People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 13

March  20, 2011

Fukushima Plant Nearing Meltdown:

Questions on India's Nuclear Program


Prabir Purkayastha


THE Fukushima Daiichi plant is perilously close to going out of control, if not already out of control.  Hydrogen explosions have hit all the three reactors (units 1,2 and 3) that were working before the double whammy of earthquake and tsunami. The containment buildings of two reactors – units 1 and 3 – have blown up due to these explosions. The containment structures of unit 2 and 3 have been admitted by the Japanese authorities to have been breached. Periodic radiation spikes are now occuring in the Fukushima plant, with levels approaching limits harmful to human life causing temporary withdrawal of workers. Only 50 workers are now left in the plant – named as the Fukushima 50 –  who are risking their lives in trying to save the crippled reactors there.


Hydrogen explosions mean that fuel rods have been partially or fully uncovered and the metal cladding of the fuel pellets in the rods have been damaged due to heat – a state of partial melt-down – causing hydrogen to be released with fuel-water reactions.


Even more worrying is repeated fires in unit 4, which was already shut-down before the earthquake. Here, the spent fuel rods have overheated and causing a fire and radio active materials to spew out. What this has created is a nightmare scenario of workers no longer able to work, as the radio activity levels are way above normal. Tepco initially toyed with the idea of using helicopters to spray water on the spent fuel rods, later abandoning it as not feasible.




It is estimated that at current levels, 7 minutes of exposure would mean that a worker will receive his maximum for the year. The key question now is that is it possible to indefinitely control the fuel meltdown in the unit 1, 2 and 3 reactors, that too with only 50 workers? The Japanese authorities have also admitted that 77 per cent of the fuel rods have been damaged in unit 1 and 33 per cent in unit 3.  There is little doubt that things are still very much on the brink and only thing standing between Fukushima and Chernobyl is the containment structure. With two of these containment structures having already undergone some breaches, this obviously poses serious danger of at least a partial Chernobyl if a full meltdown does occur.  Worse, the huge inventory of spent fuel lying in fuel ponds that are also equally vulnerable to overheating and fire. If the radioactivity level rises in the plant due to a more serious breach, the risk to the stored fuel rods will multiply as the workers will not be able to approach them. If they catch fire, they will spew out huge amounts of radio activity, as they have no containment, unlike the fuel rods in the reactor core.


Once the fuel becomes uncovered for long periods, the fuel rods start to melt. A full meltdown would see a mass of molten fuel material collect at the bottom of the containment vessel. If they eat through the containment vessel, we are in a near Chernobyl like situation, all protestations emanating from the nuclear industry to the contrary. Already, experts are conceding that this is the worst disaster after Chernobyl and ranks higher than Three Mile Island. On a nuclear accident scale of 1 to 7, Fukushima is now said to rank at a severity level of 5 or 6, just below Chernobyl which had a severity level of 7. Three Mile Island was rated at a severity level of 5.


The evacuation perimeter in Fukushima has now been increased to 20 Km, way beyond the Three Mile Island voluntary evacuation perimeter of 5 miles (or 8 Km), confirming that this is way above Three Mile Island in terms of severity. Those within a radius of 30 Km are being asked to stay indoors, though they have not been evacuated.


Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano admitted that the containment vessel at the No 2 and 3 reactor buildings have been damaged and that the No 1, No 2 and No 3 reactors are all releasing hazardous radioactive material.


As an engineer, I must salute the Japanese workers, technicians and engineers. They are working in conditions that are radio-active, facing unknown dangers and trying solutions that have never been tried before. That the plants have not already faced full-meltdown is a tribute to their skills and dedication. Unfortunately, this may not be enough to contain the scenario of a full fuel meltdown in multiple reactors.




The Indian government has promised a full safety audit of the existing reactors. The Atomic Energy Commission has also said that they would review the Areva designs taking into consideration the experience of Fukushima. However, the prevailing voice within the nuclear energy establishment is one of smug complacency.


Nevertheless, I find it very hard to share such optimism. This is because the issue here is not that a safety audit should be done but who does this safety audit? We have an Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) that draws its personnel from Atomic Energy Commission, report to the Atomic Energy Commission and is even located in the Anushakti Bhavan, the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission. This is no way to run a critical safety regulatory function. It is also contrary to international practice as well as treaties that India has signed on the need to separate regulatory and operational functions in nuclear energy. This remains the single biggest obstacle for a safe nuclear energy program in the country.


In no country with a large nuclear energy program is the nuclear regulator a part of the body it is supposed to regulate. A former chairman of AERB (Mail Today, March 15, 2011, Nuclear Regulation in Shambles, Dr A Gopalakrishnan) has stated that AERB has no serious disaster management oversight and does not have the ability to address serious design and safety issues. If India is indeed serious about a nuclear energy program, it needs to create a proper safety organisation in this area instead of the current AERB, which has become a virtual rubber stamp for Atomic Energy Commission. A safety audit without an independent regulatory body is of little value.


It is not the best kept secret in the world that Indian plants have had problems at different points. The collapse of the Kaiga dome and the fire in Narora which caused all controls to be lost are cases in point. In Narora, again workers facing very heavy odds, managed a safe shut-down of the reactor manually. The point is with complete opacity surrounding the nuclear plants and the functioning of the Atomic Energy Commission and its attached body, the AERB, it is difficult to accept the results of the safety audit. We can already predict the report – all we need to do is to listen what the nuclear establishment has been saying for the last few days and we will know what the report is likely to say.


Interestingly, one of the points that the country's nuclear establishment has made repeatedly is that Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) -- that are the bulk of the Indian reactors -- are much more safe than the Light Water Reactors (LWR's ). If this is indeed so, why the fascination for the LWRs which according to the nuclear establishment is less safe? Why then leave the tried and tested route of PHWRs for which we have indigenous capacity for imported reactors which by their own admission is less safe?


It is in this context we have to look at the controversial Jaitapur project. The government is keen to put 6 units of 1650 MW EPR reactors of Areva, France make. Though Atomic Energy Commission chairman, Srikumar Bannerjee claims that this design is tested, as it has worthy predecessors, the fact remains that there is not one plant of this design that has yet been commissioned. That a Fukushima type of accident of earthquake-cum-tsunami will not affect Jaitapur is no consolation as no two serious nuclear accidents have ever been alike. Question of how safe this plant is cannot be answered by saying a Fukushima type accident will not occur here.


Jaitapur plant proposes to have 5 per cent enriched uranium as fuel against the normal enrichment of 3.5 per cent for LWRs and natural uranium for PHWR's. It also has a higher burn rate than the current LWRs. Dr Gopalkrishnan, former chairman, AERB has asked in his article,  (DNA, February 9, 2011, Jaitapur Deficit of Public Trust) “How much understanding, based on relevant data, do Areva and NPCIL together have on the radiological and physical behavior of high-burnup spent-fuel from these EPRs and the consequent serious safety issues related to its long-term storage, cooling, transport and reprocessing?” These questions are not going to be answered based on the belief of a few scientists.


It is interesting also to note that Areva, while claiming its technology is completely safe, has also been very unhappy with the prospect of liability that the current Indian law prescribes, even though the upper limit for such liability is only Rs 1,500 crore. This itself shows how much confidence they have for their technology.


There is little doubt that Fukushima will cast a radioactive cloud over the nuclear renaissance touted by the nuclear industry. Nuclear technology still remains one of the most complex technologies that we know. Rushing in with ever larger sizes and complex designs have been the bane of this technology from the beginning. In their hurry to invite foreign suppliers for the Indian market, the Manmohan Singh government never took this into account. All the reactors being pushed by foreign suppliers – Areva, GE and Westinghouse – have the same problems regarding provenness of technology and complexity of design.  


DAE has been pushing the case for import of 40,000 MW of Light Water Reactors. In this, the DAE and other agencies seemed to have become captive to the PM's  objective of a strategic tie-up with the US and pushing in imported reactors, without addressing issues of safety. What has been effectively lost sight is that safety of nuclear plants cannot be subordinated to whatever foreign policy objective that the PM has in mind. Fukushima disaster provides a clear warning on this.


As India is now trying to induct in a number of foreign reactors, particularly Light Water Reactors, which, by the admission of senior figures in the nuclear establishment, is less safe than the indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, it is critical that such designs should be subjected to independent review.  India should halt all import of reactors, particularly of untested and unproven designs from Areva, GE or Westinghouse and focus on creating a proper safety infrastructure for nuclear energy. Till then, there should be a moratorium on all imported reactors including Jaitapur and Kudankulam. Simultaneously immediate steps should be taken up to separate AERB from DAE and make it a truly independent body, reporting directly to the parliament. Finally, as an immediate measure, all existing plants should be reviewed by creating a task force including independent members outside DAE to make this exercise of safety audit credible.