By Shivani Makkar:
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” — Richard Feynman
The fateful day of 11th of March, 2011, nature proved its might again, and man saw only impotence in the mirror. A nation known for its technological advancement, its collectivist culture, and the ability, to literally rise from the ashes after the atomic bombs, that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki- Japan was shaken to its core by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, giving rise to massive tsunami waves. But this was not the worst of it. The most devastating atomic meltdown since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 took place in the age old Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s north-eastern coast, which suffered a total power failure, leading to a breakdown of the cooling system. Out of the six nuclear-reactors at the station, three of the cores got overheated, causing alarming levels of radiation to seep out over a tranquil countryside.
The plant has been crippled to such an extent that the cap of the destruction has still not been figured out. 6,000 workers continue the battle to control the damage, working in the confines of suffocating gear. In February this year, there was news of leakage of highly toxic, radioactive water, into the Pacific Ocean, from one of the 1,300 or so storage tanks, each holding a thousand tons of water that was used to keep the reactors cool. And the numbers keep rising every couple of days. Despite some proposed plans-that do not guarantee any success-to deal with the problems of radiation that has spread far and wide, the government estimates that it will take more than 30 years to make this ‘seismically cursed land’ safe again.
So What Went Wrong?
The plant was commissioned in 1971; it should have retired naturally without the force of nature acting upon the issue. Hannah Beech hits the nail on the head when she says in her report titled ‘The world’s most dangerous room’, that it was not just a natural disaster, but also a man-made crisis, born out of “political hubris, corporate dereliction and an instinct to obscure Japan’s ugliest elements”. It is time we reflect deeply and accept that innovations in science and technology and a complacency born out of a sense of superiority, cannot keep nature at bay; lack of preparedness and oversight in regulation can have catastrophic consequences for humankind for many generations to come.
The problem, it should be noted, was not just with TEPCO’s (Tokyo Electric Power Company) deplorable emergency procedures and plans, but with a much larger political attitude towards preparing for such a situation that was not very hard to foresee. The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, in its 2012 report, said, “What must be Â¬admitted–Â¬very -painfully–is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”
The initial death toll was reported to be 20,000, but the post-traumatic stress continues to claim lives by the way of suicides. There is widespread fear among the people, almost a reigned-in panic about their young children, given the rise in health problems and uncertainty as to the hot spots of radiation that go well beyond the evacuated areas, which anyway were too little too late.
The Nuclear Ambitions of India: Ominous Signs
There is a lot to read between the lines in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Japan. The two countries have agreed to accelerate talks regarding a civil nuclear energy pact. While issues such as collaborating to develop 100 ‘smart cities’, construction of high-speed railways or bullet trains, investing in river cleaning projects and rural development are looked upon favourably by and large, the discussions regarding the exchange and collaboration on nuclear technology needs deeper reflections. India herself has had her share of cataclysmic disasters resulting from negligence that cost thousands of peoples their lives. The Bhopal Gas tragedy of 1984, that killed thousands and permanently injuring even more, is a dark blot on the nation’s history that needs some light to shine upon it. It was caused due to a lack of security system in place and woeful response in containing the extent of the tragedy, and is a lesson that must not be forgotten. Surveys are still determining the extent of soil, water and air contamination as a result of the tragedy. The poisonous underground water is proving hazardous for the people of the slums and the government’s indifference and half-hearted response has been disappointing.
The people fight back
In the recent past, we have seen India’s atomic power plant operator, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), set up two 1,000 MW Russian reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. And The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, leading the local villagers, farmers and activists of the area, have raised their voices against the joint Indo-Russian venture, especially after the Fukushima meltdown. The sustained protests by way of hunger strikes, rallies, fishing strikes, by the people in large numbers shook the entire Indian nuclear establishment and also baffled the political parties. Despite government assurances, the misgivings about the quality of Russian parts in the plant, inadequate security provisions, and the fact that the area where the plant is located was affected by the Tsunami that hit Asia in 2004, have made people fear that history will repeat itself; Fukushima disaster is being invited to India.
Socio-economic as well as environmental grievances are being voiced in various regions of the country, from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu to the states of Haryana and Maharashtra, where new nuclear power plants are planned in primarily fertile farmlands near fishing grounds. Heads are also rising in the tribal areas of Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh, where the government plans to open up mines to tap into huge reserves of uranium, needed for nuclear technology.
What needs to be taken into account here are the issues being raised by these grassroots movements against such proposed projects. Apart from the human and environmental costs, this local activism raises concerns that relate to displacement, starvation, loss of land rights and economic livelihoods. The affected communities usually comprise of low income groups such as miners, farmers and fishermen, and their fight is reflective of a deep mistrust towards the government due to corruption and a lack of accountability. The resistance challenges the ideas of development that cater to only a certain tiny section of the population while putting entire local economies and communities at the guillotine, and highlights the dangers of formulating policies primarily around technological considerations rather than people’s well-being, cultural values and justice. Moreover, they question the power equations between the state, citizens and private interests.
Lessons to be learnt from Japan
The disaster in Fukushima showed once again that nuclear plants are always prone to human errors and natural disasters, and are dangerously unsafe. Apart from the tremendous loss of human lives and the damage to environment that will leave its mark for decades to come, there is a huge financial cost that the people themselves have to bear. Of the millions of people living near nuclear reactors, none of them are immune to a life threatening crises at any point. The 160,000 victims, who fled their home after the Fukushima collapse and exposure to radiation, are struggling to make a livelihood, and they still await an adequate and just compensation. There was no emergency and evacuation planning, no liability of TEPCO, and no satisfactory nuclear regulators.
With India undertaking an expansion of its nuclear programme, the red flag raised by Japan must not be ignored. But that is what our policy makers seemed to be intent on doing, minimising the gravity of the Japanese crisis to a “purely chemical reaction”. This was the eye-opening statement by our department of Atomic Energy. True, nuclear energy is the need of the day, especially in a developing country like India where energy demands touch new heights every season. But what is more important is to develop human and political institutions, industrial regulations, acknowledge the risk factors and take appropriate steps to safeguard and secure human lives and environment in case of a crisis. And this is precisely where Japan failed. In truth, there is no such thing as ‘nuclear safety’; there are only nuclear risks which are constitutive of all reactors, and the risks of a breakdown cannot be predicted.
India needs to develop economically, but the question is how; do we simply ape the west, or is there a way to find alternatives sources of energy to drive our economy forward. “Mature, robust and affordable renewable energy technologies are available and up to the task of replacing hazardous nuclear reactors. During the last five years, 22 times more new power generating capacity based on wind and solar was built (230,000MW) compared to nuclear (10,600MW). Renewable power plants built in just the one single year of 2011 are capable of generating as much electricity as 16 large nuclear reactors. This is where the opportunity stands for a nuclear- hazard-free-future.” (Source)
Stepping back from the question of rejecting the nuclear technology, we must radically review our policy processes to ensure appropriate, safe and acceptable outcomes, and there must be a transparent, independent audit of all the nuclear facilities. The foundational principles of democracy must be called upon here, and citizen rights and governmental accountability should be the basis of any decisions taken, if India is to have a nuclear energy program that is socially just, environmentally sustainable, and economically feasible. We must not develop the same cracks that tore apart Fukushima; we must not repeat a history that never should have happened in the first place.