By E A S Sarma
The strong earthquake that hit Japan yesterday and the Tsunami that followed were unusual events.
Japan declared a `Nuclear Emergency’. The cooling system at Fukushima nuclear plant failed. At Onagawa, there was an outbreak of fire, leading to evacuation of more than 3,000 people. The details of the damage at each of the Japanese nuclear power plants will unfold in due course. The damage could be much more than what has been reported so far.
While the earthquake and the Tsunami might have triggered serious problems at the nuclear power plants this time, we should remember that Japan has had a long track record of nuclear accidents irrespective of such unusual events. Nuclear power technology is inherently risk prone.
For example, an accident at Tokaimura nuclear power plant in Japan in September, 1999 resulted in an uncontrolled chain reaction that led to serious radioactive exposure to 439 persons in the neighbourhood. At Mihama nuclear power plant, in 2004, extreme heat caused a pipe burst that killed four persons and injured another seven. There were many such major and minor accidents in Japan in the past.
Almost all countries that have nuclear power plants have similar accident filled track records. Out of 104 nuclear power plants in USA, 27 power plants have been found to cause contamination of the local ground water sources with radioactive tritium.
India has embarked on a nuclear adventure by opening the floodgates to foreign reactors being set up, without ensuring that matching arrangements exist for an independent regulatory oversight. Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) which is supposed to regulate the activities of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is subordinate to the very same DAE.
The Atomic Energy Act is an outdated piece of legislation, as it has many non-disclosure and secrecy clauses that preclude public consultation. Unless AERB becomes independent and the Atomic Energy Act is modified in line with the spirit of open public consultation, I am afraid that India is not yet ready to embark on the kind of a nuclear adventure that it has unwittingly committed itself to.
The EPR reactors being proposed at Jaitapur are untested, despite all the misinformation that is being disseminated by DAE, as the first 660MW EPRs being set up in Finland are yet to go into operation. Irrespective of what DAE may say, there are genuine safety concerns about EPRs. The European Union’s reports bear testimony to it. So is the case with the other nuclear power complexes proposed, especially the one coming up near Kovvada in Srikakulam district in AP. The American reactors being proposed at Kovvada are as untested as EPRs at Jaitapur.
The basic questions that should be asked first are whether India will require nuclear power on such a large scale; whether such large base load power is needed; whether such large electricity capacity additions are required at all. To any one with a rudimentary knowledge of energy and power planning, the answers to these questions are clearly in the negative. We need to reinvent our energy planning approaches. We cannot afford an energy strategy that is unsustainable, ecologically destructive and deleterious from the point of view of protection of the livelihoods of the people.
I hope that the country will wake up at least now with the disaster in Japan before us.
(E A S Sarma is former Energy Secretary, Government of India. He lives in Visakhapatnam)