Thursday, April 7, 2011

Learning from Fukushima

Take remedial steps and demystify the unreasoning dread of nuclear power

Shyam Ponappa / April 7, 2011

Official statistics report over 22,000 deaths related to fires, 27,000 by drowning and 144,000 in traffic accidents annually in India.1 By contrast, the number of deaths resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear accident is about 10,000 in total, estimates Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist at Princeton, who is co-chairman of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (other estimates: World Health Organisation 4,000; International Agency for Research on Cancer 16,000; Belarus 93,000 plus 270,000 cancer patients; and Ukraine 500,000). Against this, he estimates the number of deaths owing to pollution from coal plants in the US alone at 10,000 each year.2

In this context, what are we to make of a top Indian scientist’s demand for stopping nuclear power production in India pending a transparent safety audit of all nuclear plants? Why not stop all traffic because of traffic accidents, to paraphrase another leading scientist? Should we shut down all our cities and towns until the sewerage systems work? A conscious effort should be made to demystify nuclear power.

To consider this rationally, let’s begin with some reported facts. The Fukushima accident happened after the earthquake, after the plant shut down. The plant was designed to withstand waves of six metres, but was struck by an eight-metre high tsunami, according to the US’ National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (other estimates range between 6.71 and 14 metres).

A subsequent statement from the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) puts the waves that hit Fukushima Dai Ichi at 15 metres:

15-meter waves hit Fukushima

The operator of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant says the facility was hit by a tsunami as high as 15 meters on March 11th.

Tokyo Electric Power Company was reporting on Saturday on its survey of high-water marks left on the plant's buildings.

It says it found that the tsunami reached up to 15 meters on the ocean side of the reactor and turbine buildings. The figure is far beyond the company's originally estimated height of 5.7 meters.

TEPCO confirmed that the 6 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi power plant had been under as much as 5 meters of water.


The reactor core takes several days to cool after being shut down and requires external cooling. The cooling system lost power from the grid because of the earthquake. The backup diesel generators worked for an hour, then stopped (there are conflicting reports on the reasons). The backup batteries then powered the pumps until they ran out. There are also conflicting reports of alternate diesel generators that were either of insufficient capacity or could not be connected for reasons that are unclear (flooded connectors, incompatible plugs and so on). The tsunami devastated the surroundings even as it hampered assistance from elsewhere. The failure appears to have been in the supply of power and water, ie, ancillary services.

Japan has 55 nuclear power reactors and it experiences frequent earthquakes. Though there have been instances of plants being shut down after earthquakes (2007: electrical transformer fire at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, and some leaks of slightly radioactive water reported; 2004: one unit at the same plant was shut down), there has been no failure of nuclear plants because of earthquakes. So, no new facts relating to earthquakes or tsunamis seem to have surfaced to cause India to shut down its nuclear plants arbitrarily.

An increase in energy use in India is inescapable, given the correlation between growth and energy consumption. On balance, we need all the energy we can get staying within reasonable risks and costs. Objectively, what can we expect from our government and related agencies such as the Department of Atomic Energy and the Atomic Energy Agency?

Remedial Action

One could be to expect action to reduce risks based on experience.

  • After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, a 3.2-km wall was constructed at Kalpakkam, which was in the path of the tsunami, fortified with sandbags, rocks and embankments. (The plant is situated at over 9 metres above the sea, with the reactor floors at a height of nearly 10.7 metres.)

  • The backup generators are located some distance away from the plant, out of the reach of tsunamis.

  • Mangroves and casuarinas along the coast helped diffuse the impact of the waves in 2004. News reports indicate the Department of Atomic Energy plans to augment these after its recent review of coastal nuclear plants.

  • News reports also mention that portable generators will be acquired for backup and tsunami alarms will be installed at coastal sites.

Other remedial measures based on experience may have been incorporated at Indian plants, or if not, could be incorporated now. For instance, referring to Fukushima, Dr von Hippel describes a filtered vent system designed to reduce radioactivity before releasing pressure from the containment building in the event of a meltdown (see diagram below).

Though it was ignored in the US, Sweden adopted it and so did France and Germany. Presumably, a benefit of Areva’s partnership with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India for constructing India’s new reactors will be the inclusion of filtered vents, if appropriate and not already in our design.

Costs, Benefits & Risks

Another issue is educating people on the risks, costs and benefits of different fuels. Life-cycle emissions capture one aspect of these costs (see diagram below for Europe).

A similar study is available for the US: “Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis” by Paul J Meier, University of Wisconsin-Madison, August 2002 (see diagram below).


Besides, there are other costs such as population displacement and environmental effects associated with hydroelectric plants, land requirements and the environmental impact of manufacturing for solar generation, noise levels for wind farms, or pollution and the higher risk of accidents associated with coal.3

Open Information & Communication

A third issue is easy access to accurate and relevant information. After the tsunami in 2004, the information sharing with the public was exemplary, with open and transparent briefings at Kalpakkam. This approach needs to be instituted as a standard operating procedure for governance by all departments and agencies, displaying integrity in systems, thereby instilling confidence in the public.

Prompt and accurate information about safety features including design and remedial measures could be compiled for ready access on websites, with pointers during press briefings. Regular and effective communication of systems and procedures, and measures to mitigate risks, could reduce our unreasoning dread of nuclear energy. Such steps would help assess risks reasonably and provide a good framework for governance and crisis management.

1 “Table 38.1 Incidence of Accidental Deaths”,

[2008: latest available data]

2 “It Could Happen Here”, Frank N von Hippel, New York Times, March 23, 2011:

3 “Nuclear power is safest way to make electricity, according to study”, David Brown, Washington Post, April 2, 2011: