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Six years on, Fukushima disaster is still unfolding. Why does India refuse to heed the warning?

Kumar Sundaram | Updated on: 10 March 2017, 19:22 IST
(AFP File)

Nuclear meltdowns don't have anniversaries. In almost every other kind of industrial accident, repair, reconstruction and resumption of normal life can start from the next day. In case of a nuclear accident, the radiation spewing from damaged reactors makes any semblance of normalcy impossible for decades.

The accident is still unfolding

It is six years of the nuclear accident in Japan, which started on 11 March 2011 with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Tohoku region. The earthquake caused an unprecedentedly strong tsunami that knocked off crucial cooling systems of Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station, which hosted six reactors with a total capacity of 4,696 MW.

As the extremely hot and radioactive reactor fuel started melting, the Zirconium foil around the fuel rods reacted with sea water poured to cool the plant as a desperate measure, and caused blasts in three reactors over the next week. This damaged the reactor buildings and further compounded the accident.

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Huge quantities of highly radioactive substances like Strontium, Caesium, Plutonium and radioactive Iodine were released in the atmosphere and have been found as far as 250 km from the plant. Between 20 trillion and 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive Tritium has been leaked into the Pacific Ocean, according to conservative estimates of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the Fukushima plant.

The reactors continue to spew radiation and the most sophisticated robot that Toshiba sent inside the building this January to gauge the status of the melted fuel died within hours.

Ever-increasing radioactive leak

Till this day, the operators continue to pour hundred tons of water every day to keep the plant's temperature under control. Over six years, 800,000 tonnes of highly contaminated water has been stored in about 1,200 massive tanks scattered around the plant area. Of t, almost 300 tonnes of water is leaking every day and threatens to contaminate the entire Pacific Ocean. TEPCo has arbitrarily declared 850 tonnes of this water less contaminated and dumped it in the sea, inviting angry reactions from independent experts. To prevent this daily massive leak from washing off the entire plant into the Pacific, TEPCo started building a huge underground ice-wall costing 320 million yen, but it proved ineffective and had to be abandoned in September last year.

The roadmap for the decontamination of Fukushima is complex and its estimated cost is exceptionally high for any human-made disaster in history – it could take 40 years and about $188 billion. While the TEPCo made profit from the reactors, the financial burden of the accident has been passed on to the Japanese taxpayers.

And we are talking only about the immediate plant site. The financial, ecological and social costs involved just begin there.

Irreparable human tragedy

An area of 20-km radius around the plant was evacuated immediately after the accident, causing displacement and loss of livelihoods to nearly 200,000 people. The evacuation has been replete with heart-wrenching stories of broken families and shattered lives, administrative apathy and deception, efforts by the government to find alibis to reduce and deny compensation, and the resilient spirit of the common Japanese.

Even today, about 100,000 people continue to be displaced and they face unimaginable problems in coping up with life – economic hardship with subsidies slashed as time passes, psychological stress due to the ever-haunting fear of radiation-borne diseases appearing on their bodies as well as social ostracism and marginalisation. People of once sleepy towns and villages have been thrown into immense economic, social and legal battles that they did not choose.

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 The Fukushima experience has led to a worldwide reckoning that the consequences of major nuclear accidents are insurmountable and nuclear technology is inherently prone to such disasters. Even in a country like Japan, with advanced technologies and responsive administration, a nuclear accident has proved to be unmanageable. Furthermore, the collusion between the nuclear industry and the political system has also been thoroughly exposed.

Learning from the triple meltdowns in Japan, a number of countries have moved away from nuclear power generation. The 2016 World Nuclear Industry Status Report underlined this terminal and irretrievable decline of the fortunes of nuclear lobbies. The downfall has only been further exacerbated by the near-collapse of French and Japanese nuclear giants like Areva and Toshiba in recent months as well as decisions by countries such as Taiwan and Vietnam to shun nuclear power and scrap nuclear deals.

India in denial, and proud of it

Standing on the wrong side of history in the post-Fukushima world, India remains obsessed with building more nuclear plants. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Japan at the end of last year, women in Fukushima wrote a fervent letter, requesting him to visit Fukushima and urging him to terminate negotiations for a nuclear supply agreement with their country and rethink nuclear plans. However, the prime minister continues flaunting nuclear deals as major foreign policy successes, something that his party opposed when it was in opposition.

On the issue of nuclear liability for foreign suppliers, whose dilution the BJP vociferously opposed and termed an anti-national act that would make Indian lives cheaper in case of a nuclear accident, the Modi government has done a complete U-turn. The labeling of dissenters as “anti-national” by the Modi government, in fact, started with anti-nuclear activists: in July 2014, the government singled out some 40 individuals and organisations in an IB report, accusing them of compromising India’s “national economic security” and bringing down the GDP by 2-3 per cent.

Ironically, even as French nuclear corporations have partially wrapped up their international commerce, the Modi government is boasting of setting up their untested plants in Jaitapur, bringing it under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. This is the same reactor design about whose safety the nuclear regulator in France raised serious concerns last year. The Modi regime has expanded nuclear plans and announcced newer dubious projects in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Andhra Pradesh.

However, owing to complete non-transparency and unaccountability in the nuclear sector and non-independence of the nuclear regulator, India remains dangerously unprepared for a Fukushima-like accident.

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First published: 10 March 2017, 19:19 IST
 
Kumar Sundaram @pksundaram

The author is a researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

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