You are here

Japan Battling the Nuclear Nightmare

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • March 22, 2011

    In his “Atoms for Peace” speech delivered before the UN General Assembly, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to solve the “fearful atomic dilemma” by saying that “It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace,” and that “the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

    Japan’s tryst with the “atom”, from Hiroshima to Fukushima, has been ruinous in both its avatars - its use in weapons and in energy. Euphemistically called “Atoms for Peace”, this metaphor conveniently camouflaged the quintessentially destructive nature of the power of the fissionable material. Humanity’s engagement with the grand narrative of nuclear energy as clean energy has led to the obscuration of this undeniable truth despite the agony suffered by those who were exposed to radiation in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. In the post-Cold War era, the renewed allure of this energy source has been dubbed as the “nuclear renaissance”.

    Even if the fissionable material is unleashed as a green source of energy, the spent fuel has to be diligently tamed. It has to be stashed in casks or interned in rods encased within zirconium cladding, kept immersed in storage pools, covered in eight metres of water that is continuously circulated to prevent it from becoming hot. A single mis-step in the procedure and humanity will be imperilled by the fallout of radiation. Strict adherence to infallible safety measures is imperative to keep in check the uncalled for nuclear consequences. When Eisenhower spoke about ‘atoms for peace’, he neither warned nor even visualised the possibility that the infallibility of safety measures could be compromised by the cruel hand of nature.

    The world is witnessing the spectre of such an eventuality not imagined before. The severity of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake has left wanting Japan’s extensive precautions, preparedness and disaster management — strict building codes and high sea walls designed to lessen tsunami damage. The most critical casualty of the quake has been the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station containing six nuclear reactors out of which four have been seriously damaged. Reactor No. 3 is of particular concern, since it uses the fuel-mixture of uranium and plutonium which generates a more hazardous radioactive plume if scattered by fire or explosion. The Fukushima plant, moreover, has seven spent fuel pools holding 3,400 tons of fuel in 11,125 spent fuel rod assemblies. These rods constitute four times as much radioactive material as in the reactor cores combined, and are proving to be of greater risk than the uranium in the reactor cores. As such, most attention is being focused on reactor buildings No. 3 and No. 4, where water in pools holding spent fuel rods may have almost finished. With the rapid evaporation of water, the rods in the uncontained pools are heating up and emitting radiation. The desperate unconventional measures to keep the reactors and the rods cool by deploying helicopters and water cannons have not worked. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has acknowledged that there is a risk of “recriticality” in the storage pools, that is, a resumption of fission that is purported to take place exclusively inside the reactor.

    Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has raised the rating of the severity of the calamity from 4 to 5 on a 7-point international scale for nuclear accidents. But, the Nuclear Safety Authority of France is of the view that the disaster equated to level six, ranking the crisis second only in gravity to Chernobyl. The 1979 Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania was rated 5. The US had designated a considerably larger perimeter of 80 kilometres or 50 miles for its nationals to stay away from the plant than what was advised by the Japanese Government. Europe's energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger has called the nuclear disaster an "apocalypse", saying Tokyo had almost lost control of events at the Fukushima plant. The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) has calculated the course of the plume of radiation over the Pacific to the US and other countries. Diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with access to that data from the CTBTO have said that radiation had reached Sacramento in southern California in the US, though first readings were well below levels that are harmful to health.

    From the testimony of Gregory Jaczko, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chairman, given to a US congressional subcommittee on March 16, 2011, it appears that the information about the exact specifics of damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant, radiation levels at the site, around it and beyond it are still limited. The belief of many that the Japanese Government might be underreporting the risks of the nuclear crisis is prompting people beyond the evacuation advisory zones to pack up and leave. This exodus has been tagged by the appellation “nuclear refugees”. According to the IAEA, on March 19, 2011, Japan confirmed the radioactive contamination of food products in areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and advised the possibility of stopping the sale of all food products from the Fukushima Prefecture.

    The need of the hour is an exhaustive international protocol for nuclear disaster management. An adroit synchronisation of rapid exchange of scientific information and expertise in such a crisis is essential which can translate into an effective and timely response mechanism. Measures such as evacuation of people or dispensing potassium iodide tablets which helps in preventing radioactive iodine from causing thyroid cancer are routine. Japan had officially requested for assistance from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the IAEA. On March 12, 2011 the NRC had deployed two officials with expertise in boiling water nuclear reactors to Japan; they were joined by eight additional experts on March 16. The four member Expert Team of the IAEA on radiology measurement arrived only on March 18,. The nuclear world might have moved away from the eventuality of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) but it is still trapped in the possibilities of the inadvertent SAD (Self Assigned Disasters). The dreadful nuclear dilemma continues.