Sekhar Ramakrishnan


The uncertain situation with Fukushima nuclear plant precipitated by a big earthquake and Tsunami is of concern to humanity. What happened, what has been done and what are the lessons of this disaster? Here is one view on the subject.


This article suffers from two handicaps. One is the authorship: I write as someone with the training to understand science/technology issues but with no expertise in nuclear power or in energy issues in general. The other is that the crisis in Japan is still unfolding as I write on March 19: Events may render this article outdated and make me appear quite foolish. Also as a prefatory note, whatever is factually or scientifically correct in this note is owed to Vinod; I am responsible for factual errors and, of course, for all opinions.


I want to summarize what happened in Japan, and then contextualize the catastrophe in two ways – in the context of the energy sector, and in the South Asian context.


What Happened at Fukushima?


First, what happened in Japan probably meets with anyone’s definition of a worst-case scenario. An earthquake of intensity 9.0 on the Richter scale very close to a number of nuclear reactors. Then an extremely powerful tsunami spreading out from a point close to a nuclear power plant, perhaps 20m high, easily going over the protective sea-walls. Then many aftershocks each equivalent to a powerful earthquake.


In this worst-case scenario, thousands have died, and many times that number homeless and/or injured seriously. This is a terrible tragedy, despite the meticulous planning by Japanese society over many years. The loss of life would have been far greater in a densely populated poor country, say in South Asia or Central America; the recent earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti come to mind.


And in this worst-case scenario, the nuclear plants responded very well to the earthquake, which was more severe than what the plants were designed for. From what I have read, the reactors shut down as planned, and the containment structure did not rupture – at least as of March 19.


However, the tsunami flooded the fuel tanks needed for backup power, so the pumps for removing heat from the fuel rods stopped soon (there were backup batteries that worked for a few hours). In parallel, the pool holding spent fuel rods lost its water, perhaps from the earthquake. The present crisis then is the problem of cooling the fuel rods in the reactors for several days to achieve a proper cold shutdown, and of preventing the spent fuel rods outside the reactors from burning (or stopping any burning that has happened). The fuel rods in the reactors are still hot. Without pumps replacing the coolant water boiling off with fresh water, the rods get exposed to air, and the cladding material (a zirconium alloy) gets oxidized in the presence of steam and produces hydrogen. The accumulated hydrogen in one unit was vented into an adjacent building (to relieve the pressure) where it blew off the roof and gases were vented into the atmosphere. As of March 19, the status of the reactors is unclear but the containment domes appear to be intact, unlike what happened in Chernobyl.


From all reports, it seems the spent fuel rod problem is the most serious. Spent fuel rods are rods of nuclear fuel that have been removed from reactors. At removal, they are still hot and radioactive, containing over 90% of the original fuel; it takes several years for the rods to cool down to a point where there is no risk of combustion that can spew radioactive material into the atmosphere. There is a good description of the spent fuel risk in http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/world/asia/18spent.html. It is to be kept in mind that, regardless of the policy on reprocessing, newly removed spent fuel rods must be cooled for about ten years before they can be sent to a reprocessing facility, as happens in France, or put in concrete casks awaiting permanent burial in a repository as in the US. Japan is committed to reprocessing since that extracts useful fuel from the rods and minimizes the waste (in France, all the accumulated waste till now is claimed to be small enough to be buried underground in a space not bigger than a football field). The Japanese reprocessing facilities are not operational, so there are a number of older rods as well in the same waterless pool as the hazardous newer rods.


Radiation risks are primarily from iodine-131 (though not with spent fuel since the isotope has a very short half-life and is gone in a few weeks outside the reactor) and cesium-137. There are hazardous isotopes of strontium, tellurium and numerous other heavy elements, but they are not very mobile in air and will rapidly settle on the ground, which means they do not pose a danger at some distance from the source.


How Bad Was Chernobyl?

What the long-term health consequences will be, time will tell. For now, there is little radioactivity outside a 30 km radius. While the Fukushima plant owners may have overlooked the spent-fuel-rod problem for one or even several days (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/world/asia/20time.html), the overall response in Japan has been very good. In Chernobyl, a foolish operator caused a high energy reaction to proceed, there was no containment structure so the radioactivity was free to get into the atmosphere, and the government’s desire to cover up led to no evacuation for more than 24 hours. Because of these three distinguishing features of Chernobyl, experts interviewed by the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16worst.html) believe the consequences are likely to be better than at Chernobyl, despite the earthquake and tsunami. Even in Chernobyl, the major victims were the rescue workers. Otherwise, the biggest health risk from Chernobyl has been thyroid cancer, a disease of concern but usually treatable. In a sample cohort of 12,500 exposed as children, there were 65 new thyroid cancers during a six-year follow-up (1998-2007), not good but not a horror story, according to a report that came out on March 17, 2011 (http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002674). A report in the New York Times says there have been more than 6,000 thyroid cancer cases so far (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16health.html also explains how radioactive iodine harms the thyroid and only the thyroid). According to a 2005 joint report from the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Development Programme, “A total of up to 4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded. As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.” (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index.html) These figures provide a framework within which to view health consequences of a serious accident at a nuclear power plant and lead to my next point, which is to contextualize the consequences.Is Coal Better?

In debates on nuclear energy, people tend to talk past each other. Opponents talk of comparative costs of energy production, the terrible consequences in case of a disaster, and of the difficulties in perpetual storage of spent fuel. Proponents, including myself, talk of the need to compare nuclear energy with coal because renewable sources are still decades away from being real alternatives, to compare costs not just of production but also of health consequences, and to compare the spent nuclear fuel with coal ash. In that, the disaster in Japan has not changed my perspective.


What is happening in Japan can give much more reliable numbers for what to expect by way of health consequences in case of a most serious accident. But the numbers for coal were orders of magnitude worse than for nuclear power, and it does not appear that the disaster in Japan, bad as it is, is going to change the relative risks of coal to nuclear very much.


Anyone who wishes to oppose nuclear energy for health reasons has an obligation to compare figures with coal’s ill-effects. To produce, say 1,000 megawatts (MW) of power for a year, how many tons of coal have to be mined, how many miners will die on the job, how many miners will develop black lung (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) and suffer for years and die early, how much is spewed into the atmosphere, not just as CO2 with its long-term greenhouse effect, but gases such as SO2 and NO and particulate matter that harm the heart and lungs, and how much coal ash (containing arsenic, lead, mercury and assorted other heavy metals) is dumped into streams and the surrounding countryside? And these are for just one year and represent real, ongoing health consequences of burning coal to produce electricity, to be compared with similar figures for nuclear power (fatalities and debilitating illnesses from mining the uranium used up in producing 1,000 MW of power in a nuclear reactor, deaths and cancers from an accident given appropriate weighting to take into account the rarity of nuclear reactor accidents), which I will leave to opponents of nuclear power to compile.


According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_mining, coal mining has become much safer in the US but not so elsewhere: “China, in particular, has the highest number of coal mining related deaths in the world, with official statistic 6,027 deaths in 2004. To compare, 28 deaths were reported in the U.S. in the same year. Coal production in China is twice that in the U.S., while the number of coal miners is around 50 times that of the USA, making deaths in coal mines in China 4 times as common per worker (108 times as common per unit output) as in the USA. … black lung is still common, with 4000 new cases of black lung every year in the USA (4% of workers annually) and 10 000 new cases every year in China (0.2% of workers).” According to US government statistics, deaths from black lung were 300 per year in 2002-2006, down from over 1,000 in the late 60’s (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5850a4.htm). I don’t know if organizations have done surveys to estimate figures for India. Perhaps the Centre for Science and Environment’s ” Rich Lands Poor People: Is ‘Sustainable’ Mining Possible?” (http://www.cseindia.org/node/389) has some useful information.


“Nuclear” is a bugaboo word


Interestingly – and this is something many people seem to be unaware of – because of the sheer mass of coal that has to be burned, “A 1,000 MW coal-burning power plant could have an uncontrolled release of as much as 5.2 metric tons per year of uranium (containing 74 pounds (34 kg) of uranium-235) and 12.8 metric tons per year of thorium. In comparison, a 1,000 MW nuclear plant will generate about 500 pounds of plutonium and 30 short tons of high-level radioactive controlled waste. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much uncontrolled radioactivity into the atmosphere as the Three Mile Island incident.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil_fuel_power_station, which also has some data on coal ash) These are scary figures. If correct (the Wikipedia entry has citations), it would mean that even people concerned only about radioactive risks need to look at coal vs nuclear instead of just looking at nuclear power because of the word “nuclear.”


This is a common error. Any number of people are reluctant to get x-rays but have no problem with a CT (cleverly named to avoid any mental association with radioactivity), which delivers radiation equal to many x-rays (a chest CT is equivalent to over 50 chest x-rays, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-ray_computed_tomography). Likewise, as I write this, potassium iodide is getting sold out at various US pharmacies; I am sure the Americans who are so afraid of ingesting any radioactive iodine from the Japanese disaster (though the Japanese have found nothing beyond even 30 km) will get a CT without a second thought.


And a recent right-wing conspiracy theory in the US is about Obama’s “plot” to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. South Asian readers may think the policy reasonable (South Asians made the switch to tube lights a long time back, strictly for economic reasons), but the US right wing points to the mercury in fluorescent bulbs. This would be funny except that these same people also oppose any of Obama’s moves to make US coal plants discharge less mercury into the water, the principal source of high mercury in fish, and a real health hazard as opposed to the mercury in light bulbs that no one is likely to swallow.


Is Best Response Possible in South Asia?


Finally, to contextualize for South Asia. Even if the Japanese are able to contain the damage and the long-term health consequences are small, I have to wonder what will happen if a similar disaster takes place in South Asia. What infrastructure do we have to cope with an earthquake followed by a tsunami? How much can we expect from a government that cares little for deaths beyond announcing 50,000 or one lakh rupee compensation? I can imagine dense residential areas developing around nuclear plants, evacuations taking too long, inadequate firefighting, etc., etc. It is not a coincidence that the Bhopal disaster happened in a third world city. So, I am unwilling to assume that the best-case response to a disaster, which is what we see in Japan, will happen in South Asia. The response may be more like what happened in Chernobyl. I was encouraged to read (http://www.hindu.com/2011/03/14/stories/2011031461961400.htm) that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) Chairman and Managing Director S.K. Jain said: “We will not jump to say that our power reactors will not suffer a similar kind of situation but we are planning to revisit all the safety aspects of our plants after doing a complete analysis of the Japanese incident and share the entire safety means with the public in a transparent way.” But transparency is not something the Indian nuclear program is known for.


It is also true that, to compare nuclear power with coal, the best-case scenario for coal is also unlikely in South Asia. The figures for mining deaths/injuries/diseases or for effluents from coal plants in the US may not apply to South Asia. Our figures may be as bad as or even worse than the Chinese.




Thus, the Japanese disaster has not, at least as of Saturday March 19, changed my views on nuclear energy. This is because the worst-case scenario (9.0 earthquake followed by a huge tsunami) has not led to an uncontrolled situation. But it has strengthened my view that South Asian governments must be made to create independent agencies to supervise and ensure safety at nuclear plants. A situation as now, where government functionaries masquerading as nuclear experts issue predictable and baseless statements of assurance, is unacceptable. Activists should fight for safety oversight set-ups such as exist in advanced countries as a minimum requirement for continued operation of, and construction of new, nuclear power plants.


(New York, March 19, 2011; A slightly shortened version of this appeared on Himal’s Web Exclusive:

http://www.himalmag.com/component/content/article/4333-learning-from- fukushima.html )

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