Chernobyl which happened in 1986. The chart hits a peak for two years before that. But slowly, in recent years, there were construction charts, which peaked in 2010 and crashed after 2011 - Fukushima.

Construction starts on Nuclear Reactors

An analysis by the WorldWatch Institute mentions still smaller numbers (IAEA has a generous view of nuclear energy - to put it mildly*). It says:

Although construction on 16 new reactors began in 2010—the highest number in over two decades—that number fell to just two in 2011, with India and Pakistan each starting construction on a plant. In addition to this dramatically slowed rate of construction, the first 10 months of 2011 saw the closing of 13 nuclear reactors, reducing the total number of reactors in operation around the world from 441 at the beginning of the year to 433.

India, however is still stubbornly plodding along in its commitment to an obsession for nuclear energy in the face of all logic. Government and media collude to minimize perceptions of costs - financial or human as well as viable alternatives.

In December, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh dismissed the idea of letting the Koodankulam plant stay idle anymore, because 14 thousand crore rupees had been invested in it. Forget junking the plant, it can't even remain idle any further because it is expensive. Not that the people of Koodankulam had asked for a single rupee to be invested there. Nor had anyone asked the construction to proceed without the appropriate assessments made with a genuine interest in safety rather than pushing papers through because the plant had to be made. The investment bulldozered over all resistance and now is the reason to bulldoze over any further resistance. One can understand the point being made by the Prime Minister. That plant costs one million dollars per day to sit idle, according to some.That would be rupees 5 crore, give or take. Per day.

This is the money for Atomic Energy and Renewable energy in the budgets from 1999 to our current one for 2013

[table id=3 /]

Here's an easy graph.

There are other costs involved

India does not have large uranium reserves, and we depend on imports for our fuel. If in the future, India did something that displeased the other nations (or its allies - or US - which is like Godfather), disallowing uranium exports to India would be a massive pressure to bend the country into conformity.

And it is already happening in the form of unnecessary purchases of reactors in order to have access to uranium. A scathing article by A Gopalkrishnan in the DNA outlines many of the opaque and irregular ways of nuclear power in India. I think you will find the foreign hand our Prime Minister was talking about, except that it is not the activists. And why should you pay attention to what this A. Gopalkrishnan says? Because he is a former chairman of the AERB - our supposed watchdog that is firmly caged in by our nuclear mafia. Thus, apart from the cost of importing fuel, there is a hefty political and economic toll we pay. And the threat is not insignificant. Our nuclear power production dropped 12.83% from 2006 to 2008 before we signed all the flurries of agreements and what-nots. More reactors only means greater potential for such drops because more reactors run out of fuel.

We have plenty of Thorium, but our tech for it isn't capable of producing electricity at the moment. Our normal "indigenous" method of importing almost everything that can be imported will not work here, since there are no functioning thorium reactors in the world. This will need more money to develop, and for all thorium's much publicized advantages, a big challenge is fabrication. Thorium fuel is considerably more difficult to fabricate and will also require us to develop the capacity to fabricate it in complete isolation and remote operation - apart from the difficulties of the so far unprecedented technology itself. Do not believe stories about reactors in Kalpakkam running on thorium. They don't. They use a uranium-plutonium mix - easy to verify for yourself. They will *eventually* use thorium, but seeing as how we have achieved about half the nuclear power capability we had predicted for ourselves for 1987, don't hold your breath and wait for the electricity.

Other costs include devastating potential for human damage, environmental contamination, health problems and more. This article is long, so running through this very briefly. The potential for accident is not as small as you imagine. Guardian lists 32 serious nuclear accidents with radioactive releases since 1952. It is now 2012. It works out to slightly more than one accident every two years as a general trend. Considering that there are only 436 reactors in operation, even considering 5 that were decommissioned (though newer ones counted came up after them) we come to 441 - and 32 serious accidents resulting in release of radioactivity in the environment and requiring decontamination. The three biggies - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daichii - required considerably more than that. They have put entire areas of our planet out of bounds for people. And this list does not include serious accidents that did not result in radioactive releases, like the Naroda fire, which was an INES 3 and the plant was closed for over 2 years for repairs.

A superb investigative story by Kunal Majumder in the Tehelka: Accident Sites - radiation, cancer, blindness, tardiness, cover-ups. The lessons from the Kalpakkam nuclear facility. An NGO called ASPIRE was commissioned by the DEA itself to conduct studies on the health consequences on people near nuclear plants. Accordingly, they did a study of 22 villages within 8 km of the plant and three villages at 50km. The report stated a morbidity 2-3 times higher, an activist who examined it closely says it shows a 350% higher morbidity. Read the report, it also mentions earlier research linking nuclear plants with health risks. And then there is DNA Investigations: Deaths Confirm Cancer risks near Nuclear Plants:

In response to a Right to Information (RTI) query in October last year, the DAE said nine people, including three employees working at the Kalpakkam atomic reactor, about 70km from Chennai, died of multiple myeloma and bone cancer between 1995 and 2011. The department had earlier refused to divulge information despite an RTI query in 2010.

There are actually plenty of these and I will do a separate article on health risks. To get buried in an avalanche of very accurate reports from the ground around nuclear plants, mines and other facilities, do a search for "nuclear plant", or "radiation", etc on the Tehelka website. They have been doing an amazing job. Get overwhelmed.

Depending on whether you are concerned about India's horrible sex ratio, or whether you are fine with us having fewer and fewer girls or perhaps would like the reduced chances of girl children without feeling guilty, this news story in National Geographic may hold importance for you. Scientists studied data from 1975 to 2007 and found links between the birth of more boys than girls and events with large releases of radiation. Tellingly, it is titled Millions Fewer Girls Born Due to Nuclear Radiation? Read this. Seriously. Is it possible that India's failure to control its sex ratio may have causes beyond actions of people that should be investigated?

Here is an environmental dose analysis from background radiation in the environmental gamma monitoring stations at Kalpakkam in the Indian Journal of Environmental Protection - it measures radiation from routine 41Ar radioactive releases from the plant - these are deliberate and routine releases and part of how nuclear reactors work, not leaks. The annual dose from the plume for various stations has been tabulated. This kind of material should be public on the sites of DEA, but it isn't. In this opaque landscape of information, Dr. Sangamitra Gadekar is an oasis of numbers. His measurements at our Jadugoda Uranium mine were reported in the Times of India in 2001:

A vent from the underground mines was as high as 5,851.68 millirem a year, which is 58 times more than permitted limit... The radiation is high everywhere. The reading in the mechua village football field where radioactive tailings lie scattered around was 1,296.48 millirem a year. The readings in the area of the first tailing pond were as high as 5,291.04 millirem a year. Readings on the road (constructed by ucil using tailings) were as high as 5,256 millirem a year.

You know the beauty of quoting radiation readings from an article in 2001? They are unlikely to have vanished - naturally, or as a coverup. They can only be more. Radiaoactive contamination is persistent. Just like the governments affidavit admitting radioactive contamination of water and marine life in the Thane Creek by the BARC (yes MUMBAI) can be verified and taken further whenever activists are able to break through the mafia, because it is going nowhere.

The same article quotes prof N K Upadhyay of the centre for applied ecology, Jamshedpur, who conducted a study on the radiation-related problems at jadogoda.

The radiation affects bone marrow cells, intestines, skin, immune responsive cells, entire stem cell population and also the lymphocytes. It wrecks the hormonal system and even causes mutation. But worst of all, it affects the sperm cells, altering the genetic characteristics of their DNA and RNA. The children of these miners are born mentally retarded, and deformed.

And again Dr. Sanghamitra:

Cses of thalasemia, leukemia (blood cancer), severe anemia, physical deformities such as missing limbs, mental retardation, and even cases of external stomachs due to the absence of the abdominal wall are commonly found in the children of the area. In my opinion, this has been caused by the extremely high radiation levels.

The world at large seems to be moving away from nuclear energy, and most developed countries are decommissioning reactors faster than they are building them.

Much of the cost is unclear. To put it in the blunt words of Ramchandra Guha - a historian:

No ordinary citizen can get anywhere near an atomic installation, and even the most well-connected historian cannot get anywhere near the records of the AEC or its associated bodies.

But this is not all, there are no independent investigations of radiation leaked to the environment. There are no police or CBI investigations into reports of criminal scams - like allegations in the 70s-80s of irradiating diamonds in the Apsara reactor at BARC (this link has massive information) to produce fake black diamonds that got sold in the market for a higher price and worn by people and were dangerously radioactive, leading to the DTC to directly ask the government to ask this practice to be stopped. No police or CBI investigation happened. There are reports of laborers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while working who are simply replaced without any continuing assistance, compensation or even information on risks to their health. Many of these don't even make it to the records as having been employed at all. Let me simply repeat - there is no body that can make our nuclear machinery do anything. AERB reports to and gets funds from the AEC which includes heads of NPCIL and DEA. That is like your employee vouching for your lack of corruption.

While the government was busy reassuring everyone that the Koodankulam plant is safe, CNN IBN released information on 25 intrusions in BARC in 2 years. This is slightly more than one intrusion a month. Intrusion means perimeter breached - as in not detected and stopped at boundary, get it? Last year, two ships grounded at Juhu beach within months of each other. Citizens raised alarm in both cases. Including Amitabh Bachchan getting all excited on Twitter. The Coast Guard then paid attention. Considering how the 26/11 attackers entered India, and how the water near Mumbai is a fairly small area to patrol, this was already incredible.

Turns out BARC got similar intrusions. This is a super high security area in MUMBAI. What kind of security can the plant at Koodankulam expect from such intrusions? Will plant security be able to defend reactors from 26/11 type attacks where elite commandos took three days to control? Does a terrorist need to break reinforced concrete to create a radioactive accident, or will blowing cooling and power systems do the trick? Note that these two reactors are the biggest in India. For that matter, why does an enemy need nuclear missiles, if 100s of times that nuclear material is sitting in reactors? Better targetted missiles should do the trick, no?

Many compare the security risk to a nuclear plant with that for say, a dam or bridge. But beyond the immediate damage, neither the dam nor bridge will cause lasting damage in the future. Do we or do we not have a responsibility to leave our children a healthy world?

Tarapur, for example has a stockpile of 40 years worth spent fuel. We don't yet have long term storage for nuclear waste. Whatever it turns out to be, it will have to be secure from any kind of threat - human or natural - or errors resulting in breaches for thousands of years. Anyone consider the cost of that? The Indian sub-continent is steadily moving up - remember the rising height of the Himalaya? Who knows what the earthquake risks will be for *any* place fifty years in the future? Or do we add costs for more storage construction and then the safe transfer from the highly radioactive environment to another place?

All this is a cost, because these are the undesirable things going hand in hand with our nuclear power.

What are we getting for this cost?

Now here is our power production as a country. The green bit in the lower right is your nuclear energy production. Beats only diesel generators (thin yellow next to it) when it comes to sources - after all this time, money, risks, corruption, suppression of people, international political boot licking, security risk, secrecy and what not.

Breakdown of the electricity production capacity of India by source

Coal (105437.38MW), Gas (18093.85MW), Diesel (1199.75MW) Together as Thermal Energy (124730.98MW) are the largest chunk. Followed by Hydroelectric Energy (38848.40MW), then Renewable Energy (22233.17MW) and finally Nuclear Energy (4780.00MW) = Total 190592.55MW

As you can see, after all this investment, nuclear power does not provide any kind of major source of electricity. Nowhere near the savior it is supposed to be. In half the time invested in atomic energy and 1/7.7th of the budget investment, we are getting 22233MW from renewable energy.

And how good are we at doing this?

Here are figures from the IAEA PRIS for unplanned capability loss for up to 2010 - which is the latest available so far. For your convenience, I have kept this a sortable table. Feel free to click around and compare situations with countries. The only country to have an unplanned capability loss that is worse than ours is Pakistan. But Pakistan has only 2 reactors.

For the record, when it comes to IAEA, "unplanned" is not subject to interpretation. Unplanned Capability Loss is described explicitly as:

Unplanned energy loss is energy that was not produced during the period because of unplanned shutdowns, outage extensions, or unplanned load reductions due to causes under plant management control. Energy loss is considered to be unplanned if it is not scheduled at least four weeks in advance.

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A quick look at how our electricity capacity is growing. I have again used an IAEA table, even though it is woefully out of date, because it is official. To expand the data to current statistics yourself, you can find the numbers in the "Annual reports of the CEA" at the Central Electricity Authority Website reports page:

[table id=5 /]

 

But by now you know the pattern. The pampered kid is usually the laziest, no? Growing at this rate, nuclear power is only going to get more and more irrelevant and cost more and more in investments in reactors, fuel, security and what not.

 

* About the mention of IAEA as a pro-nuclear entity, the IAEA describes itself as "The IAEA is the world's center of cooperation in the nuclear field. It was set up in 1957 as the world's "Atoms for Peace" organization within the United Nations family. The Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies." It is unknown if the IAEA has actually drawn the line anywhere. Its actions consistently take the most accommodating view of any nuclear situation - be it Chernobyl toll or the dubious Fukushima cold shutdown. The matter of fact is that the world doesn't actually have a safety watch dog for nuclear power or nuclear anything.

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Recently, FirstPost, which is a kind of news media thing published an article titled "Why the Kudankulam protesters have it all wrong" which ought to have been an informative thing triggering thought on happenings in the country, etc EXCEPT that it wasn't what it seemed.

The only real point it seemed to make is that Tamil Nadu needs electricity. The rest was emotionalism around it, painting the nuclear plant as the savior that would end all problems, mud slinging the activists, and flat out LIES on the harm from nuclear accidents - including claiming numbers that contradict every known credible source on the subject.

The article should not be read for information, as all the information in it is suspect and rather than verifying every detail and reading fifty times the material to know if something said is true or false, it would be easier to discard the article. Here are some examples of unethical journalism from FirstPost from this article. It begins:

Ever since a guy named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi walked on Indian soil, protesting has been the way of life here. While Gandhi protested against the British, we protest against everything.

So right at the beginning, we have this idea that people's right to protest is something absurd. Nothing illogical, but it is the setting of the stage for mud slinging a certain protest in the article. Well, sucks for FirstPost, but it is a fundamental right and democracies have such things.

Frankly, a newspaper that can't digest people's right to protest unconditionally is by in my view not a pro-rights paper. Call me stupid, but I am more along the lines of Voltaire's "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Because I believe that the concerns of everyone are important.

I don’t think there can be a more ridiculous protest than that. Or at least I thought, till the Kudankulam protest came along.

This means absolutely nothing. Freedom of citizens to protest doesn't require this person's ability to appreciate human freedoms.

Why protest against a Power Plant, when Tamil Nadu is a woefully power deficient state?

Thanking for the courtesy of understanding that the protest is against a power plant and not getting electricity to the state, I would like to offer here, that people have their own evaluations of what is appropriate. I have been broke for ages, but I do think it is inappropriate to do fraud, prostitution or theft, for example. This logic that if there is a need, then there should be no resistance to the available means of fulfilling it is the product of a mind that doesn't think the application of ethics as an important evaluation of the means.

This may be the authors choice, but this is not a desirable state for society or government. This is followed by how there is a lack of power in Tamil Nadu. He describes the situation of Tamil Nadu as already power deficit, which was followed by "big ticket industrialization" for which there was no power.

Now, these new TN industries were not your small cute cottage ones, which had miniscule power requirements. They were your big bad-ass ones, like automobiles, electronics, textiles etc– the Hummers of the power consumption world. The ones that consumed 100’s of MWs, just to remain idle.

So let me get this right, there already was no power for the industrialization that happened. It was unplanned for the resources available. And now the people of Koodankulam should make it all right. Demanding more realistic development that is suitable for the region's capacity to sustain would be illogical, I assume.

And of course, if the protesters are worried that the important assessments to ensure safety are not fulfilled, then they are spoilsports. They shouldn't block. They have it all wrong. There is a shortage of 3000MW in Tamil Nadu, there is a nuclear plant waiting to go into action. Resistance is stupid. Tamil Nadu has shortage, and superhero Kudankulam will fix it. Bas. Enough said.

And then the bizarre data:

If you did not know, Kudankulam was built with Russian help. And, Russia isn’t exactly known for its subtlety. So, in true, Russian style, they helped us build a reactor complex, which has four reactors. And when commissioned will generate a total of 10,000 MegaWatts of Power. And of the four, two are ready.

I have no clue on Russia's ability to be subtle, but I do know that these statistics fit no known source of information for me. The impression I get is that each of the power plants will generate 2,500MW and two being ready means people can expect 5,000MW of electricity. This is not explicitly stated, but it seems to be implied from this information, since there is no detail provided.

Actually, they have so far built two reactors and have FOUR MORE planned, not a total of four. A total of six. NONE of the reactors has a capacity of over 1200MW, so I fail to see how even all six being operational will generate 10,000MW as the author claims. The two ready now are VVER-1000s with a capacity of 1000MW each. The remaining four will be 1170MW each. Which brings us to a total production of 6680MW.

These two reactors, if started, will instantaneously transform Tamil Nadu, from a beggar to a millionaire as far as power is concerned. For the common man, this will mean no more load shedding, no more missing afternoon TV.

It will enable students to rediscover the lost tradition of the afternoon nap. The industry will begin to function at peak capacity finally, resulting in the progress and prosperity of Tamil Nadu.

And of course, it will once and for all solve the power crisis in Tamil Nadu.

So, now let us look at the reality. We have two reactors of 1000MW each ready to go into operation. This is not the electricity production of the reactor, but the capability of the reactor. The actual production is lesser because of the reactor not operating at full capacity or outages, etc. It is calculated as something called a capacity factor. India has never gone beyond 80% production in all its nuclear history.

The max so far is 79% - which is better than other kinds of energy, but it means that even assuming that these reactors perform to this standard straight off the bat, they will together produce 1580MW of electricity. Nowhere near this ridiculous claim. AND, on top of that, India's transmission and distribution losses currently stand at an astounding 34%, which means that out of this 1580MW, about 1000MW or so will actually be "satisfying Tamil Nadu forever after" or some such fuzzy pink bull shit.

On the other hand, instead of these two reactors, if the transmission and distribution losses can be reduced, 34% of 9000MW is more than 3000MW if they can even be cut to half - it will be equal to these two reactors. That is the kind of wastage happening. Then there is more supercilious bull shit:

Just to give you an idea on how long it has been; the initial survey for the Kudankulam plant was not done by Russia but by the Soviet Union, whose Premier was Mikhael Gorbachev. When the site was finally decided, Rajiv Gandhi was still alive. And, Sachin Tendulkar was a talented 17-year-old who was just pitchforked into the Indian team, before he had played a Ranji Trophy match. My question to the protesters is, what were you doing all this while? Waiting for Sachin to score 100 hundreds? Sure, some people will point out that there were protests against the plant, since 1987. But those were your little protests, protests that happen in India everyday. If you happened to read that link, the biggest protest against the plant, had a grand total of 150 people. More people participated, back in my college, in a protest against the mess food.

This is obviously either utter ignorance at work, or deliberate disinformation, because fishermen organized a 10,000 strong protest in May 1989 and got shot at by cops too. To date, cops are avoiding antagonizing the fishermen, and the brave Jayalalitha pretended to support the protest till the elections were over. This doesn't happen with tiny little people protesting in some corner.

If there hadn't been strong opposition all through, why were the reactors delayed post 1998, once the new deal with Russia was done? Or did we start needing electricity just now? The history of Kudankulam protests is public. You don't have to believe me.

Today, after 24 years of continuous construction....

If we need 24 years to *construct* a reactor, how the heck are we going to use them to address needs anyway? This is bull shit. Local protests have repeatedly stalled work here. Which also means, the protesters were not born today.

There is no scientific justification for this protest

This should only be understood to mean that the extremely scientific questions raised went above this person's head. And then his conditions for who should protest:

The Guy who is leading the protest should be qualified.

With this logic, anti-corruption protests should only be made by economists, investigators or politicians. What do qualifications matter if the points raised are valid?

The arguments that he, which by extension covers the whole protest, is putting forth should be scientifically credible.

Again, same thing.

There are very specific concerns raised about the volcanic activity, nature of ground, underwater topography, etc and clear explanations of how they violate standards or necessitate further investigation. These concerns couldn't be more detailed or specific or scientific without doing the research themselves. These concerns have been repeatedly raised at various platforms, with various people, in various publications.

The government's version of science is Kalam declaring it "100% safe". 100% safe is not a scientific answer. This is what is offered to citizens to keep them happy. But some would like information instead of "main bolta hun na, kuch nahi hoga" If you choose to call everything you don't understand or don't want to give importance to as unscientific, then this isn't something that should be a concern of others.

How can a political scientist present credible theories about the plant to villagers?

In a much better way Jayalalitha and Manmohan Singh gave the green signal to the plant without answering any real concerns, I suppose. He certainly has studied the subject more than both of them put together. And if he is talking about the scientists advising them, there is more evidence based information available on the perils of India's nuclear programmes than their benefits. By scientists, researchers, doctors and more. Including a DEA study that shows larger likelihood of cancers around nuclear plants, an article based on research in the National Geographic linking the birth of fewer girls with the effects of radiation, problems with our nuclear programme itself, and more. A simple glance by any educated person tells us that nuclear energy, at least in India is more trouble than it is worth. So where are the scientific papers reassuring us of safety?

I tried hard to find one that resembled what I mentioned above. After arduous Googling, this is what I found, a post written by Dr Udayakumar himself, on the perils of Kudankulam. This was, by far, the worst document I have seen in my life, and this includes my own writing. And, that is saying something.

I think by now I can safely say this writer's estimation of both what constitutes good writing or scientific is fairly unreliable. The article is there - whoever wants can read and decide for themselves.

Then we get into kid horror films.

Point no 1: Even when the KKNPP projects function normally without any incidents and accidents, they would be emitting Iodine 131, 132, 133, Cesium 134, 136, 137 isotopes, strontium, tritium, tellurium and other such radioactive particles into our air, land, crops, cattle, sea, seafood and ground water. Already the southern coastal belt is sinking with very high incidence of cancer, mental retardation, Down syndrome, defective births due to private and government sea-sand mining for rare minerals including thorium. The KKNPP will add many more woes to our already suffering people.

If you didn’t bother to read it, here is the gist. He writes, because of the radioactive materials leaving the plant and mixing with the water and food, something like this is going to happen in Kudankulam, really really soon.

Mr. Know-it-all is skeptical that radioactive contamination is possible. However documented evidence is that there is health damage to populations near Nuclear plants already. And this isn't activist propaganda, but a study commissioned (and not released) by the DEA - Department of Atomic Energy. It doesn't get more official than this when it comes to nuclear in India.

Though by far and large, our strategy to prevent radioactive contamination is to not check if there is any.

In the city of Mumbai, there is a nuclear reactor, right in the middle of the city. A city of 30 million people. Last known, they have not transformed into some version of The Incredible Hulk meets the Godzilla. It means that the people of Kudankulam and the nearby villages are safe from the ‘monster’ that is the Kudankulam power plant.

I hate to bring a serious subject in the face of such frivolous thinking, but a terminal cancer patient still doesn't look like either Incredible Hulk or Godzilla or any variation thereof. People who dropped dead of radiation on the spot didn't look like that either. This is nothing more than an exhibition of extreme childishness in the face of a serious subject. I suppose since he can't see air, or see people growing visibly, humans neither breathe nor grow?

Also, it needs to be understood here that there is no research on health impact on citizens of Mumbai from the reactors. An absence of data must not be confused with a lack of risk.

The very serious fact on this is that a nuclear accident involving Mumbai will be a nightmare of proportions beyond imagination. Think Japan having to evacuate Tokyo. It is the subject of models and even a book by scientists, and none of them are funny. At all.

This actually coincides with the great American research "Thinking the Unthinkable" - a USGOV study that evaluates the impact of a nuclear attack on Washington and concludes that it wouldn't be all that bad.

Thinking about the unthinkable, a U.S. government study analyzed the likely effects from terrorists setting off a 10-kiloton nuclear device a few blocks north of the White House. It predicted terrible devastation for roughly one-half mile in every direction, with buildings reduced to rubble the way that World War II bombing raids destroyed parts of Berlin.

Just like a videogame. Buildings for a half mile radius reduced to RUBBLE. No mention of people... (Notice how there is no mention of Hiroshima or Nagasaki either... )

But outside that blast zone, the study concluded, even such a nuclear explosion would be pretty survivable.

Let me get this right, the only damage would be buildings in a half mile radius and... nothing... or at least pretty survivable? Why is US not dealing with Pakistan more firmly, then? Wouldn't such pretty survivable damage be worth tackling a festering problem thoroughly? Let's face it. How many cities does Pakistan have within range that are populated equal or more than Washington? So why the fear mongering when it comes to practice? Is it possible that the study is a tad bit unrealistic in terms of the human impact?

But I digress. Coming back to this article making the same point...

If you think in case of a disaster, the whole area will be wiped out and thousands will die, then well you are wrong.

How many people have to die to qualify as a disaster? Does it justify taking risks when alternatives are avaialble?

The total number of fatalities, directly or indirectly, due to a Nuclear power plant meltdown, from 1960-2011, across the globe, is 47.

Yes 47 in all. This includes Chernobyl and Fukushima.

This is bull shit. Even the ultimate pimp of nuclear power - the IAEA puts the DIRECT losses from Chernobyl alone to be 56 and an estimated 4000 "will die eventually". On the other hand, other, non nuclear sources are far less kind. to quote from an excellent article about this in the Guardian:

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, another UN agency, predicts 16,000 deaths from Chernobyl; an assessment by the Russian academy of sciences says there have been 60,000 deaths so far in Russia and an estimated 140,000 in Ukraine and Belarus.

Meanwhile, the Belarus national academy of sciences estimates 93,000 deaths so far and 270,000 cancers, and the Ukrainian national commission for radiation protection calculates 500,000 deaths so far.

And these are no insignificant organizations giving out these numbers. To claim direct and indirect deaths not being more than 47 is like saying only the people who died on that fateful night in Bhopal are the victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Not the ones who died later, not the ones maimed, deformed, disabled, etc. And then reporting that number to be a hundred as well.

And this crapshoot goes on and on in its juvenile rampage. At some point you have:

The Chinese have been building a power plant with Russian help, equipped with the same VVER-1000 Nuclear reactor.

A short while ago, this very reactor was declared as the safest nuclear reactor in the world. That too not by some literary artists like Dr Udayakumar, but by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA).

China has never been a big one for giving a damn about its people, and IAEA EXISTS to PROMOTE nuclear power. The IAEA has also "welcomed" the news of the "cold shutdown" at Fukushima, when a year after the disaster no one has still found the approximate location of any of the fuel. I would like better reassurances of safety. A good pointer on the "safety" of VVER-1000 is the promotion for VVER-1200 - which addresses "critical deficiencies in design" like a core catcher among other things - which would be nice, no in case of a meltdown? Therefore to kindly shut up.

Before somebody says, let me admit that I am not a nuclear physicist or a scientist.

Not everyone can be a nuclear physicist or scientist, but when pretending to have an even half way informed opinion, research can be done by any person. There is absolutely no excuse not to and then pretend to know what you are talking about.

There is this comprehensive government report which counters every argument of this man.

This mysterious report needs to see light of day no? Why not provide a link? Better still, ask the government to publish it widely, so that those questions are answered, and the protest stops?

Overall assessment of this article: Juvenile

Author: Malicious and juvenile.

Editor: Incompetent

FirstPost: Pro-nuclear disinformation source

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The Department of Atomic Energy was formed on the 3rd of August 1948, not even a year past our independence. That is how important we considered Atomic Energy to be. At that time, Atomic Energy was still unfolding. Its power had been demonstrated with devastating effect in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and I suppose the idea seemed like a very reassuring insurance to a young and vulnerable country born in conflict. True to our value of self-reliance, the intent was always to be capable of developing the entire fuel cycle on our own merit (those were not the capitalist days)

However, as the complexity was realized, it became clear we would need assistance. Around the time of President Eisenhower’s Atom’s for Peace speech in 1953, and the Geneva conference for peaceful uses of Atomic Energy in 1955, we seeked assistance, and with the aid of Sir John Cockroft (British) we acquired designs and some uranium fuel and our first “indigenous” reactor Apsara went critical in 1956. This was quickly followed by the CIRUS with the aid of W. Bennett Lewis (Canadian). Both were friends of Dr. Bhabha from his Cambridge days. These were followed by reactors at Tarapur and Rawatbhata and the first reprocessing plant at Trombay to separate plutonium from the spent fuel.

The confidence of the Department of Atomic Energy grew and the estimations of electricity production in the reactors planned for nuclear energy were projected to be around 8,000MW by 1980. These were swiftly updated to 20-25,000MW by 1987 (in 1962) and 43,500 by the year 2000 (in 1969). Even as concerns grew over India being able to process fuel for a nuclear bomb, and Indian refusal to allow external controls, we tested our Atom bomb and came under the immediate scrutiny of the world. While the atom bomb was an achievement, the resulting sanctions and bans brought our highly foreign aid and know how dependent “indigenous” nuclear programme to its knees.

However, we upped our budgets for nuclear research and plodded along claiming great pride in our achievements and in 1983, the Kalpakkam reactor reached criticality at MAPS with a really indigenous CANDU type reactor. This plant started producing power on the 27th January 1984. This was followed by a second, similar reactor going critical in 1985 and producing power from 21st March 1986. Both reactors produce 170MW, which is less than the planned capacity of 230MW each, mainly because of cracked cooling system issues.

This was the stage for the Koodankulam reactor (which I will write in the morning)

India was producing Nuclear Energy, even if less than advertized.

For years, we struggled against the odds. Far from our grand plans, installed capacity in 1980 was 600MW, 950MW in 1987 (and later 2720 in the year 2000). From the earlier confidence, we were at a place where we would need international assistance to progress, except our nuclear test had scratched that option.

But the bombastic predictions continue. In 2007, the projections are for 20,000MW by 2020 and 207,000MW to 275,000MV by 2052. These are highly unlikely to be achieved, and even if they were, it would be over countless wars with locals over appropriating their land and sabotaging their interests in the name of National Interest.

You know what, even if these predictions were true, they would constitute 8-10% of projected electricity capacity in 2020 and about 20% in 2052.

Please note: I am neither a historian, nor a nuclear scientist, and like you, I get my information from the news, or I hunt it down. Any inaccuracies are mine.

Sources: Various official websites of our atomic energy organizations, Gauging US-Indian Strategic cooperation by Army War College (US).

 

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How much energy does a nuclear power plant generate? According to Wikipedia, in India, we have 20 nuclear reactors in 6 nuclear power plants generating 4,780MW. 5 more plants under construction are expected to add another 2,720 while we have an ambitious target of about 64,000MW by 2032. That is a lot of energy. In the wake of the Fukushima crisis, discussing the merits and demerits of India's nuclear programme is urgent. An earthquake has sent shocks through the nuclear landscape of the world. We must not ignore that it is also an opportunity to take pause, consider carefully, introspect and then move forward with purpose.

How does nuclear power work?

Nuclear power works by using the energy from nuclear fission or fusion to generate heat. At the moment, nuclear fusion is still a subject of intense research and not usd in production which is a pity. Nuclear fission is basically what is happening in a reactor. Radioactive elements have unstable nucleii and they are constantly going through random fission to shed neutrons and become different elements. It is this breaking of the nucleus that releases the energy that we use. Once the heat is generated, the rest of the nuclear plant works pretty much the same as say the typical coal power plant. The danger with nuclear fission is its difficult to control nature and radiation.

To understand nuclear fission, one important thing to understand is that you can't switch it off. Atoms are fissioning in radioactive material all the time. Randomly. Individually. Relatively harmlessly. When they collide against other atoms, they trigger fission in them as well. Things that encourage these collisions are called moderators. Moderators block the escape of the atoms in such a way that they rebound back into the material, rapidly increasing the chances of fission. When a lot of atoms are fissioning, the whole thing takes on a life of its own. Triggering itself constantly, so to think. This is called a chain reaction and it releases huge amounts of heat. This is what the reactors do, in order to produce the heat. To stop the chain reaction, control rods are inserted between the radioactive material. These rods slow down the fissions by absorbing neutrons. The nuclear fission energy source never completely stops. It keeps slowing down till finally it reaches its regular random fission patterns. This process takes a long, long time.

Risks of nuclear power

The tremendous amounts of heat are a hazard because they have the capacity to simply melt anything that gets in their way. And a chain reaction without control rods/other material only keeps accelerating till it dies out. Even with control rods in place, the fact that fission cannot be "Switched off" will always be a danger because it makes for clumsy emergency responses. Essentially, all the functions for cooling the reactor have to continue for weeks in decreasing intensity till finally the material is safe to put away wet. To store dry will be cooling for another couple of YEARS. As we see in Japan, in an emergency, this can turn into a nightmare.

Radioactive material is a health hazard. It literally burns on a microscopic scale. So contamination is a huge issue, as it causes cancers and other health problems - to what extent and what quantities of radiation is still less known, but the corelation is quite certain. If external radiation is bad, internal is worse, because material once ingested becomes a part of the body  and is impossible to remove. Which is why the contaminated milk, vegetables and possibly fish will be a matter of concern in Japan for a long time.

India doesn't have adequate quantities of uranium, so it makes us dependent on importing it. This makes us dependent on foreign providers.

Another huge problem is the nuclear waste disposal. Like I described earlier, the fuel never really becomes safe. NEVER. So, in essence, when we develop nuclear energy, we are committing ourselves to managing the left over fuel and anything else that gets contaminated for infinity. Sure, the earth is very big, and nice, remote places can be found to bury the material deeply - kind of born from the earth and returned to it, but the problem is, most places don't want to house these dumps because they will be eternal hazards. If governments find it difficult to get locals to agree to reactors, they find it near impossible to get them to agree to house nuclear waste. Probably will not matter so much in India, where the people don't know half the things the government is up to, but definitely people should know. If we must choose nuclear power, we must know facts, have plans for the less desirable actions in the future.

An area contaminated by radiation essentially becomes inhabitable for humans till radiation levels drop. When they will drop depends on the source of radiation. Some isotopes of iodine for example have a half life so short that by the time you organize evacuation, the area will be clear. Others, not so much. Plutonium for example is feared so much because of its lasting effects. The isotope of Plutonium we are most worried about has a half life of 24,000 years. It is likely to outlive not just you and me, but possibly our entire species and maybe life on our planet. There is no way to "fix" this so far. Isolation is the only remedy, but that is not possible in case of widespread contamination. Chernobyl for example resulted in people abandoning the area completely. So, in essence one risk factor of nuclear power is the shrinking of livable land for humans.

Long term effects of radiation for the world are yet unknown. There is some possibility that we will suffer horribly, there is some possibility that we may adapt and build tolerances. We don't know. Post Hiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors suffered horribly. Burns, disease, cancers, isolation because of radiation contamination... but that was a bomb. From Chernobyl, there are a lot of cases of cancers, but opinions are divided as to how much higher above normal they are. People settling illegally in the exclusion zone are dwindling, dying out, but that could also be because its mostly the old people who returned. Many of them are leading completely normal lives too - eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water. Is it that they adapted to the radiation? Is it that tolerable levels may be high enough to allow these people to live safely in less contaminated areas once the active contamination had stopped? We don't know. It could also be the denial of the settlers in order to continue living there. It could be lack of appropriate documentation. There were spikes in cancer reported in several places in Wales and other parts of Europe, which were very likely related to the radiation exposure.

Some pro-nuclear debaters talk about renewable energy as though it were an individual domain only. Experts ask how factories and industries and development will run on solar power. Why not? In fact, India's solar energy produces far more electricity than nuclear power plants. In fact, given time, solar power could well be the Indian alternative to nuclear power. Plus, once installed, its totally fuel-free and thus, astoundingly cheap once investment is recovered. India has set aside vast areas to create solar generation facilities (can they be called solar power plants, or is that word only for active turbine based generation, while solar energy just sits in one place...) in a decade or two, we will be measuring our solar power output in giga watts. We have wind power generation too as another source of renewable energy, in lesser quantities. So that claim that makes renewable energy sound like the domain of cottage industries is either bull shit or lack of research.

An important consideration is establishment of protocols. Nuclear energy has become very safe subject to precautions and equipment. If that is not followed, then the whole "safety" falls. How prepared is India (not mentally, but capable) to follow these rules with impeccable precision? The few accidents we do have are often related with carelessness or ignorance or inadequate or inappropriate equipment. Take for example Tehelka's story on Kalpakam where Kunal talks about an engineer, Raju who handled a sample without precautions for a long time due to the absence of alarms for radiation and then when one did flash, it was visual only. Or the lack of following of established standards leading to rash of cancers and risks to life. This kind of carelessness borders on murder.

Yet, we are living in a country where scams are common, rules are bent and worse, problems are denied, so they can't even be fixed. We see what is happening to Japan mere weeks after them admitting that rules were bent and safety precautions were not taken seriously. The cooling pumps failing right now had not been examined for years, but the reactor was allowed an extension despite protests. India has an inherent "chalta hai" attitude. We don't face challenges till they slap our faces. Radiation is never going to be seen as it plays its destructive dance. People aren't going to "feel" any reason to stop or raise an alarm unless they are trained to function without judgment and true to protocol. Will we be doing this?

The other thing is the continuing contamination. Total isolation of land is impossible. While humans can be prohibited from entering or living, animals often cross over, breed, etc widening the spread. Disturbances that raise dust can result in radiation fall out all over again. Rivers flowing through get contaminated.

So, while the chances of a disaster are minute, and the chances of an uncontrolled disaster are even more remote, the stakes are beyond human comprehension too. So, it is a very difficult equation for our mind to compute. Along the lines of infinity divided by infinity.... the two sides of the debate are thus quite polarized depending on which of the infinities they are studying with greater belief.

Advantages of nuclear power

The heat that is generated by coal in a coal power plant is generated by nuclear fission in a nuclear power plant. Other than that, the process is the same. The heat is passed on to water, which turns into steam. This steam is used to push turbines and generate electricity. In a hydroelectric plant, the force of water drives the turbines. At the end of the day, it is rotating turbines that produce electricity for consumption on a national scale for the most part except for solar energy.

The biggest  nuclear power advantages are that it is relatively cheap (unless you count the bills from disasters) and very powerful too. Nuclear power is India's fourth largest producer of electricity. The greatest producer is thermal energy. If we compare nuclear energy to thermal energy, nuclear energy actually is vastly safer on issues like pollution and safety.

As for safety, studies show that nuclear power is safer than most other sources of energy - solar power included. It doesn't get safer than that. 100% isn't a real life scenario.

While nuclear accidents are dangerous, they are few and not an exclusive hazard to the planet. We have massive coal fires raging for decades in a place called Jharia in Jharkhand. We lose money with every year passed. Smoke from the fire is a health hazard. We had Bhopal. In other words, if we do little to ensure security, then many things are hazards.

Since we don't have enough uranium, we are also actively experimenting with thorium. What the results and risks of that are is unknown.

We do need energy. Most of our country doesn't have enough electricity. We are not at a stage where we can afford to create a fuss over an industry which so far hasn't resulted in a single fatalty in our country and has an overall fatalty rate less than others. The more electricity we can generate, the more we can save our perishable  sources of energy. This means a lot in a country where our petrol price is almost 4 times that in Pakistan. It can mean the difference between life and death to many.

Nuclear radiation is not that horribly alien either. Your chest X-Ray gives you plenty. There is ambient radiation all around.

Nuclear energy also saves lives by contributing to the vital functions of the country. Submarines and large ships are increasingly powered by nuclear energy. This allows them to become virtually fuel independent in operations.

Hydroelectric dams and such like have been proven to cause ecological damage. Species of fish have gone extinct, people have suffered large scale displacement. Mass movements have opposed dams making subsequent projects more forbidding. Plus they are expensive in comparison with both nuclear and other renewable sources.

While solar power is proving really good for us, there is still a space for nuclear energy, as we still need far more electricity than we create. Plus, if we were to phase out the burning of so much coal and replace the output with nuclear energy, it would be a far more dramatic decrease in risks from what we have. It is not likely that we will be able to develop our renewable resources alone to cover the entire country's needs. At least not in the near future. Oh, and BTW, hydroelectric dams are also a problem because of ecological damage, displacement of people, storage of ambient heat, etc.

However, considering the Indian penchant for mismanagement and political opportunism trumping scientific approaches, combined with the veil of secrecy on all things nuclear, the risk of nuclear catastrophe is also greater here.

There is a need to think up the entire energy strategy.

Other possibilities or considerations on Nuclear energy

Nuclear fusion promises to be a far more effective means of generation of electricity..... if we are able to figure it out. Research has been on for decades. Some sample reactors have been created. However, unlike a nuclear fusion bomb or the hydrogen bomb (pretty much the only thing we have succeeded in fusioning - is that a word?) which is an uncontrolled explosion, a controlled nuclear fusion that yields more power than it needs to trigger is yet a concept not translated to reality. Pushing more resources in this direction could be good, as the two big horrors of nuclear fission are not relevant here.

  • Radiation, if any is minimal - to begin with. Containing that would be child's play for brains that can figure out how to achieve controlled fusion.
  • Power released in fusion is much greater than in fission
  • None of these radioactive nightmares of uranium, plutonium, etc needed.
  • BIGGEST ONE. The fusion reaction will have to be sustained, without which it will not happen. Thus, in an emergency or otherwise, there should be no need to babysit the reactor to safe cooling. This can be switched off. OFF. Done. In fact, even if all emergency systems fail, disruption of the facility sustaining fusion will automatically kill the reaction.

... like I said, we are a long way from achieving this in a safe and usable manner. Keeping fingers crossed.

The Future of Nuclear energy in India: Some suggestions

Frankly, I don't think we can afford to not pursue nuclear energy in India. Not with our energy situation as it is. However, i have some suggestions that we MUST incorporate before going any further down this path:

  1. There should be free discussions around the matter involving all perspectives and stakeholders before the decision is made (if at all it comes into question, I guess)
  2. A policy of impeccable transparency must be followed. Information on risks must not be hidden, nor must any problems. That is the only way we can ensure safety - by knowing what to prepare for.
  3. Local bodies for each plant must be formed, and they should have/be provided sufficient knowhow for monitoring radiation and other risks. They should also have the power to call for investigations. They are the ones who will pay the most for errors. They should have the right to demand safety.
  4. Robust risk assessment must be carried out to include data from existing mishaps and operating errors. The people carrying out these assessment must be independent scientists and other experts not associated with political or business interests related with the project. The one political figure who inspired only admiration in India, ex-president A P J Abdul Kalam has supported a review in light of incidents at Fukushima too.
  5. Radiation monitoring equipment must be provided abundantly and certainly installed in all areas of the facility itself.
  6. Contingency planning must include the areas around the plant for a radius determined by experts. These areas should be educated on safety measures and contingency plans, including plans for efficient evacuations or precautions and safety in a radiation emergency situation.
  7. The use of plutonium must be reconsidered and evaluated. Is it necessary?
  8. Plans for the safe disposal of spent fuel must be made.
  9. Not too sure about the participation of non-Indian entities in something this high risk. We should not be accepting untested technology, or stake in the running of the plant. They simply don't have as much to lose as someone living down the lane. Everyone regrets an accident, but from what I read in newspapers, the West in general has far different concepts of safety for itself and others. As others, this is quite a bit risk to court. .... on no one intends harm, but this is about valuing the place and people and knowing you have nowhere to go if you screw up. Remember Dow (Union Carbide, Bhopal... poisonous gas killing tens of thousands, irreparable harm to even more for generations)? We shouldn't be doing deals with the US at all without their compliance on DOW. That should  be a good measure of intent toward Indian safety in the partnership. Our masters or not, the safety of the "colony" comes first.
  10. Plants technology which will be implemented should have minimum 5 years of Demonstrable Installation in Any part of the world. (Contributed by reader Raam Das)
  11. Plants Employees need to be trained on the new Plant operations & Technology at Running Plant before Start of Construction of the NEW Plant. (Contributed by reader Raam Das)

Yeah, that's it. I'm talked out, I think. Your turn. What did I miss?

 

When the MD of TEPCO Mr Akio Komori weeps on National Television, we can no longer escape accepting that the plant is in big trouble.

Newly released images and video show clearly a crane that is used to handle spent fuel that is visible from the outside. Based on the normal location of the crane on the edge of the spent fuel pool, the pool, though not visible in the shots, is definitely there, open to the world.

When the owner of the fourth largest power company in the world and the largest in Asia breaks down in tears, you know how bad it is. Or you know that he probably wishes the earlier cover ups of security threats at the plants had not been exposed.

I am not one to panic. Initially, when I heard about the crisis, I went about supplementing what I remembered reading with information that would reflect happenings and risks without getting into nuclear advocacy or criticism. I shared my findings on nuclear meltdown and other nuclear risks to prevent panic.

All this has changed since the second explosion at the site. I am no longer able to pretend that it isn't serious. Not the crisis itself, but I am quite worried about the Government's approach to it. Its been quite leisurely and now, its in a panic. This doesn't help. In crisis, the authority figure being consistent is unmatched in its power to bring order and stability. Unfortunately, the US paranoia seems to have infected the world, and the Government of Japan, who had earlier been puzzled at the safety zone America recommended for its citizens in the region being three times that for locals, is now discovering how much in danger their people are.

The best help in a crisis would probably be a media blackout of the US Government response to it. Wouldn't be surprised to later discover that people headed out into radiation to escape because the US predicted the apocalypse. Or to find out that more people died of heart attacks from fear than radiation.

The world seems to have discovered it too. The people claiming that it wasn't a big deal or that nuclear energy is quite safe are mostly conspicuously silent, or their efforts now focus on how the radiation spreading vast distances is not really a risk beyond the evacuation zone. So, from saying that there would be no significant release of radiation, we have gone to explaining that the significant release of radiation isn't all that big a deal. Because we can no longer pretend that the radiation is not spreading. The West coast of the US and Russia have both registered elevated radiation levels - neither of them dangerous, but they exist and that is enough for people to hit panic levels. Might be good to remember that the Chernobyl explosion, which was definitely worse than this blew radioactive winds across Europe. Europe is thriving, thank you very much. Japan went through Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has better longevity than most places in the world - US included. The cancer rate is far lower for workers in nuclear plants than among general population - go figure!

Yes, the plant is devastated, but its hardly flimsy. Look at the destruction it is sitting in the middle of and still is sheltering its precious responsibility with considerable security under the circumstances. That's not accidental - its design.

<strong class='StrictlyAutoTagBold'>Japan</strong> Fukushimi Nuclear Reactor #4 exposed and possibly in full meltdown

Photos from the fourth reactor at Fukushima Daichi show clearly a green crane in the building. The green crane by itself may not sound like a big deal, but it is used to transfer fuel rods from the reactor to the spent fuel tank, and is standing right next to the tank. If you can see the crane, you can't see the pool, only because it is lower.

This video gives a better idea of the situation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTZ9C42mOPM

It is just as exposed. Check out the picture  of the reactor from inside (before the explosion, of course).

Spent fuel pool inside reactor

The rods are in the pool, as we see. The water itself forms a barrier while it keeps the rods cool as well so that the people can work safely, with reasonable precautions.

The fuel rods stay 'hot' for quite some time post being removed, and it takes several years before they can be considered safe to be packed "dry". This water is cooled regularly to take away the heat from the decay and the water levels are managed to that the rods are always submerged.

What likely happened was that when the cooling systems failed after the earthquake and Tsunami, while the water meant that there was no immediate crisis, it did start heating up. The rods themselves were not all that old out of 'action', having been removed about three months ago, so the decay heat, while not the inferno of an active reactor, was still enough to start reducing the water in the fuel tanks.

Once the fuel rods got exposed and thus not cooled at all, the heating only picked up pace. The temperature for the zirconium around the uranium pellets to melt is about 1200 deg. Once this starts, we are in the process for a meltdown, and the mass gets increasingly difficult to manage.

The zirconium reacts with the water at a high temperature and gets oxidized and releases hydrogen gas (remember the hydrogen related experiments in school?). The thing is that hydrogen is highly reactive, and once vented, combines "violently" with the oxygen in air to form water. Water, of course is not dangerous, but the problem is that the explosion blows the building apart, and the radioactive particles contained in the steam are dangerous. This is actually the good part, because with the fuel rods exposed, they are able to release radioactivity directly into the air.

This, described above is the problem at plant 4. We have had the explosion, the damaged wall only means even less barrier from the radioactive substances, and we see that crane from outside, which is standing next to the spent fuel tanks. Do the math. If there is water, its well on its way to becoming steam.

And the biggest problem with this situation is the combination of the limitations of operations due to radioactivity and the number of reactors needing to be pulled back from the 'edge'. The most dangerous by far are Reactor 3 and 4. Reactor 4 because its wide open to the world, and the only way to cut off that radiation is going to be getting those rods underwater and keeping them there. Reactor 3, because it contains Plutonium, which is really bad news. So tell me again who had the bright idea of recycling nuclear weapons to produce the MOX fuel? Sigh. Its probably a great idea. No one could predict this. Regardless, this stuff is something that would be far more complicated to mop up, so the attempt is to keep it in, where it belongs.

There are engineers discussing the possibility of burying the reactors under tons of concrete, a la Chernobyl. However, that is for the future and more to prevent further escape of radiation, and it can be done in Fukushima, but its not much use with our current priority - getting those reactors stone cold. Without that happening, we are risking fission and explosion rather than simple leaks, however radioactive. Also, it isn't like fission needs oxygen that pouring concrete on it will smother it. It won't. Plus, the heat from the still hot and heating fuel will mess up the concrete, while the concrete messes the reactor, and only create much more radioactive debris to tidy. The proximity of the reactors is another complication they will have to work around when they do it. I don't think there is any question of "if" any more.

US and UK have advised their citizens to give the area a wide berth - 50 miles. Japan's zone of course is still 20km, which is not enough, but residents till 30km are being asked to remain indoors, which should protect them too, with precautions. For all the hysteria in the media, there seems to be little actual data to support sustained levels of dangerous radiation. That is not reassuring only because the Government of Japan seems to increasingly become opaque, so we don't know if its the whole story.

The name Chernobyl cropping up constantly doesn't help either, because one of the main reasons Chernobyl had to be evacuated was the radioactive material that spewed out of the reactor and the vast quantities of radioactive dust from the burning graphite (in other words, radioactive soot). There is no way to clean the ground of each of these gazillions of pieces which will keep emitting radioactivity long after you and I are gone. This is very different from venting a little radioactive steam, or contamination. Even if radioactive material has been leaked, as long as its on the reactor site, and not blown to bits and scattered over entire continents, there is no reason why it can't be decontaminated later.

Yes, the situation is dire, it is critical. But not because it can get to a Chernobyl scale. It is critical, because we are trying to contain damage to a minimum and without electricity, the safeguards built into the reactor are failing. Even if they totally fail, Chernobyl is extremely unlikely. That was  a situation where there was no containment at all. There was no precedent, there was far less technology. Japan has a crisis only because it doesn't want any abandoned zone at all, or, a very tiny one. So far, there doesn't seem to be any radioactive debris that would make the area unlivable.

The danger for the people largely will "switch off" once the fuel is isolated. Radioactive debris on the other hand will send out radiation - mostly contaminating through becoming a part of the place itself - the whole area will have to be isolated.

However, and I'm not saying this just to make you feel better, there are many good things happening as well. There is now a good chance that this thing will be under control soon.

  1. The idea of the fire trucks spraying water directly on the tanks right through the hole in the wall seems to be working.
  2. Surveillance from a helicopter also showed that the tanks were not completely empty. Not that it means anything particularly good right now while the rods stand exposed, but it will mean that much less water to fill in to submerge rods.
  3. Electricity has reached the plant from the grid.Power has been restored at the plant, though it will still mean a lot of testing before the cooling systems go online. This is good, because it means that instead of exhausted workers using puny efforts fighting upstream of huge odds, we can engage the pumps and cooling systems that were designed precisely for this job. This will help make the cooling really fast, as well as free up workers from maintaining to recovering damage.

What remains to be seen is how far the radioactive contamination spreads before this show comes to a stop.

My bet is that if the electricity brings the pumps back online and some of the cooling systems work at least, the rest will be a "recovery without incident". If not, then its going to be an uphill struggle. With the electricity there, the choices are considerably expanded, but they will still have to be tried and tested. That takes time. But one way or the other, the way ahead is all about getting the fuel underwater, cooled and isolated. In that order.

In the meanwhile, while I understand that the Japanese are angry with the government and TEPCO for the risk they are facing, it isn't the workers putting them at risk. The workers are volunteering their lives away to keep them safe, and they deserve some acknowledgment for what they are doing. I want to criticize some Japanese who have been quoted in news as saying that the workers battling the reactors are just doing their jobs that they are paid for. In saying this, they show how utterly dehumanized their world is. Their words are an embarrassment to them, not to the country, and certainly not to the workers who are fighting death each moment - explosion, accident or radioactivity. I feel quite certain that this arrogant person cannot afford to foot the bill for the things he claims have been paid for. He reminds me of the people shooting at the rescue helicopters after Hurricane Kartina.

To end this post, I want to throw in my estimation of what will happen. First, I think that since at least the spraying water from fire engines is working, it will be continued while more robust solutions are searched. Very likely, some electricity powered solution that can be switched on and left alone will happen, at which point everyone can forget about this while it cools down while the employees at the plant get around to fixing leaks and other problems. It will happen within hours if the cooling systems are working when they get electricity, or in another day if something new is brought in.

I think the residents in the immediate vicinity may not be allowed to return home, but the remaining will, once the radiation leaks are stopped, and any possibility for recurrence is prevented.

Here is to Japan and its spirit to live, to endure, and most of all its incredibly pragmatic attitude. I leave you with a cartoon for Kids to understand what's up with Fukushima. It is clearer about what is happening than many detailed accounts. Don't miss this.