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.

Liability-shiability absurdity

Liberalise the nuclear power industry!

It is painfully hard to watch the ongoing drama over civil nuclear liability. So much is the political class—from the UPA government to the opposition BJP—engrossed in lawyerly detail, so much has the Congress party abandoned the idea of economic reforms which Manmohan Singh was once famous for, that the biggest policy issue is not even being debated.

That issue is the full liberalisation of the nuclear power sector. There is no good reason why only state-owned (or majority state-owned) enterprises should operate the engines that make electricity from uranium. Instead of quibbling over whether or not to limit liability to operators or to extend it to their suppliers, the political class and the strategic analysts who advise them should be setting their sights on amending the Atomic Energy Act to liberalise the sector and allow for a neutral regulator to supervise them.

During the thick of the debate over the India-US nuclear deal, this blog had argued that liberalising the nuclear power industry is necessary, and that the nuclear deal is an opportunity to accomplish that task. Instead, both the government and the opposition have tied themselves in a legalistic bind over the irrelevant issue of supplier liability.

Irrelevant? Largely, yes. Because in a liberalised environment, all the government needs to do is hold the operator liable, and leave it to the operator to decide how it wants to cover its liabilities.

Related Link: PRS Legislative Research’s M R Madhavan’s brief on the civil nuclear liability bill, in Pragati

Ruddying relations

A closer strategic India-Australia relationship—the “how”

The Lowy Institute has released an excellent policy brief, authored by Rory Medcalf, coinciding with Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s first visit to India. You should read it in full—but the cogent executive summary is worth reproducing on this blog.

What is the problem
Strategic ties between Australia and India keep falling short of expectations, despite strong growth in trade. Controversy over the welfare of Indian students has added to differences over uranium exports to cloud what should be promising links between two countries with many common concerns. The relationship will weather recent turbulence. But without major diplomatic initiatives soon, the prospects for a truly strategic partnership between these Indian Ocean democracies will be set back for years.

What should be done?
The relationship needs to be invigorated through a leaders’ commitment to a strategic partnership, informed by a fresh awareness of how each country can help the other increase its security. This needs to be more than rhetoric.

A bilateral security declaration would add Australia-India relations to a regional web of defence ties involving Japan and South Korea. India should reciprocate Australia’s overtures to engage as a priority maritime partner, including in exercises. The two armies should help each other too, for example in special forces training.

Australia and India should work to expand common ground on nuclear non- proliferation and disarmament, which might help open the way on uranium sales. Both governments need fully to grasp Australia’s vast potential in ensuring India’s energy security.

Regular strategic dialogue should focus on common interests, including relating to China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, terrorism and maritime security. Options should also be explored for new regional arrangements including a three-party forum with Indonesia. [Lowy]

Related Link: Mr Medcalf also has an op-ed in today’s Indian Express. In the February 2008 issue of Pragati he argued that closer India-Australia ties requires political will on both sides.

Reprocessing arguments

The G-8 statement on non-proliferation does not take away the core benefits of the India-US nuclear deal

Don’t blame yourself if you have difficulty in navigating through the jargon, subtext and the writers’ agenda in the return this week of the India-US nuclear deal into the media limelight. But before you subscribe to any of the conclusions that reporter-commentators, opposition leaders and incumbent ministers want you to, take a step back and consider what the deal is about. (See A good deal, but bad politics, from August 2007)

The deal—which itself comprises of the bilateral agreements between India and the US; US domestic law in the form of the Hyde Act; and the multilateral “clean waiver” at the Nuclear Suppliers Group—allows India to import foreign reactors and nuclear fuel for generating electricity. These reactors and fuel supplies will be under an international inspection regime (called ‘safeguards’) under the International Atomic Energy Agency, which ensure that they are not used for producing weapons.

This means two things: first, provided the domestic regulatory environment is liberalised, it will be much easier for India to address the huge energy shortage by exploiting nuclear power. And second, it will free up domestic and foreign non-NSG sources of nuclear fuel for use in the weapons programme.

There is nothing in what the G-8 leaders said earlier this week that will change this. But wait, didn’t they, as Siddharth Varadarajan argues,—at the behest of the Obama administration—call for a ban on the transfer of enrichment & reprocessing (ENR) technology to India, even to safeguarded civilian facilities? Yes, but it doesn’t really matter.

It only means eight of the 45 countries of the NSG have agreed to implement a draft of a text that the NSG has not yet agreed to. The NSG is a cartel, not a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. The G-8 is a loose group, not even a cartel, less a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. France and Russia are aware that the United States disadvantaged itself as a nuclear supplier to India by hobbling itself with the Hyde Act. Are they likely to sign away a long-term competitive commercial advantage for the sake of a lofty principle? Unlikely—the prisoners’ dilemma is in India’s favour. But what if they do?

Well, it means that the fuel for civilian nuclear reactors will have to be sent back to reprocessing facilities abroad. While this might change the price of the fuel—and affect the competitiveness of the supplier of that fuel—it does not disturb the security of fuel supply.

Since India has its own indigenous reprocessing technology, the ‘ban’ on ENR exports to India, were it ever to materialise, does not affect the ability to produce fissile material for the nuclear arsenal. Even Mr Varadarajan admits that India is “technologically self-sufficient in reprocessing and enrichment technology” and its inclusion in the India-US nuclear deal was “matter of principle, positioning and ‘paisa’.” (Actually, the real problem with respect to reprocessing is not the G-8 or NSG rules, but rather, the Indian government’s lackadaisical attitude towards investing in new reprocessing facilities.)

So it turns out that even in the worst case—if the G-8 countries decide to overturn bilateral agreements, voluntarily give up their competitive advantages and prevent others from doing so—India’s energy security and nuclear programme will remain substantially unaffected.

Why the outcry then? Mr Varadarajan is right on two counts: the US government will do what it must to protect its interests, and the Indian government can’t afford to be complacent.

But unless you’ve been living in a cave you would have guessed by now that Barack Obama does not have the same view on India as his predecessor did. You will also know that Mr Obama intends to take the old arms control and non-proliferation route to nuclear disarmament. This means that the old alphabet soup of CTBT, FMCT and NPT is back on the table, and the G-8 decision is an early sign of that. Disagreements and differences of opinion are on the cards, but India is in a much better position to deal with these because of the nuclear deal, than it would have been without it.

Concerning Australia’s uranium sales

The Rudd government would do well to climb out of an unnecessary hole it has dug for Australia

Greg Sheridan has a very insightful piece on the India-US nuclear deal and the stakes for Australia (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran). He gets it right when he argues that Australia can’t hope to enjoy a close relationship with India if it maintains a discriminatory policy on uranium sales.

Then the deal must be approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Here’s where Australia comes in. With something like 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves, Australia is a key member of the NSG. So far, the Rudd Government has not said whether it will support the US-India deal at the NSG or oppose it.

It has however hinted that it would support the deal at the NSG, a hint Foreign Minister Stephen Smith repeated yesterday. Certainly Australia could kiss goodbye forever the idea of any decent relationship with India if it opposes the deal at the NSG.

Accepting the deal at the NSG would not commit Australia to supplying uranium to India. However, that will be the next big question…

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb has effectively homed in on the contradiction between the Rudd Government selling uranium to China – which has a terrible, though not recent, record of nuclear proliferation – while refusing to sell uranium to India, which has never passed on nuclear technology to anyone.

..the Rudd Government will face a deep contradiction between supporting the US-India deal in the NSG, then saying it will not sell uranium to India. It will face an even bigger contradiction between its concern with greenhouse gas emissions and taking action, by refusing uranium to India, that impedes the development of clean energy. [The Australian]