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A cloud of nuclear mistrust spreads around the world

Written By krishna on Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 11:24 PM


Special report: Japan quake

A cloud of nuclear mistrust spreads around the world
After decades of lies, nuclear reassurances now fall on deaf ears

Special report by Michael McCarthy
Wednesday, 16 March 2011

It is unprecedented: four atomic reactors in dire trouble at once, three threatening meltdown from overheating, and a fourth hit by a fire in its storage pond for radioactive spent fuel.

All day yesterday, dire reports continued to circulate about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, faced with disaster after Japan's tsunami knocked out its cooling systems. Some turned out to be false: for example, a rumour, disseminated by text message, that radiation from the plant had been spreading across Asia. Others were true: that radiation at about 20 times normal levels had been detected in Tokyo; that Chinese airlines had cancelled flights to the Japanese capital; that Austria had moved it embassy from Tokyo to Osaka; that a 24-hour general store in Tokyo's Roppongi district had sold out of radios, torches, candles and sleeping bags.

But perhaps the most alarming thing was that although Naoto Kan, Japan's Prime Minister, once again appealed for calm, there are many – in Japan and beyond – who are no longer prepared to be reassured.

The scale of the alarm is the remarkable thing: how it has gone round the world (Angela Merkel has imposed a moratorium on nuclear energy; in France, there are calls for a referendum); how it's even displaced the terrible story of Japan's tsunami itself from the front-page headlines. But then, public alarm about nuclear safety, as the Fukushima emergency proves, is very easy to raise – and, as the Japanese authorities are now discovering, very hard to calm.

The reason is an industry which from its inception, more than half a century ago, has taken secrecy to be its watchword; and once that happens, cover-ups and downright lies often follow close behind. The sense of crisis surrounding Japan's stricken nuclear reactors is exacerbated a hundredfold by the fact that, in an emergency, public trust in the promoters of atomic power is virtually non-existent. On too many occasions in Britain, in America, in Russia, in Japan – pick your country – people have not been told the truth (and have frequently been told nothing at all) about nuclear misadventures.

To understand the mania for secrecy, we have to go back to nuclear power's origins. This was not a technology dreamt up as a replacement for coal-fired power stations; this is a military technology, conceived in a life-or-death struggle, which has been modified for civilian purposes. At its heart is the nuclear chain reaction, the self-sustaining atom-splitting process ("fission") which occurs when enough highly radioactive material is brought together, and which produces other radioactive elements ("fission products"), and a release of energy.

When it was first achieved by the physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, in an atomic "pile" built in a squash court of the University of Chicago in December 1942, it merely produced heat; but all those involved understood that if it could be speeded up, it would produce the biggest explosive power ever known. And so was born the Manhattan Project, the US undertaking to build the atom bomb which was, while it lasted, history's biggest secret.

Secrecy came with nuclear energy, like a birthmark, and, indeed, for 10 years after the first A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, it remained a covert military technology, although first the Russians, and then the British, followed the Americans in developing it. Britain built a pair of atomic reactors at Windscale on the Cumbrian coast, which produced (as a fission product) plutonium, the material used in the first British nuclear weapon. That was exploded off the coast of Australia in 1952. And it was in one of these reactors that the world's first really serious nuclear accident occurred: the Windscale fire of October 1957. The reactor's core, made of graphite, caught light, melted and burned substantial amounts of the uranium fuel, and released large amounts of radioactivity. It was the most serious nuclear calamity until Chernobyl nearly 30 years later, but the British government did all it could to minimise its significance, trying at first to keep it a complete secret (the local fire brigade was not notified for 24 hours) and keeping the official report confidential until 1988.

It was to be the first of many such nuclear alarms and cover-ups at Windscale. In 1976, for example, the secrecy surrounding a major leak of radioactive water infuriated the then Technology Minister, Tony Benn, who supported nuclear power, when he learnt of it. But similar cover-ups were happening all around the world.

At the US atomic weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, there were numerous mishaps involving radioactive material which were kept secret over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s. In Russia, the province of Chelyabinsk, just east of the Urals, housed a major atomic weapons complex, which was the site of three major nuclear disasters: radioactive waste dumping and the explosion of a waste containment unit in the 1950s, and a vast escape of radioactive dust in 1967. It is estimated that about half a million people in the region were irradiated in one or more of the incidents, exposing them to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims. None of which, of course, was disclosed at the time. Chelyabinsk is sometimes referred to now as "the most polluted place on the planet".

When we turn to Japan, we find an identical culture of nuclear cover-up and lies. Of particular concern has been the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), Asia's biggest utility, which just happens to be the owner and operator of the stricken reactors at Fukushima.

Tepco has a truly rotten record in telling the truth. In 2002, its chairman and a group of senior executives had to resign after the Japanese government disclosed they had covered up a large series of cracks and other damage to reactors, and in 2006 the company admitted it had been falsifying data about coolant materials in its plants over a long period.

Last night it was reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two years ago that strong earthquakes would pose "serious problems", according to a Wikileaks US embassy cable published by The Daily Telegraph.

Even Chernobyl, the world's most publicised nuclear accident, was at first hidden from the world by what was then the Soviet Union, and might have remained hidden had its plume of escaping radioactivity not been detected by scientists in Sweden.

So why do they do it? Why does the instinct to hide everything persist, even now, when the major role of nuclear energy has decisively shifted from the military to the civil sector? Perhaps it is because there is an instinctive and indeed understandable fear among the public about nuclear energy itself, about this technology which, once its splits its atoms, releases deadly forces.

The nuclear industry is terrified of losing public support, for the simple reason that it has always needed public money to fund it. It is not, even now, a sector which can stand on its own two feet economically. So when it finds it has a problem, its first reaction is to hide it, and its second reaction is to tell lies about it. But the truth comes out in the end, and then the public trusts the industry even less than it might have done, had it admitted the problem.

It doesn't have to be like this. A quarter of a century ago, Britain's nuclear industry acquired a leader who for a few years transformed its public image: Christopher Harding. He was an open and honest man who thought that the paranoia and secrecy surrounding nuclear power should be swept away.

When he became chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, which ran the Windscale plant, he decided on a new order of things. He renamed it Sellafield, and, to general astonishment, decreed that instead of sullenly turning its back to the public, it should welcome them with open arms. He did the unthinkable: he opened a visitor centre!

Harding died young in 1999, but he was, in his lifetime an exceptional man: not only for his charm and his personal kindness – he was revered by Sellafield employees – but for his vision of a nuclear industry which would be better off dealing with its problems through transparency and honesty, rather than through obfuscation and deceit. But he was, unfortunately, the exception who proved the rule.

The rest of the nuclear industry has been dissembling for so long, and caught out in its lies so often, that the chance for trust may have passed. Even if, as I suspect, the Japanese government is trying to be reasonably up front about the problems at Fukushima, it is by no means certain that anything it says about the nuclear part of their nation's catastrophe will be believed.



Nuclear Power: Real Risks, Real Costs

By S.G.Vombatkere

17 March, 2011


In view of the renewed focus on the nuclear industry following the earthquake-tsunami double-whammy in Japan, India's nuclear industry and its proponents are in overdrive to assure the public that nuclear safety issues are well in hand, but are nevertheless being reviewed. Some supporters of the nuclear program have questioned the credentials of common people to question the safety of nuclear power plants (NPPs); one commentator has even accused critics of the nuclear industry as being “ill-informed” and “emotional”.

Chance of accident

Part of the professional skills of nuclear scientists is expertise in probability and statistics. They can objectively calculate that an earthquake-tsunami striking a nuclear installation may occur only once-in-a-million-years (or so). This is the basis of assuring PM Dr.Manmohan Singh that Fukushima-type accidents in India are “most unlikely”. But they cannot assure that the next disaster will occur only after the next 1,000 years, or will not occur next month, nor predict the location of occurrence or the socio-economic fall-out. A once-in-a-million-years event can happen tomorrow.

It is argued that Fukushima happened because of the combination of earthquake-tsunami, but then the accidents at Three Mile Island (USA) and Chernobyl (USSR/Russia) did not need earthquake or tsunami. Today there is added risk of military or terrorist attack on a nuclear facility. The issue here is not about when, where and how it might occur, but that the combination of radioactive-social-environmental-economic-political fall-out of such a disaster is unacceptable to people.

The nuclear industry worldwide is secrecy-ridden, intransparent, unaccountable, self-certifying and self-opinionated. In the Fukushima disaster, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which claimed on its website that “monitoring goes on around the clock year round”, displayed, “This system is currently shut down”. Perfectly understandable, in view of the dire circumstances. The point here is that TEPCO has subsequently vented steam and used ocean water to cool the reactor(s) and there have been explosions. All these would have put unmeasured, indeed unmeasurable, quantities of radionuclides into the air and water. Yet, TEPCO claimed that it is only a Level-4 “event” with local consequences (Chernobyl was Level-7, the highest), on the basis of a monitoring system that is shut down. What are we to believe? As for the integrity of TEPCO itself, it is noteworthy that in 2003, TEPCO's nuclear plant was shut down for a period because of a data falsification scandal. The lesson in this is: Data released cannot be relied upon, because of self-certification, denial of questioning and over-reliance on professional scientific integrity.

Safe and cheap energy

The nuclear industry claims that nuclear power is safe, clean and cheap. The best way to examine these claims is through their connectedness. Structural safety calls for appropriate design and quality construction and is a trade-off against structural safety; higher initial cost of the NPP means higher cost of power generated. Operational safety calls for periodic preventive maintenance that involves shutting down the reactor. This is a trade-off against the plant load factor and consequently the cost of power generated. Routine operations involve removal and storage of spent fuel rods, which must be cooled by air and water in heavily shielded buildings for around 50 years to prevent overheating and fire. Later, they must be re-processed in a separate facility to separate the plutonium, and encased in glass for deep geological burial. All these eventually boost the cost of power generated.

All nuclear plants (like all things created by humans) have a useful life, after which they are to be “junked”. However, unlike things which we put on a junk heap, nuclear plants cannot be simply locked up and left unattended. They have to be decommissioned, spending as much or more money than it cost to construct it in the first place, and the precincts have to be guarded against human access for thousands of years because it remains radioactive. Even though its life is long since over, India's 42-year-old Tarapur NPP has not been decommissioned but had its life “extended”. The costs of decommissioning the Three Mile Island or entombing Chernobyl NPPs are not available. (The costs of decommissioning the five Japanese NPPs are tentatively estimated at around Japan's GDP!). Decommissioning costs add to the cost of power generated. But the cost calculations and accounts of the Indian nuclear industry are “secret”, and not even tabled in Parliament, leave alone available for public scrutiny.

Clean energy

Is nuclear power generation clean? To all appearances and according to normal human senses, it is certainly clean. The NPP looks green, there is no black smoke, no smell, no dirt. But our senses cannot detect the ionizing radiation routinely discharged through the chimney stack or cooling water, or defect-caused leakages from components, or even full-scale accidents. These can only be detected and quantified using sophisticated instruments, with which the NPP personnel measure the levels of radiation at locations in and around the NPP, with reference to the safe or permissible exposure to humans. This is a specialized branch called “health physics”. Even accepting the essential arbitrariness of the standards of safe or permissible exposure, the public has to accept the word of the NPP authorities (or the AERB, which is the regulatory body) regarding safety. No questions can be asked, and no independent measurements or verifications are permissible. Radiation exceeding permissible limits (different for different locations within the NPP for technical reasons) calls for investigation and rectification or repair, which may require shut down. Like safety preventive maintenance, maintaining nuclear hygiene affects the cost of power generated.

Bottom line

The “safe”, “cheap” and “clean” parameters are conflicting amongst themselves, and operating a NPP is essentially a compromise between them. After the Fukushima accident, there is a growing body of international opinion that NPPs are not an acceptable risk and NPPs should be permanently closed. (The cost of decommissioning will be staggering, but it will terminate nuclear accident and warfare risk). It is also best to close down because if safety “upgradation” by physical and system measures is adopted in a risk assessment-insurance model, its cost will add to the already high cost of nuclear power compared to other modes of generation, and nuclear power will anyway price itself out of the market. Thus the industry's claim that nuclear power is safe, cheap and clean cannot be defended in an open forum. It may be argued that if NPPs are indeed safe-and-clean, there is no reason why a NPP should not be constructed in the spacious and secure precincts of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Intransparency of the nuclear establishment is policy because its real risks and high real-time costs will work against it. Especially post-Fukushima, the nuclear industry is forced to do what it is best at – insisting on secrecy, selling the trust-in-me, papa-knows-best spiel, and insisting that nuclear issues are esoteric and beyond the understanding of the general public. Only public awareness, opinion and demand can bring to light the true risks and costs of the nuclear establishment. But this will require the cooperation of the media.

Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere holds a PhD in civil structural dynamics from I.I.T, Madras. He commanded a Task Force and later was Chief Engineer of a Border Roads project in the high-altitude area of Ladakh. In 1993, the President of India awarded him Visishta Seva Medal for distinguished services rendered in Ladakh. He retired as Additional DG (Discipline & Vigilance) in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.

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