'India facing first question on people's faith in nuclear technology'

The global nuclear world is not the same since the mega earthquake and subsequent massive tsunami struck Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011.

With the first anniversary of the disaster nearing, Deccan Herald caught up with John Ritch, Director General of World Nuclear Association in Delhi, to know the lessons learnt and the road ahead. In an interview with Kalyan Ray, Ritch, a former US ambassador to UN bodies in Vienna, which includes the International Atomic Energy Agency, and someone who has a ringside view of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, shared his views on the anti-nuclear wave seen after the Fukushima accident. Excerpts:

It’s a year since Fukushima happened. What is the learning for the nuclear industry?

The accident at Fukushima caused nuclear companies and nuclear regulators of every country in the world to review their practices and standards. The main focus was on the specific problem of loss of external power to the power plant. Fukushima plant shut down successfully after earthquake and tsunami but could not cool itself down to remove residual heat as external power source was lost. Every company is now making it sure if they have reliable external power in case of a major natural disaster or terror attack.

How serious was the damage in Fukushima?

The damage actually happened due to shifting of 100,000 people from that area rather than radiation. The major conclusion people have drawn from 1986 Chernobyl accident is that maximum damage happened due to dislocation of people who were not allowed to return to their homes. The long-term radiation cancer study from Chernobyl indicates very very little damage due to radiation. But there was massive damage to people due to psychological stress, economic reasons and dislocation. The concern is same for Fukushima. No one was hurt from radiation. But 100,000 people were dislocated by government, which was trying to be conservative and helpful but actually hurting them unnecessarily.

But the accident spawned an upsurge of anti-nuclear wave worldwide.

This is the price that has been paid. Media was also to be blamed as reporting was out of proportion. Media ignored more than 20,000 deaths that occurred due to tsunami and focus exclusively on the so-called nuclear disaster. This is a strange thing indeed because media called it as a historic disaster in which no one was hurt.

Even for on-site workers the radiation level was not harmful in the long run and non-carcinogenic as it was kept within the limit. Among the public at large and radiation workers no one was hurt. In what was dubbed as historic disaster nobody was killed. But there is no doubt that we have to address the issues of public confidence more seriously after Fukushima.

In the last one year, there has been talk about passive safety system in nuclear power plants – what are your views?

Reactor designers are pursuing improvement in new designs to find out the simplest possible way to achieve the maximum safety. They are trying to integrate the greatest possible complexity a nuclear power plant combining fuel, controls, fuel systems and fuel pipes with the greatest possible safety. Passive systems are simply a way to solve the problem of cooling once the reactor shuts down. There are many ways to do that with or without the passive system.

Is there a perceptible set back or slow down in the nuclear industry after Fukushima?

No. What we have seen are some very isolated cases like Germany, Italy and Switzerland. As exception proves the rule, everywhere else in the world Fukushima lessons were absorbed, policy was reexamined and a re-dedication to nuclear was the result. Fukushima provided valuable lessons for nuclear safety. It also provided lessons on public policy. Germany failed on this point to worry on nuclear and try to rely on solar panels and wind mills. Its ultimately a demonstration of how foolish they are to be panicked and triggered a change in policy.

In the last two years, India witnessed persistent protests at Kudankulam and Jaitapur, which intensified after Fukushima – what’s your view on these developments?

This is a new chapter for India. For a very long period public took natural pride in India's ability to develop its own nuclear technology and go forward with this sophisticated technology without any help from the world, which has treated India very unfairly. Public has no reason to question then. This is for the first time they are raising questions on their faith on nuclear energy.

Its a learning experience for the government and nuclear industry. They have met the challenge well as they have gone out to the public explaining nuclear energy and technology. They explain the rigorous process the nuclear professional employ to ensure nuclear safety. Public experience in one locality (Kudankulam) is a learning experience for all concern. But India will come out it to become the world's largest in the next several decades and Indian companies will be a part of global nuclear industry.

Can you elaborate how local industry can be a part of the global supply chain?

Indian nuclear capabilities are very advanced, which is now being used domestically. But as India moves from 20 to 50 to 100 reactors and become one of the world's largest user of nuclear energy along with China, the capabilities of Indian companies will naturally grow, India will very much be at the forefront of nuclear technology for decades.

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