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.

My op-ed in Mint: The lines of nuclear succession

The nuclear factor renders unacceptable practices that stem from the compulsions of coalition politics

In today’s Mint, I argue that “the nuclear factor thus calls for both the declaration of a line of succession as well as ensuring that key cabinet portfolios are entrusted to separate individuals. It renders unacceptable practices that have either become norms or are compulsions of coalition politics. Parties preparing for the coming general election, therefore, would do well to go beyond announcing their prime ministerial candidates. They should announce their leadership succession strategy and the line-up for key cabinet positions.”

Read the entire article over at LiveMint.

And how much are these nukes?

If your goose lays golden eggs, you’ll want to keep it

Like many thoughtful people, Bret Stephens zeroes in on the central problem—Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal protects jihadi terrorists, besides running the country down in various ways. He deserves appreciation for attempting to think up an innovative solution to it. (via Pragmatic Euphony)

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that Pakistan will give up its nuclear arsenal and capability for US$100 billion and an American nuclear umbrella. Forget US$100 billion, it’s unlikely to trade-in its nukes for any price that the world is prepared to pay. Why?

Because it can get the same money by keeping the nuclear weapons—by playing up the risk of these weapons falling into the hands of rogues and terrorists in case of widespread turmoil. So why sell the goose that lays the golden eggs? And we are not even talking about whether the ordinary and the elite would accede to a trade-in deal.

As for placing Pakistan under the American nuclear umbrella—it makes a good soundbite, but is not credible. Is the United States prepared to use nuclear weapons on Pakistan’s behalf should India launch a punitive strike against Pakistan’s jihadi training camps in retaliation to a major terrorist attack? If you are a Pakistani leader—civilian or military—you won’t count on this. Besides, your all-weather friends in Beijing are unlikely to be favourably disposed to it either.

Weekday Squib: From centrifugist to columnist

It’s about spinning anyway

Okay, your extra strong dose of irony supplements comes from Pakistan’s The News daily. Their new columnist, a certain Abdul Qadeer Khan, delivers Urdu couplets, self-justification, Musharraf-vilification, Bhutto-sycophancy and a couple of nuggets about Pakistan’s nuclear and missile deals with China and North Korea. But the what touches the heart is advice about “Yes-men who dare not say anything against their views may be good for their egos, but not for the country. Sycophants go out of their way to praise their beneficiary…This often results in destruction of national institutions and unimaginable damage to the country concerned”.

And for the record he “never asked for any favours from the government and never received any.”

Update:It looks like The News carried a sanitised translation of Khan’s original Urdu column in Jang. The erudite Sepoy, over at Chapati Mystery, has an authentic—and even more colourful—translation.

Tragedy aboard the Nerpa

Twenty die in an accident on a nuclear-powered submarine that might have been leased to India

There were four times as many people on board as there should have been. And an accidental burst of fire-suppressant gas suffocated twenty of them to death. The Nerpa, an Akula-II class nuclear submarine that was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan has returned to its base on Russia’s Pacific coast.

According to some media reports, the Nerpa was to have entered service in the Indian Navy as INS Chakra, under a ten-year lease from Russia. This would allow the navy to train its personnel ahead of the launch of the Advanced Technology Vessel, India’s indigenous nuclear submarine. But both governments have been cagey over the existence of such a deal, although 40 navy personnel were supposed to have left for Vladivostok earlier this month. However, the Indian Navy has officially denied that the Nerpa had Indian crew members on board.

Update: 1. From Information Dissemination & 2. The list of casualties released by Russian authorities does not have any Indians (via BRF)

Jumping over Mamata’s nuclear hurdle

Meet the Academician Lomonosov

Swaminomics points out that the issue of land acquisition—epitomised by Mamata Banerjee—will prove to be the real hurdle in building nuclear power plants after the India-US nuclear deal (linkthanks BOK). Mr Aiyar is right—land acquisition is an important issue. (See the December 2007 and August 2008 issues of Pragati).

But who says nuclear reactors must be built on land? The Russians are building a floating nuclear power plant (FNPP), and the first, the Academician Lomonosov, is expected to be completed by 2010.

FNPP via RIA NovostiThe FNPP will be a barge able to move with the help of a tug boat. Transportation will be done without nuclear fuel, so on the move it will be non-threatening hardware.

The FNPP will look like a small island with an area of between 7.4 and 12.4 acres. It resembles a “symbiosis” of a nuclear-powered vessel and a standard land-based nuclear plant. It could well arouse amazement and fear, as radiophobia is widespread. Nevertheless, according to Sergei Kirienko, chief of Russia’s Federal Nuclear Power Agency, “the floating nuclear power plant with several levels of protection will be much safer than a land-based one.” [RIA Novosti | See the infographic]

Weekday Squib: When those hadrons finally collide

Six pints of bitter. And quickly, please because the world’s about to end.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans. And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, one girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever. [Prologue, H2G2]

No Vogon spaceships, but hadrons are about to collide…and it’s not even a Thursday. “It’s at times like this…that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”

Update: It’s been turned on. But the hadrons haven’t collided yet. “Over the next few weeks, as the LHC’s operators gain experience and confidence with the new machine, the machine’s acceleration systems will be brought into play, and the beams will be brought into collision to allow the research programme to begin.”

New Zealand’s misplaced opposition at the NSG

Neither India’s nuclear weapons programme nor its nuclear power projects will be to New Zealand’s detriment

Regarding the proceedings at the Nuclear Suppliers Group where small states like New Zealand have shown reluctance to admit India into the nuclear mainstream, here’s what an astute and knowledgeable person said in an email:

A broad stance against testing nuclear weapons is central to nonproliferation, however India already has a voluntary moratorium in place. As long as India perceives no immediate deterioration in its local nuclear security environment the moratorium should hold. By contrast a multilateralised commitment on testing might mislead the Pakistanis and elements of the proliferation underworld that provocative behaviour will go without a response from the Indian side. The Nuclear Supplier Group’s history of failures when it comes to checking Pakistani proliferation little by way of comfort to anyone in India.

It is difficult to imagine parallels between New Zealand’s opposition to French nuclear testing and India’s posture on nuclear testing. India has not tested any nuclear weapons in waters off New Zealand’s coast and nor does it intend to. If India does decide to conduct an atmospheric test, it would need to first withdraw from the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Such a withdrawal requires a three months notice be given to the depository countries and that should allow for enough time for New Zealand to take steps to ensure that India doesn’t just drop 20 MT on some atoll in the Southern Pacific. So what is the point of putting 50 conditions on India right now, when all New Zealand should be interested in is one condition when the time comes.

While one can argue that ensuring visible compliance of norms is the key to ensure the spread of non-proliferation ideology—one can also examine any gains on this front against losses from criminalising routine commerce. India’s energy needs are well known at this stage and every nuclear energy company in the world wants to access that market. By keeping the barriers at the Nuclear Suppliers Group artificially high—a large volume of trade is forced underground. In light of the peculiar auditing practices followed by NSG members states when keeping track of the A Q Khan network, one might ask if excessive regulation created circumstances ideal for putting nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists?

With an increased dependence on carbon fuels in India will produce enough greenhouse gases to make nightmare scenarios on global warming a reality. Blocking India’s path to nuclear energy seems like sensible alternative to some non-proliferation pundits, but then most of them live in countries with plenty of high ground. Surely, a small country like New Zealand can be expected to take a different view the perils of rising water levels.

A Q Khan, China and the truth

Bidirectional proliferation

Please don’t yawn. Savour the details. The Centrifugist revealed his side of the story to Simon Henderson. The latter’s article in The Sunday Times should put paid to the “Khan’s was a rogue operation” farce. It also tells the story of how China and Pakistan helped each other in nuclear technology.

(Khan’s) team was also the recipient of a gift from China of a design for an atomic bomb and enough highly enriched uranium for two devices, after Beijing decided to back Khan to jump-start Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I remember being told about China’s nuclear generosity by an outraged British official in the 1980s. I later asked what Beijing had received in return. It was an enrichment plant.

The plant is at Hanzhong in central China. C-130 Hercules transports of the Pakistan air force made more than 100 flights to China carrying centrifuge equipment. Beijing needed the plant, not for bombs but to fuel its nuclear power plants. Centrifuge technology is good for both levels of enrichment, hence the current concern that Iran’s nascent plant at Natanz has a military purpose. China could not make the Pakistan-supplied centrifuges work properly, so replaced them with Russian centrifuges. What happened to the Pakistani centrifuges? A good question. They were not returned to Pakistan. Could they have ended up in Iran?

…Musharraf said Khan had shipped examples of centrifuges to North Korea. Correct, but with the connivance and at the instruction of the Pakistan military. [Times]

(linkthanks: the indefatigable Swami Iyer)

Pragati August 2008: Should India send troops to Afghanistan?

Issue 17 - Aug 2008
Issue Contents


Making a leader
Excerpts from a lecture on leadership and discipline
Sam HFJ Manekshaw

Our voice in our history
Academic freedom, private funding and historical research
Jayakrishnan Nair

On whether or not India has a coherent foreign policy

A survey of think-tanks
On China policy; Fixing the FATA; An Indo-Israeli alliance?
Vijay Vikram

Hold steady in Afghanistan
India is on the right track and it should stay that way
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza

A bigger military presence is essential
…if India is to shape Afghanistan’s future
Sushant K Singh

The myth of Taliban tribalism
The folly of trying to set tribes against each other
Joshua Foust

Monsoon Session 2008—What’s in store
Legislative brief
Sarita Vanka

When it’s good to slow down
The why and what next about rising inflation
V Anantha Nageswaran

The historical roots of the services sector
…calls for a strategy that plays to India’s strengths
Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta

Profiting from education
Resistance against commercialisation is fruitless
Atanu Dey

Four books about Pakistan
On nuclear proliferation, military politics and society
Nitin Pai