Looking Tokyo, Going Jaitapur
It can’t be easy being a nuclear scientist these days. Following the Fukushima power plant accident, people have become allergic to nuclear power, seeing it as Satan’s work-in-progress. Images are conjured up of mushroom clouds, the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer’s famous quote from the Bhagvad Gita. Comparisons are drawn between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons (the kind they didn’t find in Iraq), between Fukushima and Hiroshima (distinguished, it seems, only by a brace of consonants and another of vowels). The comparisons are inaccurate and misleading.
No sane person has an ideological problem with electricity. But given the limited supply of traditional fossil fuels, their attendant problems, rising fuel costs, and the inability of wind, solar and alternatives to generate sufficient affordable energy, the debate about our needs being best met by nuclear power will not so easily die. Are we better off with the constant pollution of coal-fired plants? Should we risk the catastrophe through generations of nuclear plant disasters? There are those who point to the very few nuclear accidents (I believe they are called ‘incidents’ in typical double-speak), the efficiency of power production, the very low number of death per terawatt hour and the overall cleanliness of the power production process. Opponents respond with pointed references to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, arguing that the consequences of an accident at a nuclear power plant are catastrophic, extending down several generations. The crippling of Tokyo’s nuclear reactors has made governments everywhere, especially in Europe, revisit their approach to construction and safety standards. Jaitapur stands alone. Here, the debate is about something else entirely.
Shrouded in secrecy, its public hearings a farce, its goalposts constantly shifting, the Jaitapur project is a mess, and it is of the government’s making. People are banned from entering Ratnagiri district, including two judges, both of the Bombay High Court, one of whom later served on the Supreme Court. There’s the revelation that the central Environment Ministry clearance relied on a 2008 EIA based on 22-year-old data which ignored the presence of two major creeks and had no analysis of marine life and biodiversity impacts. This in a place that is the home of over 15,000 fishing families. These elisions cannot be accidental. They point to a deliberate lack of transparency in planning.
Planning must be inclusive.1 It demands public participation. People have a right to question what is proposed in their backyards. That’s not just desirable; it’s the law both by statute and by judicial pronouncement.2 All our planning laws require public hearings; but these must be meaningful, not just exercises or jury-rigged dummy hearings. Constructing without public participation isn’t planning; it is tyranny. Yet the principle is repeatedly ignored in all our large projects. The approach instead seems to be: build now, forget the people; we know what’s best; nothing requires us to talk to illiterates.
The point was hammered home in a debate on Times Now last week. Arnab Goswami’s guests included Sunita Narain and Praful Bidwai representing the environmentalists, and two scientists: Dr G Balachandran of the Institute for Defence Studies and Dr Vinod Kumar Gaur of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. Ms Narain’s plea was simple: we need transparency, we need a more open debate; talk to us. Mr Bidwai took a harder line, saying there should be no nuclear plant here, and (as I understood him) no nuclear power at all. But it was Dr Balachandran who typified precisely everything that is wrong about the controversy. He began his address with his long fingers steepled in front of his face, like an atomic Sherlock Holmes. His composure evaporated after Bidwai and Narain spoke. Now, holding his forefingers up like a pair of missiles ready to launch at the hapless environmentalists, he thundered “I will not talk to nuclear illiterates!”
Perhaps Balachandran forgets: we are all illiterates, in varying degrees. Certainly, most of us are nuclear illiterates. If he is only to speak to his own, he might as well not bother. If his tribe propounds a project, it must show that the project is safe. It is not for us to show that it is not.
The sanest and quietest voice was that of Dr Gaur. He made two major points both in line with Ms Narain’s views: we need more transparency; and, while it is true we have the technology, we also have a ‘cultural deficit’—an inability to do things right, to produce excellence. Dr Gaur’s devastating assertions demand greater attention. Instead, all we get is pap: the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission recently said the streets of Delhi were more dangerous than nuclear plants, and predicted that Jaitapur being at a 10-metre elevation, “no tsunami” could ever affect it. Even for someone who apparently sits at the right hand of God, this is a bit rich. Like all of us, he probably cannot even predict breakfast.
There are very serious questions about Jaitapur. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences study says that the site is in an earthquake zone. Yet the Nuclear Power Corporation says there is no ‘active’ fault in a 5-km radius. But the Geological Survey of India says that in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005, there were earthquakes in the region. 92 of them. The biggest in 1993, topping out at 6.3 on the Richter scale; the GSI says the ground is unstable. Then there are the issues local population displacement, environmental damage to a region rich with biodiversity, all of which seems not to matter to our nuclear boffins, and the problem of supervision: the nuclear overseer, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, is subservient to the Atomic Energy Commission. What might we expect from such a watchdog but that it will walk to heel?
Japan is known for its excellent engineering; its strict building codes are said to have saved lives. But here, too, doubts have surfaced about the design of the Fukushima plant, its safety measures (with two US engineers having walked off the project in its construction stages) and its recently proposed extension beyond its anticipated lifetime. Japan is more disaster-ready than we have ever been. If they had such problems, nothing in our collective experience suggests that we would do better in similar situations. And even in Tokyo, reports have emerged of the power company’s misdirection in public statements, its technicians’ faultiness in handling the problems when they arose by allowing the best to be the enemy of the good, and the government’s handling of the situation. In India, where we can’t even seem to build a simple pedestrian overpass without its collapsing, the apprehensions about the Jaitapur plant are far from imaginary. Here, as in Bhopal, lives are cheap; machinery is expensive.
Fukushima is not Hiroshima. But Jaitapur tomorrow could well be Fukushima today. Obfuscation, shoddy EIAs, bans on entries are unconvincing answers to fundamental questions about trust and capability.
On 29 July 1957, Isaac Asimov wrote a very short story called “Silly Asses”. Twice rejected, it finally appeared in the February 1958 issue of Future. In it, the superbeings of the Rigellian race keep galatic records: in the first book, of galaxies that have developed ‘intelligence’ and in another, smaller one, of those that have reached ‘maturity’. There are many deletions in the first, none in the second. Earth has reached maturity: they have very quickly moved from intelligence to maturity for they now have thermonuclear power. But there is a problem: mankind has not yet penetrated space. Where are they carrying out tests and detonations, the sage asks incredulously? “On their own planet, sir,” says the other … and Earth’s name is crossed out of the second book; the only name to be scored out.
A few hours after a shorter version of this article appeared in print, I received the following by email from my friend, Alpa Sheth. Alpa is a structural engineer. She is deeply concerned about our apparent willingness to compromise safety standards in construction.
The issue of nuclear safety and seismology is far more complex and murky than people realise.
a. As you are probably aware the two earthquakes (Koyna and Latur) in Maharashtra both happened in areas of no seismic risk. This should give us an indication about the competency, depth and credibility of our seismic studies and codes.
b. There are clearly some structures in our nuclear plants not designed for earthquakes. One example: the 34m-high random rubble masonry wall as an outer containment wall of the reactor in Kalpakkam. This can be guaranteed to collapse if subjected to shaking that is expected in Zone III (where it is).
c. Our maximum credible seismic accelerations for areas of highest seismic hazard (Zone V) is 0.36g (g being acceleration due to gravity). So even if I am building right under an active fault in the Himalayan region, I am required to design only for 0.36g. The Japan earthquake gave accelerometer readings of up to 2.7g as Peak Ground Acceleration (PGA). We are, therefore, grossly underestimating ground shaking. The nuclear industry will tell us they don’t design by IS codes and do site-specific response spectra. But the fact is that they do not design for even 20–30% of the PGA seen in Japan.
d. We have no deductive skills. In 2004, an earthquake occurred in the ocean at Aceh Bay. Nobody in our country seemed to be able to add 2+2 to deduce (or, as you say, “predict”) that we would be subjected to a tsunami. The tsunami hit Kalpakkam at 9:00 am, a full 2.5 hrs later. Huge parts of the colony collapsed; that’s understandable, because the colony was designed for a tsunami. What is unforgivable is that 50 residents and workers of the Kalpakkam Atomic Power Complex were swept away in the tsunami. And we, in turn, swept all this under the carpet. All we heard was that “atomic reactors faced no damage”. But there was no earthquake here, so where was the question of earthquake damage? Lives were lost in the tsunami, but that wasn’t mentioned; nor the fact that the height of the tsunami here—because it began a distance away—was lower than the reactors, which meant there was no flooding in the reactor complex. What if the tsunami was closer in?
e. The AERB is not an independent regulatory body. It is subservient to the NPC and hence its ability to ensure safety is highly suspect. NPC succedded in what someone in the US called “regulatory capture”. The nuclear industry is a black box controlled by the draconian Indian Atomic Energy Act 1962 and no information on it can be got by any means, including the RTI Act.
f. Every earthquake reveals something new that we had not imagined. The high accelerations and tsunami heights (even I had not believed 30 m when I first heard it) are a first in history. The cavalier, cowboy attitude of the nuclear industry is dangerous.
g. The next nuclear disaster may not necessarily be from an earthquake but from something we had not thought of as yet. What should be realised is that nuclear fission, once unleashed, is a beast that cannot be easily tamed.
— Alpa Sheth
A few hours after this article appeared comes more disturbing news from the Fukushima plant. “In the latest setback in the effort to contain the nuclear crisis evidence emerged that the reactor vessel of the No. 3 unit may have been damaged, an official said Friday. The development, described at a news conference by Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, raises the possibility that radiation from the mixed oxides or mox fuel in the reactor—a combination of uranium and plutonium—could be released.” As I see it, this is potentially the worst such industrial disaster in history with this cocktail of plutonium and uranium on the land, in the sea and in the air. And Dr Balachandran screams, stop saying “Chernobyl, Chernobyl, Chernobyl! This is nothing like Chernobyl!” Sure, of course it’s not. It’s possibly worse. And the AEC Chairman believes he can predict stuff like this. The following comment below the New York Times article says it all:
I find it extraordinary that with all the technological advances in the forty years since these nuclear plants were designed, it is still so difficult and dangerous to meet the most basic need of keeping the reactors from overheating. To me, it exemplifies why the world must move away from this particular way of meeting our energy needs: humans are great up coming with complex systems, and a lot less good at predicting their consequences and dealing with the mess when things go wrong.
We are constantly being told that this disaster could never happen in a modern nuclear power station: but they must have thought these plants were completely safe back in the 1970s. Do we think we are so much smarter today that we can say with certainty that newer plants will never pose a risk to human health? If you play with fire, you’re likely to get burnt—and what more dangerous fire is there than a nuclear one?
— James Bath, UK
Meanwhile, Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates presents a lucid (and, for that reason, very scary) explanation of what is actually happening.
Radiation levels have soared in seawater near Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, officials said on Saturday, as engineers struggled to stabilise the power station two weeks after it was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Tests on Friday showed iodine 131 levels in seawater 30 km (19 miles) from the coastal nuclear complex had spiked 1,250 times higher than normal, but it was not considered a threat to marine life or food safety, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.
The lack of attention may help explain how, on an island nation surrounded by clashing tectonic plates that commonly produce tsunamis, the protections were so tragically minuscule compared with the nearly 46-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima plant on March 11. Offshore breakwaters, designed to guard against typhoons but not tsunamis, succumbed quickly as a first line of defense. The wave grew three times as tall as the bluff on which the plant had been built.
Japanese government and utility officials have repeatedly said that engineers could never have anticipated the magnitude 9.0 earthquake—by far the largest in Japanese history—that caused the sea bottom to shudder and generated the huge tsunami. Even so, seismologists and tsunami experts say that according to readily available data, an earthquake with a magnitude as low as 7.5—almost garden variety around the Pacific Rim— could have created a tsunami large enough to top the bluff at Fukushima.
And in his interview, the AEC Chairman said:
In Jaitapur particularly, it’s well suited because it’s on a height, despite being on the coast—it’s about 20 metres above sea level. So even a very high tsunami can’t strike Jaitapur.
The Japan tsunami was 30 metres.
Is there still no reason for an informed debate?
Update 1 April 2011
The Hindustan Times reported today that one of India’s foremost scientists, Dr P Balaram of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and a member of the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council, has called for a moratorium on nuclear power plants. He has co-signed a petition seeking this “because many of India’s proposed nuclear plants were likely to come up in populated and ecologically sensitive areas.”
Rydin, Yvonne & Mark Peddington; Public Participation and Local Environmental Planning: the collective action problem and the potential of social capital; Local Environment, Vol. 5, No. 2, 153-169, 2000 ↩
All planning statutes, including the Maharashtra Regional & Town Planning Act, require some form of public hearing in the planning process for this very reason. Additionally, other special laws may also provide for further hearings. Whether or not a statute requires such a hearing, the very nature of planning—design for the people—demands that the people be heard. This need is most acute, and most essential, for those whose rights are most affected: local populations directly affected by potential displacement, and those who livelihoods and traditional rights are likely to be compromised by the forced expropriation of their lands or the blocking of access, or damage to, the environments in which they work (eg, coastal damage or lack of access to the sea for fishing communities). ↩