Five years of Fukushima: It's not an anniversary but a still unfolding accident

Even as the world continues to watch with horror the events at the Japanese nuclear power plant, India has still not learnt its lessons.

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan’s Tohoku region on the east coast, triggering an energy accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The natural calamity crippled the cooling system of the power station which housed six reactors. Three of these reactors exploded within a week and a lethally high amount of radiation made any repair impossible even in the remaining reactors for the next several days. Officials and workers on the plant simply fled to save their lives.

Five years on, horror continues to unfold in Fukushima. The molten fuel – extremely hot and highly radioactive – is still lying in the three reactors. When the Japanese government says the situation is “under control”, what it means is that the plant operator is blindly pumping thousands of litres of water into the reactor building on a daily basis to keep it cool.

The reactors release around 100 tonnes of highly toxic residual water every day. Since March 2011, this water is being stored in huge tanks which have occupied the entire area near the plant. Most of these tanks are now leaking, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company is often found stealthily passing contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. Tonnes of spent fuel lying atop these damaged reactors are still being taken out.

Lasting legacy

The 20-km area surrounding the crippled power plant remains devoid of inhabitants since people were evacuated after the accident. The area will likely be uninhabitable for centuries, much like the 30-km zone around Chernobyl which is still out of human reach 30 years after the accident.

The evacuation zone around Fukushima has several cities, now turned completely into ghost towns. There are schools, offices, shops and houses, but no human beings. More than nine million bags of highly contaminated radioactive waste are lying around at 1,14,700 interim storage sites in Fukushima, with no disposal plan in sight.

Close to two lakh people from the area continue to live in temporary housings. TEPCO and the government have been found using every possible trick to minimise the number of people entitled to compensation. Their lives remain shattered, livelihoods lost, and they are even facing social ostracism as there is a real risk of them contracting radiation-borne diseases even after several years. There is documented proof that this constant fear has psychologically affected Fukushima residents.

The Fukushima accident has also exposed the nexus of corporates, media and politics in Japan. The façade of a happy life with nuclear energy, built carefully by the authorities and making the local community dependent on the nuclear power company for jobs and civic facilities, has a notorious name in Japan – "nuclear village".

All 54 nuclear power plants in Japan remain shut, even as the industry is trying hard to restart them. Just a couple of days ago, a local court ruled against restarting two reactors in Takahama.

The political fallout of the nuclear accident has been equally massive. The usually apolitical Japanese citizens are indignant and there have been massive nationwide protests since the accident. The capital, Tokyo, has witnessed rallies with more than two lakh participants and thousands of citizens have been protesting outside the parliament building every Friday since March 2012. There is a growing realisation about the corporate control of politics, although it has yet to find a political manifestation. Overall, the post-World War consensus and collective trust in the national elite has been badly shaken in Japan.

India: No lessons learnt

When the Fukushima accident took place, India was the first country to declare the Fukushima reactors safe, even before the Japanese government. When the situation at the nuclear site took a turn for the worse on March 14, the chief of India’s nuclear establishment claimed in a press conference that no nuclear accident had occurred.

According to SK Jain, managing director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, and Srikumar Banerjee, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, all that was happening in Fukushima was a just well-planned emergency preparedness programme. Later that year, the Department of Atomic Energy said that there was zero chance – "one in infinity" – that a nuclear accident could take place in India.

There was a scare just this week itself, when a leak was reported at the Kakrapar Nuclear Power Station near Surat in Gujarat. Although the plant authorities have said all safety systems worked fine and the unit has been shut down, the declaration of an on-site emergency and the fact that the said heavy water leak happened in the primary containment, which also has high radioactivity, raises many questions.

While the Indian government did initiate a safety audit process after Fukushima, it was conducted internally by NPCIL. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India’s nuclear regulator, is a toothless body which comes under the Atomic Energy Commission that it is actually supposed to supervise. The recommendations of the AERB’s post-Fukushima review of the Koodankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu were set aside to commission the reactor amid massive protests by the local community.

While many countries have opted out of nuclear power, Indian continues to be in denial and has massive nuclear expansion plans of setting up imported reactors. This has more to do with foreign policy choices rather than some prudent and consultative process of envisioning India’s energy future.

Troubling developments

On the eve of the Nuclear Supplier Group meeting in Vienna in September 2008, which ended the 25-year long international embargo on nuclear commerce with India, the government made commitments to buy 10,000-megawatt capacity nuclear plants each from France and the US. It is to fulfil these promises that the local protests have been suppressed, environmental concerns bulldozed - the liability law is being diluted and even existing safety norms are being curtailed.

This year, the government plans to introduce the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority bill in Parliament, which the former chief of the AERB, Dr A Gopalakrishnan, has termed weaker than the existing regulatory framework.

When in Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party had strong reservations on limiting nuclear liability, not heeding local protests in Koodankulam, and the hasty and fraudulent environmental clearance for Jaitapur. Now in government, it has taken a complete U-turn and seeks to bring amendments to the Atomic Energy Act to expedite nuclear expansion.

While the previous government levelled charges of sedition against thousands of villagers in Koodankulam, the Modi government soon after coming to power labelled anti-nuclear activities as “anti-national” in its deliberately leaked intelligence report.

As the world watches the still unfolding accident in Fukushima with horror, nuclear sanity in India is termed seditious.

Kumar Sundaram is Senior Researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, India.

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