Alarming disclosures are pouring in from Japan, which belie the official claim that the Fukushima Daiichi reactors have been in a state of “cold shutdown”. Radioactivity inside the Reactor 2 containment vessel has reached 73 sieverts per hour, which is 10 times higher than the fatal dose. Exposure to such high levels for just seven minutes would cause death.
The high radiation level, which makes it impossible for robots, endoscopes and other devices to function properly, has been attributed to the shallow level of coolant water—60 cm—in the vessel, instead of the required 4 metres. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co is clueless as to the status of Reactors 1 and 3, which also suffered meltdowns, because there is no access to their insides. They could be even worse off, according to a BBC report.
Meanwhile, a Japanese expert committee has warned that a giant tsunami with a height of 34.4 metres could hit the country’s coast in the event of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the future. None of Japan’s nuclear power stations could withstand such a tsunami. This has heightened public concern about nuclear safety and strengthened the hands of the 84 percent of the Japanese people who now oppose nuclear power.
In contrast to Japan, India’s Department of Atomic Energy, and its subsidiary Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, are blithely proceeding with a massive expansion of nuclear power generation even as they seek special exemptions under the Right to Information Act. They have proposed two amendments to the Act, which exempt sensitive information on radiation safety and commercially sensitive information on technology-holders, and to insulate the RTI Act from bodies to be created under the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill to oversee nuclear facilities established for strategic and national defence purposes. Mercifully, Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has forcefully rejected these proposals.
Even more pernicious are the nuclear establishment’s moves to bypass or violate safety procedures, including some laid down by the regulator, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. NPCIL is rushing into commissioning the first reactor at Koodankulam, which was lying idle for more than four months. Prior to preparing it for fuel loading, the reactor should be put through another “hot run”, similar to that in August/September, says former AERB chairman A Gopalakrishnan. In this operation, the core is loaded with dummy fuel and hot water is circulated through it at the same temperature as its operating level to check the integrity of its vessels, piping, valves, etc.
The AERB also mandates that an emergency evacuation drill be conducted in the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) covering a radius of 16 km from the plant, before the reactor is loaded with nuclear fuel. This is also demanded by those who sustained a six-months-long agitation against the plant before Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa cracked down on them, arresting more than 180, slapping sedition charges against activists, and harassing people for symbolic protests such as shutting down their grocery shops. There are no indications whatever that NPCIL will carry out such a drill, which would require the local people’s cooperation.
Meanwhile, key documents, including guidelines on “Population Distribution and Analysis in Relation to Siting of Nuclear Power Plants” codenamed SG/S-9, have gone missing from the AERB’s website (http://www.aerb.gov.in, accessed April 2). There is compelling evidence that the Koodankulam plant doesn’t meet the AERB’s earlier stipulation that there must no population at all within a 1.5 km radius, and only a sparse population within a 1.5-to-5-km radius. Parts of Idinthakarai village, including a recently built tsunami relief colony, with a population of several thousands, are less than 1.5 away. This is visible to the naked eye. And at least 40,000 people live within a 5-km radius. As for the EPZ, no fewer than 100,000 live there.
If and how NPCIL could reconcile this reality with AERB guidelines, and whether the AERB grants it permission to proceed with the plant’s commissioning by bending the rules, remains unclear. What’s abundantly clear is that an independent agency must be asked to survey the actual population distribution, and ensure that the Board complies with its own rules before permitting fuel loading. If this requires judicial intervention, then so be it.
However, the DAE and NPCIL habitually behave as if they were a law unto themselves. The DAE routinely grants “in principle” approval to nuclear projects even before the site selection process is completed and the statutory environment clearance (EC) is granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. NPCIL then acquires land under the draconian Land Acquisition Act of 1894 without an EC. This has happened repeatedly. For instance, land was acquired for the Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra four years before it was granted an EC in a dubious manner.
NPCIL is doing the same thing with the 10,000 MW multi-reactor plant proposed at Kovvada in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, which is liable to affect 66 villages, 74,000 people and over 26,000 acres of agricultural land. As many as 3,500 people live within 1.5 km of the site. And another 30,000 people live in a 1.5-to-5 radius called Sterilised Zone. the EPZ. But pre-emptive land acquisition, like imposition of unsafe projects upon an unwilling people, violates natural justice. That’s nuclear power for you.
(The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist)