Story Dated: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 18:9 hrs IST
It is not the intention here to put any elaborate statistics, but only to appeal to your common sense. Yes, Fukushima was a serious setback. Before that, there were Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (TMI) accidents. But if you look at all major industries, it has taken time for technology to evolve. With a record of just three accidents in the first 56 years of operation, nuclear power generation is one of the safest industries around. To emphasize, first, every technology goes through a period during which it takes time to mature, in terms of safety. Earlier, there used to be numerous ship wrecks, plane crashes, oil leaks etc. Yes, there still are, but the frequency has fallen dramatically. It is in this context that we should see the nuclear power sector: three accidents in the first 56 years, out of which only one, Chernobyl, has caused public deaths. This is an exemplary safety record unmatched by any industry, not even when the level of complexity is lower. This brings us to another aspect; that the nuclear industry is learning from its mistakes, like every other technology. Deaths were caused in Chernobyl due to poor dissemination of accidentrelated information. But in Fukushima, even though the severity of accident was much larger, there has been not even a single radiationrelated death, thanks to efficient informationsharing.
One by one, all the causes of accidents are being tackled. There are dozens of instances every year in earthquake prone countries, when the reactors shut down by themselves in case of an earthquake. This happened in Fukushima as well, though the tsunami which arrived later wrecked havoc. But it has to be noticed that the reactor did exactly what it was designed to do. It was designed for a 5 m tsunami. What it was not designed for was a 13 m high tsunami. So the error was in anticipating the severity of the tsunami, not in the reactor design per se. This is a very important point since the blame for this has to be shared by everyone from the meteorological department to other independent agencies, not just the nuclear power industry. In fact, basic probability analysis suggested that Fukushima should be expecting a tsunami of such severity once in 30 years. Assuming an average reactor lifetime of 60 years, this means that every reactor in that region should expect two such tsunamis during its operation. Even in this scenario, if the reactor was not designed accordingly, it points to the lax attitude of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (it hardly reflects the famed Japanese efficiency), and definitely not the soundness of the reactor design.
Yes, itís a fact that nuclear power can be disastrous. But that is only in case of an accident. Compare this with coal, which is killing hundreds of miners every year. Or to the electricity generated from fossil fuels, natural gas and coal, which will kill hundreds of thousands in the future through their contribution to global warming, accident or not. So do we choose sure death of our children due to global warming, or death only in case of a nuclear accident, the already low frequency of which is decreasing even further every decade? What right do we have to destroy the lives of future generations by saturating our atmosphere with CO2 by the time they arrive in this world? It is clear that we cannot improve our standards of living, which is abysmally low, without an increase in per capita electricity consumption. Do we want to go about implementing this increase with absolute disregard for the future generations, or by supporting nuclear power, without which Japan would not have had the Sonys, the Nikons and the Canons, without which France would not have been a net electricity exporter, and without which the US would not have been the power it is today (the US has 104 reactors)? It is all very well for organizations like PMANE and Greenpeace to say that we donít want nuclear power. The question is, what else?
[Sreeyuth Lal, M.Sc. Nuclear Engg. Student, ETH Zurich, Switzerland ] Note: Readers are welcome to send in their comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org