Not if, but when, a major disaster strikes, we will do far worse
Not if, but when, a major disaster strikes, we will do far worse
At 2:45 pm local time on 11 March, Japan was struck by the strongest earthquake in its recorded history. Revised estimates now place its magnitude at 9 on the Richter scale (in comparison, the earthquake in Bhuj registered 6.9 on this scale, a difference that indicates energy released by this quake was 1,000 times greater). Just over an hour later, a 10 metre high wall of water hit the shore.
The sequence of events put paid to the best precautions that Japan’s leading nuclear scientists had put in place for such an eventuality. The Fukushima Daiichi plant had a three-layered safety system. The first system worked perfectly as soon as the earthquake struck. The temperature of the fuel rods in the nuclear power plant as they undergo fission is maintained at 270º Celsius. Immediately after the earthquake, control rods rose to shield the fuel rods, effectively stopping the fission process. However, the fuel rods continue to generate heat even after fission has stopped and this is where the cooling system comes into play, circulating water through the reactor vessel. The power outage after the earthquake rendered this system ineffective, but the backup cooling system operated by diesel generators took over.
An hour later, just after the tsunami hit the shore, the diesel generators were knocked out by the wall of water. The backup battery system lasted eight hours before packing in as well. The third layer of the safety system takes the steam generated by the water circulating through the hot fuel rods and pumps it back after converting it into water. This system continued to work, yet the water level around the fuel rods dropped. Experts now suspect the reactor vessel may have started leaking after the quake. As a result, the fuel rods continued to heat up. The steam, under the intense heat, split into hydrogen and oxygen. As the accumulated hydrogen was being vented out of the building to release the pressure inside, it ignited in contact with air and blew off the outer shell of the building.
As this magazine went to print, three of the four reactors at the Fukushima plant were on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown, which could potentially release radiation from the reactor and spread it over several hundred kilometres. At least one of the reactors seems to have developed leaks in the reactor vessel.
Already, the scope of the disaster seems to have exceeded what happened at Three Mile Island, perhaps even Chernobyl. But unlike these two cases, the Fukushima disaster is not a result of human error or bad safety standards. A plant meant to cope with natural disaster, working as it should have, has been found wanting.
Worse looms ahead as spent fuel rods stored in water pools are at risk of being directly exposed, as the cooling system has failed across the plant. If the rods are eventually exposed to air, they might catch fire. The hydrogen escaping from the reactor building has already set one of these pools on fire. These pools are not placed in a containment vehicle and a fire here could release radiation directly into the environment.
Atomic scientists in Japan reacted with disbelief to the events. Akira Omoto, commissioner of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, who was one of the men involved in the design of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, told a news channel, “We thought we had taken all precautions for a tsunami, but what happened was beyond our expectations.”
WHAT ABOUT INDIA?
It is in the light of what has unfolded in Japan that we must look at nuclear power plants in India. RI Gujrathi, director, Nuclear Projects Safety Division of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), describes the process by which plants in India are designed to withstand seismic activity: “First, the history of seismic activity in the zone where the plant is to be built is considered (India has been divided into five seismic zones and construction of nuclear plants is not undertaken in zones IV and V). Based on the possible strength of a one-in-a-thousand-years earthquake, certain values for the strength of the buildings are then calculated.”
There are currently 20 nuclear power plants operational in India. The two reactors in Tarapur, commissioned in the 1960s, are the first such reactors in Asia, and very similar in design and operation to the Fukushima reactors now under threat.
According to MR Srinivasan, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, “The Japanese reactors that are in the news now as well as Indian reactors like Tarapur (TAPS) were set up in the late 60s and early 70s and are of 1960s design vintage. But, life extension studies have been conducted every five to 10 years, and wherever necessary, after safety evaluations, changes have been made and back-fitted.”
Several of the other Indian reactors are based on a Canadian design that does not use enriched uranium and relies on heavy water (where the hydrogen in the water molecule is substituted by its isotope deuterium). None of this precludes events similar to those unfolding in Japan.
According to Gujrathi, the AERB has already launched a review of safety standards after the Japanese quake. He says the agency had carried out a similar review post-Chernobyl, and there is constant upgradation of standards. Says Srinivasan, “A disaster management policy is already there and safety audits are conducted regularly. Preparation is the key. For example, in 1987, when I had just taken over as AEC chairman, I had to assure the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that a Chernobyl-like situation (1986) would never occur in India.”
In 2007, a strong earthquake in Japan, now referred to as the Niigataken-Chuetsu-Oki earthquake, induced horizontal movement about three times more than the Kashwazaki-Kariwa site was designed for. Compared to the recent quake, it measured a mere 6.6 on the Richter scale, but led to leakage of a small amount of radioactive gas. Ever since, the AERB has been studying the question of “how to deal with beyond-design-basis earthquakes in new reactors as well as existing ones”. They have settled on designing reactors on the basis of an anticipated once-in-10,000-years earthquake.
In theory, this is about as good as can be expected, but scientific language hides some simple truths. The design process for the Japanese nuclear plant was much the same. The Japanese have lived with frequent earthquakes. Building codes in the country are far more strictly regulated and implemented than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Yet, with the best methods that could be brought to bear, the Japanese had planned a worst-case scenario of an earthquake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale, seven times less powerful than the one that actually struck. The fact is that the science of earthquake prediction is non-existent.
In India, we have more reason than ever to consider this fact. We have staked our bets on a nuclear future; five nuclear plants are under construction, and after the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, the number is set to rise dramatically once the legislative formalities are done. None of this means we are prepared for what Gujrathi terms the “totally unimaginable”. This is exactly what the reactors at Fukushima had to face.
The study of earthquakes is not the same as the study of the physics that describes what happens within a nuclear reactor. The physics is based on events with repeatable outcomes, even when they are statistical. The study of earthquakes is based on extrapolation from recorded data—and therein lies the problem
Every 100 to 150 years, earthquakes of magnitude up to 8.4 have been striking the Tokai region of Japan. In 2006, Joel Achenbach, now staff writer at the Washington Post, wrote in a piece for National Geographic: ‘In Japan, government scientists say they have settled the question. Earthquakes are not random. They follow a pattern. They have detectable precursors. The government knows where Japan’s big one will most likely strike. This is a country where the trains run on time, and earthquakes are supposed to do the same. “We believe that earthquake prediction is possible,” says Koshun Yamaoka, a scientist at the Earthquake Research Institute of the University of Tokyo.’
“In fact, Japan has already named its next great earthquake: the Tokai earthquake. The government has identified and delineated by law the precise affected area—a region along the Pacific coast about a hundred miles (160 km) southwest of Tokyo. After a series of small quakes in the Tokai area in the 1970s, scientists predicted that a major quake might be imminent there. The Japanese government passed a law in 1978 mandating that preparations begin for the Tokai earthquake.”
Yamaoka must be regretting his words today. As Achenbach pointed out in a later article, when an earthquake of such a magnitude did strike, it was located not southwest of Tokyo but 370 km to the northeast in a region where no one had predicted its occurrence, in a region quite unprepared for its devastating impact.
When India’s nuclear scientists talk confidently of safety evaluations and coping with beyond-design-limit earthquakes, they are using the language of authority in an area where it is not warranted. All the records of earthquakes in Japan, where records extend back much further than in India, plus all the money and scientific talent invested in the enterprise was not enough to predict what happened. It will be no different in India as and when a big earthquake does strike.
Former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar has claimed: “The seismic activity in Japan and India is very different. After the Bhuj earthquake, the Kakrapar plant (in Gujarat) was functioning and the Kalpakkam plant (Tamil Nadu) was shut down after the tsunami in South India due to flooding. It re-started after a few days.”
The atomic energy establishment in this country has constantly used the excuse of national security to conceal facts not only from the public but Parliament as well. The one thing the Indo-US Nuclear Deal has done, by separating military and civilian facilities, is take away the basis for this argument. But it is unlikely that we will see transparency; the nuclear establishment will fight it and our politicians are too much in thrall of the scientific even where it means nothing. But let us grant Kakodkar this claim and leave aside the fact that the actual events at Kalpakkam remain hidden from the public.
Till this earthquake struck, Japanese atomic scientists were saying very similar things. If a month ago, doubts had been raised about safety standards at the Fukushima plant, nuclear scientists would have been derisive and examples of reactors successfully coping with previous earthquakes would undoubtedly have been cited. After this incident, it is impossible to make claims that better safety standards or different types of reactors can cope with a big quake. Yes, in retrospect, experts will cite designs that could have coped with the disaster, but it is equally possible to describe natural events that would render those designs ineffective.
Even some politicians have drawn more sensible lessons from the quake than scientists such as Kakodkar. “The events in Japan… teach us that events deemed absolutely unlikely can happen,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin. “We have a new situation and this has to be analysed very thoroughly.”
Merkel has ordered seven plants built before 1980 to be shut down pending a safety review. A recent piece in The Telegraph states that the nuclear energy industry in Europe ‘is alarmed that the operation of power grids could be damaged by a ‘knee-jerk’ response, such as Germany’s, to a disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami sequence that has never happened in European recorded history.’ What the article forgot to note was that an earthquake of this magnitude followed by such a tsunami had never been reported in Japanese recorded history either.
EYES WIDE SHUT
SP Udayakumar of the National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM) says the fallout of the disaster in Japan illustrates that human security is at stake. “Unfortunately, no one in the establishment understands what Armageddon is like till there is an example. Japan today is an unfortunate example, something about which we have been shouting for years at the deaf people all around us. Yet, the Government has the audacity to say that none of the new plants being planned are on the sea. Take Jaitapur, Kudankulam, Srikakulam, Haripur or wherever they are planning next—they are all right beside the sea,” says Udayakumar, who is also fighting a battle in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu against the upcoming mega nuclear complex there.
Activists are given to language that does not allow room for debate, but Udayakumar is making a valid point. The context of nuclear power has changed after the Japan quake. Given that the absolutely unlikely can take place, what lessons do we draw?
Some nuclear experts have turned the incident around to argue that given the earthquake far exceeded the design capacity of the reactor, the damage has been remarkably insignificant. This is an untenable argument. From the moment the cooling system failed in the plant, experts themselves have been unable to say what has actually happened. Things could easily have been far worse and may still be.
Another argument that is being made is that nuclear power is not a choice but a necessity, that the burning of fossil fuels is creating its own crisis. That, of course, is a matter of public debate: whether the long-term damage from the use of fossil fuels outweighs the potential, now seeming inevitable, catastrophic consequences of pursuing the nuclear power option.
Whatever the outcome of such a debate, we have to avoid arguments such as the one made by former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, one of the architects of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, who has said that “unlike in China, it will be easy for mass media and anti-nuclear NGOs in India to play on public fears to retard, if not derail, the ambitious nuclear plans that were made possible by the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement in 2008. At the minimum, the Government may be compelled to adopt more elaborate and expensive safety methods to reassure a more fearful populace, thereby adding to the cost of nuclear power.”
This language is misleading. The horror of the events in Japan is not a creation of NGOs or mass media, it is very real. Given the catastrophe and what it says about the dangers of nuclear power, even if we discount the fact that the Indian nuclear power programme has always delivered far less than it promised, that it has shrouded every mistake under a veil of secrecy, we need to review the whole issue of nuclear power.
In his bestselling book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb says, ‘The probabilities of very rare events are not computable; the effect of an event on us is considerably easier to ascertain (the rarer an event, the fuzzier the odds). We can have a clear idea of the consequences of an event, even if we do not know how likely it is to occur…’
Unsurprisingly, Taleb has cited damage from earthquakes as one of the things we are unable to predict, much like a stock market crash. Clearly, we have no idea how likely an earthquake such as the one that hit Japan is in peninsular India. We can perhaps say it is not as likely as it is in Japan, but that does not rule it out. What we can say with certainty is that the consequences in India will be far more deadly than seen in Japan. And that is the basis on which we should be acting.