Fukushima: Japan’s meta-tragedy
by Sandhya Jain on 29 Mar 2011 14 Comments

The tragedy of the earthquake-tsunami induced failure at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, eerily close to the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, is a grim warning that nuclear holocaust could come to us without a nuclear attack.


Stoically holding fort amidst the creeping nuclear mushroom, Japanese authorities have informed citizens that tap water in Tokyo has more than twice the accepted radiation level for infants (210 becquerels of Iodine-131/litre of water as against the recommended limit of 100 becquerels/litre for infants; 300 becquerels for adults). Prime Minister Naoto Kan has warned against consuming leafy greens like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and spinach from Fukushima.


That the crisis is escalating can be seen from the official admission that nuclear radiation has leaked into the sea, taking contamination to the seafood chain. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. has said five kinds of radioactive materials released by damaged fuel rods have been detected in the sea; levels of cancer-causing Iodine-131 are 127 times higher than normal in seawater samples.


Recalling the 26 April 1986 accident at Chernobyl n-power station in Ukraine, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev has observed that though the reactor fire and major radioactive releases were contained within 10 days by thousands of brave emergency workers, the nuclear fallout had by then spread over Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, most of Europe, and beyond (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists March/April 2011 vol. 67 no. 2 77-80).


Around 50 workers died fighting the fire and reactor core meltdown; over 4,000 deaths may be attributed to radioactive releases which crossed 40 times the estimated lethal dosage; 237 workers suffered Acute Radiation Sickness; and nearly 350,000 people were evacuated. So grave was the nuclear fallout that within hours of the accident, radiation alarms sounded at Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, 700 miles away!


Fukushima reinforces the threat posed by the scientific arrogance that the Human Race can create structures more powerful than Nature; Chernobyl was a loud warning after nearly 150 significant radiation leaks at n-stations throughout the world were hidden by the secretive nuclear power industry. Nothing else can explain the installation of n-reactors on the Pacific Rim of Fire – every improvement upon the Chernobyl-style reactor which lacked a safety containment shell was rendered void by the sea’s apocalyptic fury. The design to withstand a 7.2 quake collapsed before a 9.0 tremor; the 25-foot-high protective wall between the ocean and the reactors was scaled by the 30-foot wave that tore into the complex.


Mr Gorbachev rightly warns that the world must realize nuclear power is no panacea for energy sufficiency. Its cost-effectiveness is a myth of vested interests. In America, direct subsidies to nuclear energy amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, and indirect subsidies an additional $145 billion. Imagine what such an investment could do for alternate sources of energy.


In India, as influential lobbyists claim there is no going back on n-energy, government must reveal the per unit cost of nuclear power; the price of uranium; the subsidy; the private players and the real monies they will invest in projects as opposed to cheap loans from public sector banks; the expertise they offer; their profits, and actual risks incurred by them. Above all, given our experience in the 2G scam, we must know if retired nuclear scientists who lobbied for the Indo-US nuclear deal are serving as ‘consultants’ to private firms keen to enter the n-energy field.


A giant pause is imperative where reactors have yet to be launched. In seismically active Jaitapur (Maharashtra); and Haripur (West Bengal; six reactors proposed), local resistance to the n-power plants – that precedes the Fukushima disaster – must be respected. Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chauhan has wisely indicated a rethink; Environment minister Jairam Ramesh agrees that Fukushima compels introspection.


Many nations are downsizing or reviewing n-power. Germany has decided to phase out n-power; Switzerland has suspended plans to build new n-reactors. China has curtailed all new projects and revised safety standards on existing ones. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin too ordered review of all n-plants being built by Russian agencies. A Russian n-plant at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, is due to be commissioned next month; India must reconsider the safety of coastal nuclear power stations.


Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney observes that n-power plants are located along coastlines because they are highly water-intensive. But this makes them vulnerable to natural disasters like storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis that are increasing on account of climate change, which is causing ocean levels to rise. Most n-power is generated by light-water reactors (LWRs) like those at Fukushima, which use water as a primary coolant. This results in hot-water outflows which are pumped back into rivers, lakes, and oceans. This has a killing effect on marine life in these water bodies, hence the resistance at Jaitapur, which depends on a vibrant fishing industry for its livelihood.


The devastating impact of the hot-water outflows can be judged from the fact that France was forced to curtail or halt operations at 17 commercial nuclear reactors at the height of the heat wave in 2003 – when demand for air conditioning peaked – as rising temperatures in the rivers and lakes could simply kill them. Spain was forced to shut down the reactor at Santa María de Garoña for a week in July 2006 after high temperatures were recorded in the Ebro River.


During the 2006 European heat wave, problems of water and heat forced Germany, Spain, and France to close some n-power plants and restrict operations at others. Interestingly, in 2006, nuclear plant operators in Western Europe forced the authorities to grant them exemptions from regulations that prevented them from discharging overheated water into natural ecosystems, affecting fisheries and other life forms. So much for incorruptible Western standards!


Sadly for the Sonia-Manmohan dyarchy, Fukushima overlaps the Wikileaks disclosures over the cash-for-votes scandal in July 2008. These establish the role of big money as midwife to the nuclear deal, and above all, the high stakes involved for some hidden national and international players in the subsequent nuclear contracts.


No matter which foreign vendor is knocking at our doors, the national interest is served only by reconsidering import-driven expansion of our nuclear power programme. India should ponder the German option; already innocents have paid a high price for government ineptitude and pusillanimity at Bhopal; Fukushima must ensure we never again face such consequences.


The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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