Fukushima – a preliminary assessment

…and implications for India

1. All six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi 1 nuclear power station automatically shut down after the earthquake in North-east Japan on March 11th, 2011. Automatic shutdown, an important safety feature to prevent catastrophic leakage of radiation, involves the complete insertion of control rods into the fuel core to stop the nuclear fission reactions. Had reactors not been designed with this crucial safety feature, the potential tragedy would have been immediate and far worse. Therefore, even in the worst case, the radiation damage will be much lower than if this were not the case. [See David Ropeik’s post at Scientific American blogs]

2. The problems at Fukushima Daiichi 1 power station involve the malfunction and failure of post-shutdown safety systems. Fuel cores generate heat for some time even after the reactor is shut down, and need to be cooled using a circulation of water. The diesel generator & batteries that pump the coolant water into the reactors malfunctioned, either due to internal faults or due to the damage caused by the earthquake, resulting in the failure of the normal cooling mechanisms. Two of the six reactors at Fukushima suffered this problem. The nuclear plant authorities, assisted by Japanese armed forces, are attempting to ensure that the fuel core is cooled by pumping water through other means or by flooding the reactor cores with sea water.

3. The reactor core is enclosed in a thick steel & reinforced concrete containment vessel. Even if, in the worst case, the attempts to cool the reactor cores fail, causing the fuel rods to melt, radiation leakage will be limited to the extent that the containment vessel remains intact. [See this post at Atomic Insights]

4. Despite the boiling water reactor technology used in Fukushima Daiichi 1 being 40 years old, it has performed reasonably well given the intensity of the earthquake and tsunami. The automatic shutdown worked. Even if the post-shutdown safety systems malfunctioned, they did so in a manner that gave engineers and policymakers crucial time to plan emergency manoeuvres, make important decisions and evacuate the public. Modern reactor designs take into a account the historical experience since 1970 (when Fukushima’s first reactor came online), including technologies to make the post-shutdown cooling less dependent on diesel/batter-powered pumping. The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, for instance, places the cooling unit above the reactor core, so that it would flow down naturally.

5. Fukushima’s managers might have thought that they could implement the cooling without having to use the final option of injecting seawater and permanently putting the reactors out of commission. There are three possibilities why they waited almost a whole day before taking this option (for Reactor 1). First, they might have estimated the risk of radiation leakage to be low enough to warrant attempting other options. Second, commercial imperatives caused them to try and save the reactor, even at the risk of a threat to the public. Third, relevant engineers, officials and policymakers couldn’t make an immediate decision for some reason. With the available information, and given the Japanese context, it is likely that it was the first of the three possibilities—that the risks of radiation was estimated to be low.

6. Japanese authorities have been both calm and prudent in responding to the situation. They have provided timely information (given that the nuclear emergency is taking place within a larger natural disaster situation), ordered the population in a 10km (and subsequently 20km) radius to evacuate, made arrangement for the distribution of iodine pills and generally called for calm. Prime Minister Naoto Kan himself visited Fukushima the day after the quake.

6. Nuclear energy remains a relatively safe, clean and secure way of generating power. It remains to be seen how Japanese engineers & policymakers handle the technical and policy challenges (not least involving release of radioactive vapour into the atmosphere). It is possible that attempts to cool the reactor will not succeed. Even so, the technological vintage, the age of the reactors, the unprecedented nature of the disaster and the relative safety performance of the Fukushima reactors must be seen in perspective while assessing the impact of this incident on the future of civilian nuclear power.

7. India is well-placed to benefit from a global nuclear renaissance. The international nuclear power industry was in the doldrums for the last three decades after a nuclear emergency in Three Mile Island in the United States and the disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. However, projected shortage of fossil fuels and environmental concerns have triggered a renewed interest in nuclear power in recent years. Unlike 30 years ago, neither is the Indian civilian nuclear sector closed to foreign investment nor is the Indian scientific establishment locked in by international sanctions. This presents a strategic opportunity for India to not only expand the use of nuclear energy to strengthen its energy security, but also for Indian companies to become international players in this sector. As such it is in India’s interests to debunk irrational, unjustified and motivated campaigns to discredit nuclear power.

11 thoughts on “Fukushima – a preliminary assessment”

  1. Nitin,
    Your effort to educate on nuclear energy matters are appreciated. However, read the simian reporting on TOI to understand what an uphill battle you will face.
    This is the single most important issue that arises for India out of the Japan disaster.

    Does MMS have it in him to reaffirm his faith in nuclear energy at this critical time? I think we all know the answer.

    1. Surprisingly enough, MMS stood up in Parliament and said that nuclear safety is top priority. He has taken steps to address nuclear energy paranoia. That’ll do for the moment.

  2. What is going to happen, is quite predictable:
    1. The nuclear power plants will not cause a single fatality due to nuclear reaction or radiological exposure.
    2. The anti-nuclear brigade will go overboard in claiming that it was a close thing. The released radiation will be blamed on all thyroid cancers on this planet and the next.
    3. The nuclear energy industry will face unprecedented scrutiny and even more illogical safeguards. Nuclear energy costs will become prohibitive
    4. Coal-fired plants will continue to cause cancers (by radiation, ironically enough), increase green house emissions, and yet, not a single safety check will be placed on their operation. Adherents will continue to claim that coal-fired plants are cheaper without any shame whatsoever.

  3. Trickey,

    You also need to account for Japanese disaster preparedness with the normally sloppy Indian implementation from a namby-pamby governance system we see today. The state needs to demonstrate competence in providing non-competitive public goods before embarking on commercially risky large scale nuclear power generation ( by distorting the free-market – Limitation of Liability for loss of lives/livelihood etc. ).
    Try commuting through Faridabad to Delhi and you’ll realize how ill-designed the public transport infrastructure is with buses ignoring the last MRT stop completely.

    We need to look beyond the energy rich way of life practiced by the west, think broadband & datacenters. This industry is being hobbled by impossible to follow intermediary rules which would promote rent-seeking liaison offices instead of genuine bandwidth for promoting e-commerce to get the work done without western style wasteful malls all over the place. The daily commute must end to free up our cities of wasteful private travel reduce dependence on foreign oil, but it won’t because the laws decry a separate license to provide VPN services and after more than a decade of trying by TRAI after there is no consistent RoW policy in our cities for wired broadband to off.

    Clean energy from a combination of solar/wind/bio-fuels could turn out cheaper in the long run. Instead of wasting 100s of billions buying expensive reactors we should focus on investing that money into clean energy to achieve some outlier breakthrough instead.
    -Tarun

    1. Remember that,
      All civilian nuclear reactors will be built and operated under safeguarded IAEA international safety standards. The safety protocol compliance is completely measurable, starting right from construction site evaluation to the supplier certification to 24x7x365 monitoring and operator training. You need not worry about the nuclear reactors in the weapons program, simply because you do not have a say in that matter whatsoever.

      Agree with lifestyle changes. Do note however, that the Internet consumes 5% of all energy generated globally. I see that despite our best efforts, data center energy costs keep rising. The only real energy savings have been at the server end with virtualization technology and cooling(expensive). Telecom equipment are always on and operating at full blast. There are new green Ethernet standards, but they are mostly meant for customer premise equipment such as Wifi routers and portable devices. As connectivity improves and cloud computing becomes popular, the “always on” equipment such as core switches and routers will increase.

      The clean energy you mention will not provide baseload power. They are intermittent sources of energy. The cost of solar panels and wind turbines are prohibitive and cannot work without huge government subsidies.
      Energy from nuclear reactors is only relatively expensive to fossil energy sources because it does not subsidize safety and environment. The cost of building any power plant is amortized over decades and is quite immaterial if you can find the means to fund one.

      Bottomline: There is NO alternative to clean and cheap energy.

  4. I think it is fairly safe to say that the damage from any nuclear happening will not exceed that of the extraordinary earthquake and tsunami that overwhelmed its safeguards.

    If anything, this incident in Japan should be an example for how safe it is possible to make the use of nuclear power.

    It is another matter how we actually are able to do it in India. A lot of supposed safeguards might become irrelevant once we factor in a fact that the neutrons don’t care who is in power. They are fairly democratic about whom they irradiate.

    They also don’t understand that corruption and lack of efficiency is endemic to this country and to make special allowances out of patriotic pride when going kaput here.

  5. There is no excuse not to pursue nuclear energy as long as vast areas of India are still waiting for electricity and most that do have it suffer from power cuts. Without sounding callous about safety, we have enough health hazards running unchecked in the country to make utter hypocrites out of us if we use the ‘possibility of failure of safeguards’ as an excuse to reject.

    On the other hand, we need to figure out a way that our perpetual lack of professionalism (sad in a ‘capitalist country’) does not allow things to slide. Staying updated in terms of safeguards is important, as we see clearly in Japan – Chernobyl can’t happen in Japan, but Japan’s crisis can’t happen with more modern gravity cooled reactors. New knowledge exists.Upgrading to best practices should be actively pursued without waiting for a crisis because current practices are “good enough”

    1. Vidyut,

      In total agreement with you, however nuclear energy plants shouldn’t exist because of political fiat but because they are commercially viable in an un-distorted free market and can produce power at viable rates without state subsidy in the form of free land limitation of liability for cleanup costs after an accident which affects lives & livelihood.

      Maybe the first step in the whole process is to enable trading in electricity for entities other than govt. owned distribution companies and IPPs and removal of all subsidies for end consumers regardless of political sensitivities.

      -Tarun

  6. Nuclear power is already considerably more expensive than thermal power if all costs and energy audit is honestly done. The additional cost of further safety measures will drive up the cost further. However, in the final analysis, even if a statistically calculated once-in-a-million-years probability of serious accident exists, there is no way to say that that accident will happen only after x number of years or will not happen tomorrow. Thus accepting even such a “small” risk means that we do not care for the future and are interested in the here-and-now alone.

    1. Nuclear energy generation is on of the few engineering endeavors on this planet that have life cycle cost,monitoring and risk analysis requirement at proposal stage. Every part that comes from NSG is simulated and certified.
      If you do a similar lifecycle cost and risk analysis on coal-fired power plant, it will look seriously ugly. Coal deaths are measured in the thousands every year. The “cheap” in fossil fuel energy generation comes from it’s complete unaccountability to human rights, environment and health considerations.

      Please name your once in a million year event. I can guarantee that either 1) The current nuclear power plants can already handle it OR 2) The event is so catastrophic that we wouldn’t care what happened to nuclear power plants.

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