N. S. VENKATARAMAN
Chemical Engineer by profession
Director of Nandini Consultancy Centre Pvt. Ltd The Founder Trustee of Nandini Voice For The Deprived
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has done well to appeal to the agitators in Koodankulam to give up their protest and have faith in the assurances of the scientists and technologists responsible for designing and implementing the Koodankulan power project about the safety aspects .
However, it is inappropriate to dismiss the agitators as motivated or having vested interests in conducting the protest. This is not so and the local people have fears about the safety of the project, which is based on the propaganda and campaign of the anti-nuclear groups and the media reports. Obviously, the local people who are agitating and even the political leaders involved may not be aware of the technicalities or other complex matters like nuclear reactions, generation of spent fuel, effects of radiations etc. The problem is that the government which is promoting the nuclear project in Kodankulam has not thought it necessary to educate the citizens in simple language and terms about the broad aspects of the project and the safety records of similar projects in other parts of the world. The issue is one of transparency and failure to inform the public by an educative programme.
It is true that some safety issues in nuclear projects have occurred in the past in some places in the world. There are reported to be around seventeen such mishaps between 1952 and 2010. Except at Chernobil project in Russia and the recent nuclear mishap at Fukushima in Japan , all the other mishaps in the past were of minor nature. Billlions of units of nuclear power have been generated around the world in the last seven decades or so and the world has been immensely benefited.. Many developed countries now are largely relying on nuclear power projects for their power requirement.
Considering the accidents that have been taking place in many areas such as road, rail and aircrafts and in industries , the mishaps that have happened in the nuclear power projects in the world are few and far between.
The nuclear mishaps that have occurred in the past are described below
December 12, 1952
A partial meltdown of a reactor’s uranium core at the Chalk River plant near Ottawa, Canada, resulted after the accidental removal of four control rods. Although millions of gallons of radioactive water poured into the reactor, there were no injuries.
Fire destroyed the core of a plutonium-producing reactor at Britain’s Wind scale nuclear complex – since renamed Sellafield – sending clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere. An official report said the leaked radiation could have caused dozens of cancer deaths in the vicinity of Liverpool.
A serious accident occurred during the winter of 1957-58 near the town of Kyshtym in the Urals. A Russian scientist who first reported the disaster estimated that hundreds died from radiation sickness.
January 3, 1961
Three technicians died at a U.S. plant in Idaho Falls in an accident at an experimental reactor.
July 4, 1961
The captain and seven crew members died when radiation spread through the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered submarine. A pipe in the control system of one of the two reactors had ruptured.
October 5, 1966
The core of an experimental reactor near Detroit, Mich., melted partially when a sodium cooling system failed.
January 21, 1969
A coolant malfunction from an experimental underground reactor at Lucens Vad, Switzerland, releases a large amount of radiation into a cave, which was then sealed.
December 7, 1975
At the Lubmin nuclear power complex on the Baltic coast in the former East Germany, a short-circuit caused by an electrician’s mistake started a fire. Some news reports said there was almost a meltdown of the reactor core.
March 28, 1979
Near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, America’s worst nuclear accident occurred. A partial meltdown of one of the reactors forced the evacuation of the residents after radioactive gas escaped into the atmosphere.
February 11, 1981
Eight workers were contaminated when more than 100,000 gallons of radioactive coolant fluid leaked into the contaminant building of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah 1 plant in Tennessee.
April 25, 1981
Officials said around 45 workers were exposed to radioactivity during repairs to a plant at Tsuruga, Japan.
April 26, 1986
The world’s worst nuclear accident occurred after an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It released radiation over much of Europe. Thirty-one people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Hundreds of thousands of residents were moved from the area and a similar number are believed to have suffered from the effects of radiation exposure. SCALE 7
March 24, 1992
At the Sosnovy Bor station near St. Petersburg, Russia, radioactive iodine escaped into the atmosphere. A loss of pressure in a reactor channel was the source of the accident.
In France’s most serious nuclear accident, three workers were contaminated after entering a nuclear particle accelerator in Forbach without protective clothing. Executives were jailed in 1993 for failing to take proper safety measures.
Japan’s Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor leaked two to three tons of sodium from the reactor’s secondary cooling system.
The state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation reprocessing plant at Tokaimura, Japan, contaminated at least 35 workers with minor radiation after a fire and explosion occurred.
September 30, 1999
Another accident at the uranium processing plant at Tokaimura, Japan, plant exposed fifty-five workers to radiation. More than 300,000 people living near the plant were ordered to stay indoors. Workers had been mixing uranium with nitric acid to make nuclear fuel, but had used too much uranium and set off the accidental uncontrolled reaction.
After 1999, after a gap of more than ten years, the mishap at Fukushima, Daiichi nuclear plants in Japan have taken place in 2010.
Indian scenario :
In India, twenty nuclear power reactors with installed capacity of 4780 MW are presently in operation. Of these reactors, two are Boiling Water Reactors of 160 MWe each at Tarapur while all others are Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs).
The safety of these BWR units, which are of the same type as the six units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi station, were reanalyzed in India a few years back and reviewed by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). Following this, the two BWRs at Tarapur have been renovated, upgraded and additional safety features back fitted to latest safety standards.
The PHWRs are of different design than that of BWRs and have multiple, redundant and diverse shutdown systems as well as cooling water systems,
The overall safety record of Indian nuclear power reactors have been highly satisfactory. There have been only some minor issues in the past such as in Kaiga atomic power plant when 45 employees suffered radiation poisoning , when radioactive heavy water from the plant contaminated the drinking water meant for staff.
Safety Management :
The concern for the Koodankulam agitators appear to be about the remote possibility of earthquake happening similar to what happened in Japan and the consequent safety threat for them. This is a farfetched fear .
While during an earth-quake, the reactor would be expected to automatically shut down (called a reactor scram), the reactor continues to produce heat equivalent to about 3 to 5 per cent of its full power level even after that. This drops off gradually and is why there needs to be layers of redundant cooling with back-up power ; especially in the event of a major earth-quake, when power from outside the plant would not be expected to be available.
Nuclear stations generally have several back-up diesel generators and battery powered systems that supply power to motor-driven cooling systems, which will continue the supply of water or coolant to dissipate heat in the event of a forced shutdown.
Safety scientists have been focusing on the reliability of back-up power systems in the nuclear stations and are taking further steps to further reinforce safety measures in the wake of the Japanese nuclear accidents.
The agitation in Koodankulam :
Accidents do happen in all sorts of activities and it is absolutely necessary that all possible precautions should be taken to ensure that such mishaps would not take place.
Hundreds of unfortunate accidents have taken place with people dying on road , in rail and air accidents and these have taken place around the world in both developed and developing countries . Similarly , many industrial explosions have taken place even in the most advanced countries. While continuous efforts are being made to improve the safety conditions and eliminate the mishaps by developing modern engineering and technological practices, no one is suggesting that plane should not fly or automobiles should not run on the road or trains should not be moving or industrial output should be stopped
Photographs in the media have shown number of school children in uniforms fasting against the Koodankulam project and one wonders as to how much these young boys and girls really know about the issues involved. Perhaps, even others protesting at the site may not have the understanding of the issues about the reliability of the safety management practices.
Having spent thousands of crores of rupees in the project and Tamil Nadu desperately needing power and the safety issues of nuclear power projects being much lesser threat than road , rail or air accidents, the media and the knowledgeable people should come forward and allay the unnecessary fears amongst the local people , who are innocent .
Of course, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu , instead of confining herself to only an appeal , must initiate steps to create transparency about the safety issues amongst the common men in the local areas without loss of time, so that they will be convinced.