Doctorate in Allaying Fears about Technology(DAFT)

DAFTS ALL

-By Dr. Surendra Gadekar

At a time when the whole world has been shocked by the multiple and continuing tragedies that have befallen Japan and most people completely shit scared by the daily news of new nuclear catastrophes, various functionaries in the nuclear establishment in India are outdoing each other in a race issuing reassuringly outrageous statements.

What would you make of this:
Regarding the French EPR reactors which are proposed for Jaitapur plant in Ratnagiri district, Banerjee and Jain said the design of EPR was based on the design experience of 58 reactors running in Europe, and when the Indian EPR will come up it would have seen the experience of five such similar plants in Finland, France, China and UK. (Press Trust of India March 15, 2011).

Reading the above, would you guess that not a single EPR reactor has yet been built let alone operating anywhere in the world. Reactors under construction in Finland and in France itself are years over schedule and way over budget. Even if all these reactors in all these countries did start operating before Jaitapur reactors were completed, how would their experience help in design
modification of Jaitapur reactors which these very officials assure us, are planned for early construction. The 58 reactors whose running experience is supposed to reassure us, are all of different design.

Mr. S K Jain is the Chairman and Managing Director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL). He said that, “India was uniquely placed as it had a centralised emergency operating centre with well drawn procedures scrutinised by regulators.” This when India is one country where the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is not an independent organisation but a part of the Department of Atomic Energy(DAE) and does not even have a separate building to house itself and needs to share rooms and toilet facilities with their bosses in DAE premises. If you were still in confusion about the uniqueness of Indian reactors he adds, “Our plants also have multiple level of heat removal system.” So all you may have known about the “defense in depth” philosophy and how there are multiple shields between you and nuclear catastrophe, gentle reader is true only if you happen to be lucky enough to live in this “uniquely placed” country known as India.

But Mr Jain is not finished yet. He joins Dr Bannerjee in saying that In the case of Japanese nuclear plants it was the station blackout which was the root cause and such a thing will not happen in the existing as well as future Indian reactors.” Just to remind ourselves, on the night of March 31st, 1993, there was a devastating fire that started in the turbine room of the reactors at Narora Atomic Power Station, at 3.31AM and continued to rage uncontrolled for over two hours causing extensive damage to the generator and power supply cables. Unlike the reactors at Fukushima that shut down automatically when their sensors detected the massive earthquake, the reactors had to be shut-down manually by brave station staff. During most of this time, the control room of the reactor was filled with smoke and the emergency control room – a special ‘safety’ feature at Narora – was rendered useless in the absence of emergency power supply. The second reactor unit at Narora had been shut down for several months after a generator identical to that in unit-1 was reportedly damaged on account of overheating. The most serious aspect of this fire was complete loss of station power for a period of 17 hours and the fact that none of the three emergency diesel generators were able to work, since the cables connecting them had also burned down in the fire. However, Mr Jain and Dr Bannerjee knowing all about the future are technically correct in their statement, since they say that a station blackout will not happen in Indian reactors.
But some of the statements they have now come up with are in a category all their own worthy of international awards. So we have Mr S.K.Jain, saying, “There is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan’s Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat
after the plants had an automatic shut-down following a major earthquake.” (Press Trust of India March 15, 2011).

Not to be left behind, his boss, Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Srikumar Banerjee D.Sc. (Honouris Clausa, Dhanbad School of Mines) helpfully added, “Once the plant shuts down after an emergency situation automatically, the fission reaction stops and it is only the residual heat that has to be quenched and that is what the Japanese were doing. “Because of the unprecedented Tsunami, the external power was unavailable for the emergency diesel generators to take over… during the process the pressure was building up in the reactor which had to be released in a phased manner, that resulted in the exothermic reaction due to hydrogen
generation. “It was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section of
media,” Dr Banerjee said. By now I am sure, most of you readers, having watched these horrible scenes of reactors exploding like Diwali firecrackers, hearing about alarmingly elevated levels of radiation, and about evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and seeing radiation monitors scanning scores of citizens, must be completely confused. But that is only because you are not DAFT (Doctorate in Allaying Fears about Technology). Having met many DAFTs in my time, let me try to explain.

Reactors exploding in a puff of white smoke releasing all kinds of radioactive poisons all over the country side; fires in spent fuel pools whose inventory of long lived radioactive nuclei is much higher than inside the reactor core and which will do far greater and longer lasting damage to the environment and to human health, besides blighting the future of future generations, is not a nuclear emergency! A nuclear emergency is only when the process driving the explosion is a nuclear chain reaction like that taking place in a nuclear bomb and that, as these worthies will hasten to rightly assure you, just cannot take place in a nuclear reactor. So Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale, (all serious past accidents) were none of them, nuclear emergencies. Chernobyl was just a steam explosion. Three Mile Island, where the reactor core had melted and there was a huge bubble of hydrogen that luckily did not explode was therefore no emergency at all. Windscale was just a fire in a block of graphite that happened to sit inside a nuclear reactor: could happen to any body.

If you happen to live near a nuclear power plant like I do, this is very good news. As you might probably know, it is impossible to obtain life or property insurance in case of a nuclear emergency. But since nuclear emergencies are only a figment in the imagination of some in the media who don’t know a chemical exothermic reaction when they see one, getting insurance should be a breeze. Private insurance is a necessity especially since Dr Bannerjee was bending over backwards in trying to accommodate the interests of poor multinational companies as opposed to those of the rich Indian multitudes during the debate over the Nuclear Liability Act. I feel so much better already.

(The Author is a PhD. from IIT Kanpur and was the editor of the anti-nuclear magazine “Anu Muktee”)

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