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.

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System