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'Nuclear suppliers can't erase the impact of a disaster'

Last updated on: March 18, 2011 09:20 IST

'Real life-cycle costs are far higher than advertised'

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Aziz Haniffa

In the wake of the nuclear emergency crippling Japan, India needs to re-evaluate the ability of its nuclear power plants to withstand disasters and its policies to handle their aftermath, experts tell rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa

In the wake of the looming nuclear disaster in Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami, leading American non-proliferation advocates and strategic and policy analysts have told rediff.com that India would have to necessarily pause and reflect on its intent to meet its soaring energy needs through nuclear power.
 
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, which led a coalition of non-proliferation groups and activists against the Indo-United States civilian nuclear deal but were unsuccessful in torpedoing its approval by the US Congress, said, "The unfolding nuclear emergencies in Japan should give every nation --especially India -- reason to pause and re-evaluate their nuclear energy plans."
 
He said, "The Japan nuclear crisis underscores the fact that real life-cycle costs are far higher than advertised, the public safety and security risks greater than nuclear utilities will admit, and that even the best emergency preparations can fall short."
 
Kimball pointed out that "the operators of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi reactors planned for severe earthquakes, but not necessarily the additional impact of the tsunami and long-term power outage. Consequently, the reactors and spent fuel storage facilities have been severely compromised and have already produced radiation releases potentially harmful to public health."
 
"In the wake of the tragedy in Japan," he argued, "India's ability of to manage similar seismic, cyclonic, tsunami disasters, as well as the potential for terrorist attacks on its existing and planned reactors should be re-evaluated."


Image: Damage after an earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is seen in this satellite image
Photographs: Reuters
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'Mega disasters can't be managed away'

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However, Kimbal said, "The reality is that mega disasters cannot be managed away. And while the Indian government was forced by opposition parties to make nuclear plant suppliers more liable for accident claims, if an accident occurs, nuclear suppliers cannot magically erase the impact of a disaster involving a nuclear reactor."
 
He warned, "In highly populated India, the effects of a Fukushima Daiichi-like emergency could be significantly greater."
 
Kimball said, "It should be no surprise that US, Russian, and French utilities will remain eager get India's nuclear reactor business, but over the long term, I would expect that the rush to build nuclear reactors in India will become increasing complicated over fresh concerns about nuclear safety."
 
"US-Indian civil nuclear commerce, already delayed by differences over India's unique nuclear liability laws, could also become further bogged down as Japan's government pauses to deal with the disaster and review its nuclear export policies in greater depth," he added.

Image: A child who was evacuated from the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant is pictured in Kawama
Photographs: Reuters
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'Questions are hard to answer at this stage'

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Kimball said, "Because of US nuclear export control laws, Japan's willingness to engage in nuclear trade with India, which does not allow full scope inspections and continues to produce nuclear bomb material, is important to nuclear suppliers like GE-Hitachi."

"Is GE-Hitachi going to be viable -- I mean all these stocks are dropping in the Tokyo stock market led by all of the utilities and companies that do business in the nuclear sector," he said.

"Is that going to make them more desperate or less able to do business with India and how is all this going to affect the public and the policymakers' view toward nuclear cooperation with anybody," he said.

Kimball added, "All of these different questions are hard to answer at this stage."


Image: Police officers wearing respirators guide people to evacuate away from the Fukushima plant
Photographs: Asahi Shimbun/Reuters
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'The memory of Bhopal led to the Nuclear Liability Bill'

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Lisa Curtis, former Central Intelligence Agency's South Asia analyst and currently the head of the South Asia Programme at the conservative Heritage Foundation -- a DC think tank, said, "As Indian officials consider their own civil nuclear policies in the wake of the Japanese crisis, they will have to weigh India's rapidly growing energy requirements with safety concerns associated with the civil nuclear option."
 
She predicted, "The Japan situation will bring to mind the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984, in which over 3,000 were killed. In fact, it was the memory of Bhopal that led to the Nuclear Liability Bill, which was passed in Parliament last summer, which put the onus for liability in the event of a nuclear accident on both suppliers and operators of new nuclear plants."

Curtis said, "The bill is already discouraging United States companies from investing in India's civil nuclear sector, and any strengthening of support for the bill within India will further complicate efforts to resolve the impasse."


Image: Evacuees, who fled from the vicinity of Fukushima nuclear power plant, sleep at an evacuation center
Photographs: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
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'Japan crisis won't halt India's plans'

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Curtis acknowledged, "The Indian government has committed to reviewing safety and security of its nuclear plants to quell the sceptics. The government has been investing in civil nuclear power plants for 40 years, and it is unlikely that the Japan crisis alone will halt its plans to increase its overall civil nuclear capacity".

But Curtis reiterated, "The Japan crisis could, however, raise additional hurdles for the Indian government in working with foreign companies to realise its civil nuclear ambitions."

Meanwhile, former George W Bush administration official Ashley Tellis, and US-India Business Council president Ron Somers, who were both intimately involved in pushing the US-India civilian nuclear deal to fruition, acknowledged that the disaster in Japan would indeed have a salutary effect on India particularly with regard to where it locates its sites and the kind of safety applications it would demand from nuclear reactors suppliers and manufacturers.


Image: Japan Self-Defense Forces officers carry a victim who is suspected of being exposed to radiation
Photographs: Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters
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'India needs more of everything fast'

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Mumbai-born Tellis, now a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, "The tragedy in Japan is going to give India pause, but it is not going to lead to any fundamental revision of their atomic energy generation targets."

"And, the reason for that," he added, "is simply because India needs more of everything fast and it needed it yesterday. India does not have the luxury of renouncing nuclear power."

Tellis said, "Even if all the sources of power essentially were produced on time very efficiently, India is still confronted with an enormous deficit in terms of power generation. There is simply no way the arithmetic adds up for demand equals supply."

Thus, he predicted, "India will be more careful about where its nuclear plants are located. That's a statutory reminder that the site becomes a very critical factor in terms of these decisions."


Image: Whirlpools are caused by a tsunami in Fukushima prefecture on March 11
Photographs: Reuters
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'A setback for nuclear renaissance worldwide'

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Tellis said it could be now expected that India would "insist that the designs be validated a lot more than at least some designs have been in the past, but I don't think it's going to lead to any downward revision of the targets."

Somers said the Japanese reactors were of 1972 vintage and argued, "In that sense it's a blessing that India is just getting its civil nuclear programme started because new technologies in the event of such an earthquake would be automatically shut down and there would not be the potential for a meltdown because of the very technologies that are now available in 2011."

But he conceded that the tragedy in Japan was clearly "a setback for nuclear renaissance worldwide."


Image: Houses lie flattened after a powerful earthquake in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture
Photographs: Reuters
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'India must embrace the civil nuclear renaissance'

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"Yes, it's going to make people think twice about civil nuclear power as a non-carbon emitting energy source, but what happens in the event of major earthquakes like the one we've just seen in Japan and then the tsunami that followed," he said.

However, Somers said, "India has 3,000 megawatts installed capacity today in civil nuclear power and the desire is to have 20,000 megawatts in 2020 and another 40,000 megawatts in 2030-2040. So, they have huge ambitions for civil nuclear power."

"India is 70 per cent dependent on hydrocarbon imports and what that's going to do to food prices, inflation as the price of oil rises. India needs to develop indigenous energy supply and a big chunk of that is going to have to come from civil nuclear power," he said.

Somers exhorted that "India must embrace the civil nuclear renaissance."


Image: A passenger from Japan passes through a scanner to check radiation levels
Photographs: Truth Leem/Reuters
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