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Nuclear Safety:v, by Dhurjati Mukherjee, 20 Apr, 2011 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 20 April 2011

Nuclear Safety


By Dhurjati Mukherjee


Environmental pressure groups in India and other parts of the world are calling on their respective Government’s to abandon their nuclear power plants following the radiation leak in Japanese installations. Even the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) recently stated that the radiation problem in Japan was serious and confirmed that 20 per cent of the world’s 442 working commercial nuclear stations are in areas of ‘significant’ seismic activity.


Nonetheless, one has to agree that while electricity demand has been increasing rapidly as also the need to counter climate change by shifting from thermal to nuclear (and also non-conventional) power, the threat of a catastrophe from a natural, or other, disaster cannot be ignored.


The Japanese earthquake has severely affected three plants of the Fukushima Dalichi Nuclear Power Station, over 220 km North-east of Tokyo. The authorities have been trying to cool damaged reactors in various ways but have not been successful in this regard. High radiation has been hindering work.


Furthermore, western nuclear engineers have said that there is a possibility of release of mox, a mixed fuel, into the atmosphere which would produce a more dangerous plume than the disposal of uranium fuel rods at Fukushima. The Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission too has pointed out the damage to the Japanese nuclear reactor was indeed more serious than Tokyo acknowledged.


Meanwhile, Japan plans to import about 150 tonnes of boron from South Korea and France to mix with water to be sprayed onto the damaged reactors, as water can be used to stop a meltdown if the zirconium cladding on uranium fuel is compromised.


Importantly, the Fukushima catastrophe has forced Governments to review their nuclear policy and also the safeguards. German Chancellor Merkel has ordered a review of seven of the reactors built before 1980 and reports indicate they may be shut down.  China has said it will not totally abandon its nuclear plans but will go slow on implementing them.


Perhaps every country is waiting to study the effects of Fukushima and how Japan tides over the crisis. There is also a belief that full investigation of the sequence of events in Japan may eventually make nuclear energy safer.


However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made plain that his country would continue to develop nuclear power as global energy balance is impossible without it. According to him, the Japanese nuclear power plants had obsolete equipment 40 years ago.

True, protective systems of modern nuclear plants have undergone a drastic change with present reactors having a higher level of protection. As pointed out by Russian and French experts, Russian reactors, particularly the NPP-2006 project for the Leningrad NPP-2 and the Baltic NPP cannot have any developments like those at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in principle.


Significantly, post Fukushima Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCI) and four task forces to carry out a technical review, particularly the safety systems of all the 20 nuclear installations.


Notwithstanding that the pressurized heavy water reactors have different designs from those of the boiling water reactors (BMRs) in Fukushima along-with diverse cooling systems.  The Tarapur Atomic Power Plant has two US-made BMRs but these have been renovated and upgraded with additional safety measures. These have a passive heat removal system which does not require power, so it will continue to cool the reactor when there is a total power blackout, according to Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Srikumar Banejee. As the ‘thermo-syphoning’ feature gives the reactor a grace period of eight hours.


As such, a major section of experts have found all reactors to be completely safe. In fact, during the Bhuj earthquake on January 26, 2001 the Kakrapar Atomic Power Plant continued to operate safely without interruption. Also, after the 2004 tsunami, the Madras Atomic Power Plant was safely shut down without any radiological consequences.


Importantly, plans are afoot to set up 22 new reactors of which six are under construction. In fact, there has been a nuclear renaissance with an additional 17 countries wanting to join the nuclear energy bandwagon. In all, 62 new reactors are under construction. This would push up the nuclear energy production by a few hundred gigawatts in the coming decades, if current plans materialize.


Though the Japanese catastrophe and also the earlier ones, specially the Chernobyl accident, which epidemiological investigations revealed might have caused 4000 cancer deaths over some years, these are far less than the impacts of thermal power on human health.


A US Clean Air Task Force estimated last year that air pollution from coal-based power plants could have contributed around 13,000 premature deaths during 2010 and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year. This is at variance to the claim by anti-nuclear activists in India who found that there were “tens of thousands of deaths” caused by the Chernobyl disaster.   


Yet, radiation control remains a big problem. As radio-activity contains particles or radiation that can disrupt the molecular structure of cells, leading to changes that may produce cancer. The US Environmental Agency said that among 10,000 people exposed to 10 millisieverts radiation in Japan (over and above natural radiation), five to six might die of cancer, though it did not reveal how many would be affected. This figure may add up to another 50-100 persons in the short and long term. But researchers estimate that around 2000 may die due to non-radiation causes.


Studies on animals suggest radiation exposure can cause genetic effects that may be passed down to the next generation. But the IAEA found that survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave no indication of this. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a Japan-US research organization tracking the long-term effects of radiation on children of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claimed there was no statistically significant increase in major birth defects or other untoward pregnancy outcomes among children of survivors.


Nevertheless, a scientific paper published in the journal, Radiation Research 2010, by a team of Japanese researchers found increased mutation rates at certain locations of the genomes among children of atomic energy survivors.    


Clearly, the justification in favour and against nuclear installations advanced by diverse section of experts needs to be further investigated. Specially, the consequences of the Japanese catastrophe need to be thoroughly investigated as also the safety standards required before a nuclear option is considered. 


In India’s case, the design of Areva’s EPR reactor for the Jaitapur nuclear project in Maharashtra needs to be reviewed along-with the safety standards, more so because its reactors are untested as yet. ---- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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