The difficulty in bringing Japan's nuclear crisis under control has undoubtedly put a serious question mark over the entire issue of nuclear power.

Even if it is as yet unclear how the Japanese nuclear emergency will play itself out, it is certain that the town of Fukushima in Japan, familiar hitherto only to a few, will enter the global nuclear lexicon alongside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The difficulty in bringing the nuclear crisis under control, a crisis precipitated by a series of accidents and failures while negotiating a safe shutdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, has undoubtedly put a serious question mark over the entire issue of nuclear power.

What drives home the gravity of the situation is that this nuclear emergency, we would have been told earlier, is one that would never happen. Japan after all is one of the world's most advanced industrial nations, an acknowledged leader in the technologies of the twentieth century, with several decades of experience in handling nuclear matters in all its varied aspects. Japan is a world leader in the design of earthquake-resistant structures. The reactors themselves had withstood the ravages of earlier earthquakes and despite some incidents, nothing had happened, either at Fukushima or at other nuclear complexes in Japan, to suggest the possibility of a crisis of this magnitude. The word “tsunami” itself is of Japanese origin and it is well-known that the island nation has worked towards an extraordinary level of preparedness to face this kind of onslaught from the seas around it. Japan was, until now, along with countries like France and South Korea, a textbook example of holding nuclear fears at bay in the public sphere, while making nuclear power an integral part of their energy security and overall energy strategy. It could not be that Japanese society would allow radiation dangers to exist unchecked; no other country in the world is as aware of the dangers of radiation and fallout.

Unfortunately, the post-shock scenario has rewritten all these perceptions. Despite the advanced level of Japanese technological capabilities, the reactors at Fukushima, it now emerges, have had a troubled history. From as far back as 1971, warnings have been sounded regarding the specific unsafe features of the General Electric Mark I boiling water reactors as this class of reactors is known, warnings that went unheeded. Despite the technological capabilities of Japanese industry, the Japanese nuclear operator, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) that runs the Fukushima reactors, faltered in its response to the crisis, whose scale was clearly unanticipated. As a former Vice-Chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, Kenji Sumita, put it to the leading Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, “Every step taken by TEPCO is a day late and a dollar short.” He also faulted the utility for its slowness in releasing information. Kenji Sumita's concluding remarks are a comprehensive critique of the Japanese nuclear establishment: “The unfolding nuclear disaster has unveiled weaknesses in TEPCO's crisis-management system and a structural flaw in Japan's administrative policy to ensure the safety of nuclear power.”

The nuclear establishments of the major nuclear powers and their governments have reacted to the events in Japan with concern and for the most part have not sought, wisely, to brush aside or dismiss their implications for the continuing use of and possible expansion of nuclear power. But it is possible that in the future there would be a serious temptation to characterise these events as solely a failure of the Japanese nuclear industry.

Undoubtedly, some of the issues arising from this crisis are peculiar to the Japanese situation. Not only did they not set right a faulty design but continued to operate it in an earthquake and tsunami prone region, with critical facilities such as part of the cooling installations located literally on the sea-shore. In hindsight one may question the lack of wisdom of such an extensive dependence on nuclear installations for energy in what is arguably one of the most earthquake-prone nations in the world, though what a nation without fossil fuel reserves that desires energy security should do is not a question that is easily answered.

But the most serious questions raised by the Fukushima crisis go much deeper. The real shock has been the relative ease with which safety systems, procedures and protocols were rendered ineffective by the earthquake and the tsunami. In designing the system to withstand the severe but rare natural calamity, the potential for such an event to overwhelm all safety systems had clearly not been anticipated. When all installed safety systems are down, it is even more difficult to bring into play new measures to prevent the crisis from escalating further. To this we may add that, in the event, at Fukushima there were only two levels of safety precautions for continued cooling in case of an emergency shutdown, these being the generator-based and the battery backup based power systems. One of these, the generator-based system, was at the same level of vulnerability as the main power system itself and the second could hardly make up for the deficit in power after the others failed. Unanticipated sources of danger may arise, such as the danger of a meltdown or explosion with extensive radioactive contamination not from the reactors alone but also from large spent fuel pools.

The point here is obviously not the specifics of earthquakes and tsunamis, but that of allowing for the unthinkable to happen, and then providing further leeway. One of the key issues in nuclear safety has been the correct estimation of the level of risk from nuclear accidents. The critics have always pointed to the enormity of the consequences of a nuclear accident. Those in favour have however pointed out that the probability of such accidents is extremely small. In the present instance it has turned out that even if the probability of a calamity of rare magnitude leading to an accident is very small, it may still occur. At the same time, the costs of containing the effects of such an accident are significant, even when the accident falls well short of the truly catastrophic. Again at Fukushima it will not only be the immediate costs of containment that are relevant but also the long-term costs of entombing the reactors together with the contaminated water and other material that have been used to cool the reactors down.

It is striking that the international community of nuclear experts and nuclear decision-makers have exhibited a curious perplexity, indecision and confusion in their comments on and evaluation of the crisis. For days, it now appears, that no one outside a section of the Japanese nuclear establishment has been adequately briefed, while foreign nuclear agencies have speculated, often intemperately, regarding the situation at Fukushima. Despite several decades of existence of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it appears that the nuclear powers have no special role to play, at least in a manner visible in the public domain, in the event of a serious nuclear accident in a country that is a trusted signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The precise mechanism for transparent and rapid exchange of scientific information and expertise in such a crisis is not clear. If no such adequate mechanism exists or is not functional, it is a sorry comment on the functioning of the IAEA.

India needs to carry out a thorough-going review of the current status of nuclear safety, a review with independent scientific and technical expertise, drawn also from outside the ranks of the atomic energy establishment. Such a safety review clearly must go beyond the mere routine types of safety audit if it is to carry adequate credibility. The government is currently promoting large nuclear reactor complexes that are similar to, if not larger than, the Fukushima complex. There is no question that such complexes cannot move ahead without credible study and assurances flowing from a detailed study of what transpired at Fukushima and its implications for India. But despite such studies, democratic norms require that the population be adequately convinced of its safety in the future. Fukushima underlines the fact that nuclear power cannot be thrust on an unwilling populace.

(T. Jayaraman is Chairperson, Center for Science, Technology and Society, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

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