A country that is probably one of the best at disaster management, a country that is resourceful and has been well-prepared for decades for a big calamity like an earthquake or tsunami. Still, Japan teeters on the brink of a disaster at its Fukushima DaiIchi nuclear power plant following a devastating earthquake. The radiation leak in Japan is raising concerns over the safety of Indian atomic power generators also, bringing the focus back on our crisis management plans. While the government is trying to dispel public worries over the safety of Indian reactors, several experts and activists remain unconvinced.
Anti-nuclear activists have been questioning the safety of the Jaitapur plant, which according to the earthquake hazard zoning of India, comes under Zone III – a moderate risk zone – on the scale of I to V. Activists arguing against the project say the Geological Survey of India revealed that the site and the surrounding area experienced 91 tremors between 1985 and 2005, ranging from 2.9 to 6.3 on the Richter Scale and the area falls in Zone IV. The Kalpakkam plant in Tamil Nadu is also under the threat as the location is near to earthquake or tsunami prone area.
But the authorities in India say there was nothing to worry about. According to nuclear experts, since the type of reactors in India and Japan and the environment in which they operate are different, similar scenarios are unlikely. In case of Japan, the nuclear plants are located in highly seismic areas, for instance, Fukushima is located in Zone 5. On the other hand, India’s nuclear plants are situated in the moderately seismic Zone 3. The Narora plant is the only one located in Zone 4. This is what makes Indian officials rule out the possibility of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake striking Indian nuclear plants.
The history also speaks in favour of the Indian nuclear experts. In 2001, when an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude hit Gujarat, operations at the Kakrapur plant went on uninterrupted. When the 2004 tsunami battered the Tamil Nadu coast, the Kalpakkam plant did not suffer any damage during. An additional wall was built to protect the plant after the tsunami. Another aspect that scientists pointed out is that Indian reactors are inherently safer as they use natural uranium as fuel as against enriched uranium that the Japanese reactors use. Apart from this, the Indian reactor design allows for cooling using convection currents even in a state of station blackout – when all power and backups fail.
Despite the chorus of assurances from the government, some of India’s leading geologists voiced concern in the wake of the devastation caused by the 9-magnitude quake in Japan. “It is true the Dec 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami did not result in any damage to the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam except causing some flooding, but this was because the tsunami originated from the subduction zone near Sumatra some 1,400 km away from India”, K.S. Valdiya, a renowned geologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, as told to IANS.
According to Valdiya, had the tsunami originated from near the Andaman Islands, instead of Sumatra, the waves would have lashed India’s eastern coast with much greater ferocity and travelled much farther inland. He has also warned that India’s west coast is also not immune to tsunamis. Valdiya said his latest work had confirmed that many of the so-called ‘lineaments’ that have been identified by remote sensing and field work along the western coasts of Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra “are actually geological faults” potentially capable of causing earthquakes. According to Valdiya, “one cannot simply locate nuclear plants on the basis of today’s hazard zoning map that is based on past occurrences of earthquakes”. “Just because a fault has not been identified, it doesn’t mean the fault does not exist,” he stressed.
In view of the disaster that breached Japan’s security walls, the threat looming at the India’s nuclear drive cannot be overestimated. If nuclear power plants couldn’t withstand the calamity in Japan, the risk is obvious elsewhere, particularly in India, which is notorious for its chaos and the low priority it accords to public safety. The officials are saying that the safety features of Indian nuclear plants have to be rechecked to assess whether they can tackle inoperable situations.
No matter how safe Indian nuclear plants are as assured by the government or by the scientists, Japan’s nuclear crisis does threaten the nuclear renaissance. Government needs to order the audits of these nuclear plants and let the true facts out to the public to calm the fear of thousands of Indians about the safety of the nuclear plants.