Long-time learning from Fukushima

This file photo shows the Fukushima No. 1 power plant of Tokyo Electric Power Co. at Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan.  

The period 2010-2011 can be termed Earthquake Year. After Fukushima, it can also be termed Nuclear-Quake Year.

Public memory is notoriously short and self-centred. The Haiti quake of January 12 , 2010 that killed over 2,30,000 people and left 1 million homeless seems to us as far back in time as that place itself is, in space. The one that shook Chile on February 27, 2010, triggered a tsunami, killed hundreds, and displaced 1.5 million is now material only for seismological archives.

Even the one that shook Islamabad and its environments the very next day, on February 28, is as far back in our memories as the Chilean, though as close in physical terms as this printed page is to the reader's hands.

And yet these are not part of our active memories. Fukushima may also soon get ‘filed' in that befogged zone.

At what cost?

Natural calamities like earthquakes and tsunami are happening at more frequent intervals than they used to, and are shrinking planetal distances more than before.

I have listed only the 2010 earthquakes that occurred outside India. But earthquakes do not recognise national boundaries, sovereignties and border disputes. If Pakistan was shaken rudely last year and Myanmar this March, India needs to be awake to the prevailing seismicity of our geological bequest. Equally, of what we in our state of seismic and geological indifference have done to ourselves.

What is the seismic scene? Earthquake zoning divides India into four seismic zones (Zone 2, 3, 4 and 5) with Zone 5 held to have the highest level of seismicity and Zone 2 with the lowest level of seismicity. Kashmir, Punjab, the western and central Himalaya, the North-East Indian region and the Rann of Kutch fall in this zone.

What is the nature and level of the indifference?

First, there is indifference in society, in us. This probably has something to do with our lacking what Jawaharlal Nehru called ‘the scientific temper.' It also has something to do with our obsessiveness about the present moment. The irony is that seismicity is about the present moment, except that unlike the ticking hour-hand and minute-hand on the clock, it moves unseeing and unseen. Few know how many of our nuclear reactors are located or will come up in Zones 5 and 4, that our national capital territory Delhi and its neighbourhood and the entire Indo-Gangetic basin, Jammu and Bihar fall in Zone 4, that Narora falls within Zone 4. Not many would even otherwise have heard of Narora but for the fact that it houses a nuclear reactor. But it needs to be known and understood that Narora's twin reactors (2X220 MW) are an Indianised version of the Canadian CANDU-Type reactors, which operate on natural uranium as fuel which would be procured from the U.S. under the ‘123 Nuclear Treaty'. And that this major installation stands on Zone 4.

Second, there is a lack of urgency in seismic preparedness, in earthquake-tsunami policy. If the aam aadmi's indifference can be assigned to habits of mind, should those concerned with augmenting our seismic preparedness not address that indifference? Should we not be told in clear terms that non-scientists can understand, that are not self-justifying or self-exculpating but frank and consultative, as to how and why we need not worry about our reactors being located where earthquakes and tsunami are expected to occur? There is, after all, such a thing as error. And that can include errors of judgment in the calculation of the risk-factor. Should we not be told how and why we need not be anxious about the safety of our reactors? And, if there is cause for anxiety, if not alarm, should the nation not be taken into confidence about those areas of anxiety?

I was working in Colombo when the Kutch earthquake hit us, on our Republic Day, 2001. Shortly thereafter I called on Arthur C. Clarke in his Colombo villa-cum-futurist office. The visionary was confined to a wheel chair from an old spinal injury. He opened the conversation with the earthquake and wheeling himself to his bookshelves pulled out a copy of the squat novel co-authored by him, Richter 10. The novel, unusually, has a foreword by him which begins thus:

“Many years ago I was standing in a Delhi hotel when I became aware of a faint vibration underfoot. ‘I had no idea' I said to my hosts, ‘that Delhi has a subway system'. ‘It doesn't,' they answered. That was my one and only experience of earthquakes.”

So, Arthur Clarke's only novel about earthquakes begins with his only real-life experience of an earthquake. And that was in Delhi. Richter 10 is triggered by Delhi, which is right within Seismic Zone Four. Nothing seismically significant may happen in this zone for decades, even centuries. It could, today.

The protagonist in Clarke's novel, Lewis Crane, has been crippled and orphaned in the ‘great' Californian earthquake of 1974. He grows to be a physicist and a Nobel Laureate with a passion for devising a method for earthquake prediction.

The world does not heed him. The consequences are terrible.

Returning to the Kutch earthquake, Clarke went on to say that while earthquake prediction may take some more time, what should be done is to inaugurate a new architecture in quake-prone areas which would not oblige the devastation.

Where does earthquake anticipation in India stand today? There is some good news. Only, it is still not widely shared! India and Iceland are working together in this vital life-and-death field. But why does the nation not know more about that venture? Ought we not, for the sake of being better informed and being better prepared, be made aware of the consequences of ignorance and inaction and the advantages of preparedness?

As to quake-resistant architecture, do we know of major initiatives in our cities and towns to identify buildings that are vulnerable, either on account of their age or their quality? We do not. Do we know of clearly visible steps to regulate high-rise constructions in zones of high vulnerability? We do not. On the other hand, we have been treated to the following advertisement recently of a high rise residential structure coming up in the very heart of Zone 4: “ …offers a variety of living solutions ... With …'s unprecedented levels of luxury, comforts & services, live above everyone else. Height titillates. Height satiates your desire to fly. It's at height that you come alive. With height, you break away from gravity and feel free …”

Building activity of the multi-storeyed kind proceeds in our Zones of High Risk remorselessly. That New Delhi and Narora where we have a nuclear power plant are located in Zone 4 where the general occurrence of earthquakes is of 5-6 magnitude, a few of magnitude 6-7 and occasionally of 7-8 magnitude and that, therefore, Delhi and Narora lie among the high-risk areas is something we should know about, and the State must do something about, visibly and credibly.

‘Richter Ten' is not fantasy for us in India, where the sub-continent's tectonic push into the sub-continent goes steadily on. Our great monuments, our gleaming new airports, our sky-scrapers and many of our nuclear reactors, existing and due, are all as vulnerable to the fatal caprice of that crawl as are our smaller homes and hearths.

The Prime Minister's announcement that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is to be a more autonomous and independent body to boost accountability and transparency in the functioning of the country's nuclear power plants is timely and is to be welcomed. It reflects a wholesome interiorising of Japan's experience. But this step needs to be accompanied by certain other steps like an independent, transparent safety audit of our nuclear facilities (as suggested by Professor Romila Thapar and others.) And these steps should be part of a major re-assessment of engineering and architectural styles, and a re-fashioning of construction regulations in seismic zones and the re-examining of plans such as Coastal Expressways, with a view to long-time learning from Fukushima.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is former Governor of West Bengal.)

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 5:08:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Long-time-learning-from-Fukushima/article14967559.ece

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