Inept handling of the Fukushima crisis led to loss of people's trust

Inept handling of the Fukushima crisis led to loss of people's trust

Exactly an year ago, a mega earthquake spurred a gigantic tsunami that hit Japan with full force.

It struck Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station unleashing one of the world’s worst nuclear tragedies, which reopened several question on the risk, safety, economics and necessity of nuclear power across the globe.

In the last one year, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland announced plans to close down all their nuclear reactors. Italy decided not to build any new reactor while Czech Republic canceled all but two of its proposed plants. In Japan only 2 out of 54 reactors are functioning at the moment as stress tests are being conducted on the rest.

Similar tests were carried out in 435 N-power reactors in 30 countries producing 14 per cent of global electricity to find out whether the nuclear power plants have necessary wherewithal to tackle the consequences of “beyond imagination” calamities. In USA, UK, India, China, South Korea and Russia, nuclear power plants, however, are expected to stay with some course correction.

Fukushima happened at a time when resurgence of nuclear power was looking imminent 25 years after Chernobyl. But the accident reopened debates on the necessity of nuclear power, the risks associated with it and triggered a radiation phobia among people, many of whom are not aware that an air travel exposes human body to a much higher level of radiation (from the nature) than what is available at the fence of a nuclear power station.

Since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the USA, nuclear industry follows the principle of “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere” to improve its “defence in depth and breadth (DID)” for eliminating accident initiators in the design by bringing in multiple layers of redundancy and incorporating inherent and passive safety features.

New ideas like core catcher and passive safety system in nuclear power plants are becoming popular. Also existing power stations are being modified to ensure that they even survive station black out – no-electricity conditions – for a few days. The standard operating procedures are being rewritten.

An independent investigation by Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation showed that the N-plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and Japan government were unprepared for the accident. The investigators said that the tsunami could and should have been anticipated because of earlier research on the Jogan tsunami of 869 AD that showed very high water levels. Tepco’s own nuclear energy division understood the risk, but the company dismissed these probabilities as ‘academic.’

The investigation report published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists showed Tepco workers and management committed several crucial mistakes aggravating the crisis. When on-site workers referred to the severe accident manual, the answers they were looking for simply were not there. Many were thrown into the middle of a crisis without any training and instructions.

Human element
“The human element in a nuclear power station is the most important one. They should be clear on technical aspects and regular drills have to be carried out. The technicians should also have connectivity with big decision makers,” said Swadesh Mahajan, professor of physics at the University of Texas, Austin.

While management in a nuclear power plant should ideally always be in a position to take major decision promptly, Tepco chairman and president were absent in office in the first 24 hours – the most crucial time window to deal with the crisis – thereby creating gaping holes in the decision making process and aggravating the crisis.

Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata was traveling in China. Its president Masataka Shimizu was holidaying and could not return to his office till Saturday mid-day as the three arterial highways were blocked and air transportation was not available. As a result, the company lost valuable time in taking prompt decisions and lost the government’s and people’s trust.

Inept handling of the Fukushima crisis led to loss of people’s trust in the nuclear sector, whose consequences are now being felt in India.
New Delhi, however, has little option at the moment. Almost 400 million Indians do not have access to electricity and population growth is escalating steadily to touch 1.6 billion by 2040. Add to it the double digit growth ambition and it is clear that a massive increase in electricity production is essential to drive this gigantic growth engine.

The 2006 integrated energy policy made by Planning Commission suggests that India needs 700 giga-watts of energy by 2031-32, out of which, nuclear energy would consists of 63 GW. Currently India has an installed capacity of 4.3 GW of nuclear energy, which is about 3 per cent of India’s total energy mix.

The policy suggests that 390 GW should come from thermal (coal and gas), 150 GW from hydro and 97 GW from renewable energy. It was the starting point for expansion of nuclear energy programme as well as Jawaharlal Nehru national solar mission. Pegging India’s annual per capita electricity consumption at 2000 kwh – it is 10,000 kwh in developed western countries – India would require 3400 terra-watt hour of energy every year by 2070, said S P Sukhatme, former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in an analysis that suggests renewables could supply only 1229 twh.

The balance of 2171 twh of energy has to come from fossil fuel and nuclear energy. This requires a higher growth trajectory in nuclear energy as fossil fuel will be scarce after another 100 years, Sukhatme said in a paper published in Current Science in last September.