Safety paramount

The continuing threat of dangerous radiation from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan has raised understandable panic in Japan and concern all over the world. The hazards of the use of nuclear power have always been well-known and there has been unending debates over it for decades, with the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl mishaps and many smaller ones adding to the fears. These are particularly relevant for India which has embarked on a large nuclear power generation programme. The most important lesson from the Japanese tragedy is that the safety standards in nuclear plants have to be much higher than they are. The Fukushima reactors were among the largest and best protected in the world, though they are 40 years old. But they could not escape the ravages of nature.

India has three reactors — Kalpakkam, Tarapur and Kakrapar — near the seaside. Proximity to the sea is an advantage for nuclear plants as they require large amounts of water as a coolant. The Narora reactor in UP and Kakrapar have withstood earthquakes in the past. Kalpakkam was unaffected by the tsunami of 2004. But these do not mean that there will not be any future risk. The controversy over locating a reactor in Jaitapur in Maharashtra is continuing and this project will call for special attention because the technology to be used there is untested anywhere in the world. Out of 20 nuclear plants in India only two use boiling water reactors as the Fukushima plant did. Seismic activity is also much less in India than in Japan. But there is the need to always expect the unexpected and be prepared for unknown hazards. It is stated that India’s nuclear safety record is good and the latest technologies are much more efficient and safe than in the past. We must remember then Japan’s safety record is also equally good.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh has told parliament that a safety review of all Indian nuclear reactors has been ordered. He has assured the nation that all facilities are safe. This has been endorsed by the nuclear establishment also. While this may be so there should not be any complacency. India plans to buy 21 more reactors in the near future and expects to increase its nuclear power output exponentially. There is a strong economic logic and need for this. But it is all the more important to ensure that the reactors are most foolproof in every way.

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