Don’t hit N-button

A nuclear accident anywhere is an accident everywhere — this maxim has been central to nuclear safety in the years since Chernobyl.
It seems that once again all the labours of the scientists and engineers who sought to usher in a nuclear renaissance are turning Sisyphean in the wake of Japan’s tragic ordeal. Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, with unprecedented scenes of virtual “parlay” in city after coastal city in the country’s north-east areas, is drawing sharper and narrower international focus by the day.

For better or worse, this has brought the pro-nuclear denouement of the past decade to ground zero.
As S.K. Jain, chairman of India’s Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd, noted, “This event may be a big dampener for our programme. We and the Department of Atomic Energy will definitely revisit the entire thing, including our new reactor plans, after we receive more information from Japan”. This is on the lines of what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered, as he informed Parliament.
This sober approach would be essential to resolve the issues predicated on India’s hunger for clean energy, for no matter how one looks at India’s long-term energy mix, the nuclear component in it cannot be wished away. Although events in Japan are unprecedented, the drawing of parallels with Japan’s crisis by every country would appear to spell an irrational panic. This is because each country (and the nature of its nuclear reactors) need not necessarily replicate the extraordinary situation obtaining in Japan. After all, the Japanese people are facing, as their Prime Minister pointed out, their worst crisis since World War II.
The unusual challenges thrown up in Fukushima were just not visualised. So, there can be no room for any “I told you so”. It does appear, all things considered, that instead of professional scientists and engineers, those jumping into the fray at the moment are more of the dyed-in-the-wool campaigner variety, people who are against nuclear power or the nuclear power industry in any case.
What are the facts so far? A tsunami occurred, brought about by an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude, among the rarest in living history. Even so, the extraordinary phenomenon could not prevent the shut down of the nuclear reactors, a critical consideration. We may recall that in the case of the Chernobyl accident (1986), the reactor could not be shut down. This led to uncontrolled chain reaction, causing dangerous spread of radioactivity in eastern and central Europe.
In contrast, the Fukushima Daiichi reactors could be immediately shut down. Indeed, the problem in Japan arose from an entirely different source — reactor fuel rods. These also contain highly radioactive elements and cause overheating even after reactor shutdown. All the reactors in Fukushima depend upon power supply and diesel backup generators to pump coolant water to prevent such over-heating. The severity of the crisis arose from the complete break down of the power supply for these pumps due to the massive earthquake.
Such a severe breakdown is the first of its kind in the history of nuclear accidents. It bears noting that India’s nuclear power reactors — in the main — differ from the reactors at Fukushima, which are light water reactors fuelled by enriched uranium (except unit three which has about six per cent mix of plutonium).
Of the 441 nuclear power reactors worldwide, 369 are light water reactors but their designs and fuel cycles vary within the broad category. India’s reactors, in contrast, are mostly heavy water moderated and natural uranium fuelled. The exceptions are a US reactor at Tarapur and two Russian ones at Kudankulam (fuelled by enriched uranium), but these are different in design from those in Fukushima.
The factors feeding a fear psychosis in the wake of the recent Japan experience possibly lie elsewhere. European Greens demonstrating against nuclear power and those forcing Germany’s decision to put off life extension of its plants also harbour enduring discontent about the masterly inaction seen in the face of climate change risks.
In India, the experience of Bhopal fires the anger of anti-nuclear agitators who fear a repeat of callous indifference in the event of industrial disasters in general. Besides, the long history of despondence and inadequate preparation against recurrent natural disasters, especially in the developing world, also contributes to a fear psychosis. In the event, nuclear power becomes an easy whipping horse.
The events in Japan provide compelling lessons for nuclear engineering, lessons that may lead to transforming the basic approach to reactor design and nuclear safety, as had indeed happened after Chernobyl, too. Informed comment on Japan’s current ordeal cites the considerable evolution in safety designs of modern reactors, which now have what the experts call passive safety features based on defence in depth. This, for instance, rules out sole dependence for cooling on pumps. It has also been argued that Japanese reactor designs were of the Seventies vintage. These are surpassed by better reactors today.
The Japanese crisis may also embolden critics of advances in fuel cycle, for example mixed oxide fuel (Mox) adding plutonium to uranium oxide, or breeder reactors which produce more plutonium than they consume, or the closed fuel cycle in general, which is basic to India’s approach to nuclear power. Even before the Fukushima accident, industry lobbies were dismissive of reactors based on plutonium fuel. Also dragged under scrutiny may be India’s long-cherished three-stage plan which relies on reactors to first produce plutonium from natural uranium fuel, then fast breeder reactors, and finally a third stage when thorium can fire reactors.
The first fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam is due for completion this year. This will raise India’s profile. It is noteworthy that the Kalpakkam centre successfully shut down reactors and managed the safety of its workers after the 2004 tsunami. We should beware that in a competitive world Kalpakkam’s success may not be to everyone’s liking.
In taking stock of the Japanese crisis, the differences between the specifics of the Japanese and the Indian situation must be borne in mind. For start-up reactors, the crisis serves a timely warning to learn lessons, not to engage in scare-mongering.

Sheel Kant Sharma was India’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna

Post new comment

<form action="/comment/reply/64119" accept-charset="UTF-8" method="post" id="comment-form"> <div><div class="form-item" id="edit-name-wrapper"> <label for="edit-name">Your name: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="60" name="name" id="edit-name" size="30" value="Reader" class="form-text required" /> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-mail-wrapper"> <label for="edit-mail">E-Mail Address: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="64" name="mail" id="edit-mail" size="30" value="" class="form-text required" /> <div class="description">The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.</div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-comment-wrapper"> <label for="edit-comment">Comment: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <textarea cols="60" rows="15" name="comment" id="edit-comment" class="form-textarea resizable required"></textarea> </div> <fieldset class=" collapsible collapsed"><legend>Input format</legend><div class="form-item" id="edit-format-1-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-1"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-1" name="format" value="1" class="form-radio" /> Filtered HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Allowed HTML tags: &lt;a&gt; &lt;em&gt; &lt;strong&gt; &lt;cite&gt; &lt;code&gt; &lt;ul&gt; &lt;ol&gt; &lt;li&gt; &lt;dl&gt; &lt;dt&gt; &lt;dd&gt;</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-format-2-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-2"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-2" name="format" value="2" checked="checked" class="form-radio" /> Full HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> </fieldset> <input type="hidden" name="form_build_id" id="form-a36e397d7e72262d79d02bf39647ab20" value="form-a36e397d7e72262d79d02bf39647ab20" /> <input type="hidden" name="form_id" id="edit-comment-form" value="comment_form" /> <fieldset class="captcha"><legend>CAPTCHA</legend><div class="description">This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.</div><input type="hidden" name="captcha_sid" id="edit-captcha-sid" value="80328188" /> <input type="hidden" name="captcha_response" id="edit-captcha-response" value="NLPCaptcha" /> <div class="form-item"> <div id="nlpcaptcha_ajax_api_container"><script type="text/javascript"> var NLPOptions = {key:'c4823cf77a2526b0fba265e2af75c1b5'};</script><script type="text/javascript" src="" ></script></div> </div> </fieldset> <span class="btn-left"><span class="btn-right"><input type="submit" name="op" id="edit-submit" value="Save" class="form-submit" /></span></span> </div></form>

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen didn’t make the cut. Neither did Shaji Karun’s Piravi, which bagged 31 international awards.