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Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – Japan’s contaminated water management plan explained

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – Japan’s contaminated water management plan explained

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  • GS 3 || Science & Technology || Energy || Nuclear Energy

Why in the news?

A nuclear disaster happened at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on Japan’s coast in March 2011. An earthquake of magnitude 9.0 Ritcher scale caused a tsunami that flooded the critical control equipment of the nuclear power station and caused a meltdown.

All about nuclear accident

  • The prime example of a “major nuclear accident” is one in which a reactor core is damaged and significant amounts of radiation are released, such as in the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986. The impact of nuclear accidents has been a topic of debate practically since the first nuclear reactors were constructed.
  • Some technical measures to reduce the risk of accidents or to minimize the amount of radioactivity released to the environment have been adopted. Despite the use of such measures, “there have been many accidents with varying impacts as well near misses and incidents”
  • Serious nuclear power plant accidents include the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), Chernobyl disaster (1986), Three Mile Island accident (1979), and the SL-1 accident (1961). Stuart Arm states, “apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident
  • Nuclear-powered submarine mishaps include the K-19 reactor accident (1961), the K-27 reactor accident (1968), and the K-431 reactor accident (1985). Serious radiation accidents include the Kyshtym disaster, Wind scale fire, radiotherapy accident in Costa Rica, radiotherapy, and radiation accident in Morocco, Goiania accident, radiation accident in Mexico City, radiotherapy unit accident in Thailand, and the Mayapuri radiological accident in India

Example major nuclear accidents are as follows:

  • Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: 26th of April 1986 witnessed one of the world’s worst Nuclear Disaster ever in Chernobyl. Chernobyl is approximately 80 miles (which is 120 kilometers) north of the capital city of Ukraine, Kiev. The accident took the lives of 30 people immediately and a vast evacuation of 135000 people within 20 mile radius of the power plant was carried out after the accident.
  • Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster:
    • The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, 2011. It is the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
    • The plant comprises six separate boiling water reactors originally designed by General Electric (GE), and maintained by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). At the time of the quake, Reactor 4 had been de-fuelled while 5 and 6 were in cold shutdown for planned maintenance

Causes of the Accident:

  • There was not one cause of this accident, there were several which all contributed to it. These accident happened while testing a nuclear A chain reaction occurred in the reactor and got out of control, causing explosions and a huge fireball which blew off the heavy concrete and steel lid on the reactor.
  • These are the causes:
    • Design fault in nuclear reactor
    • A violation, of procedures
    • Breakdown of communication
    • Lack of a ‘Safety Culture’ in the power plant

Consequences of the Accident:

  • Environmental consequences: The radioactive fallout caused radioactive material to deposit itself over large areas of ground. It has had an effect over most of the northern hemisphere in one way or another. In some local ecosystems within a 6 mile (10 km) radius of the power plant the radiation is lethally high especially in small mammals such as mice and coniferous trees. Luckily within 4 years of the accident nature began to restore itself, but genetically these plants may be scarred for life.
  • Health effects: Firstly, there was a huge increase in Thyroid Cancer in Ukrainian children (from birth to 15 years old). From 1981-1985 there was an average of 4-6 patients per million but between 1986 and 1997 this increased to an average of 45 patients per million.
    • It was also established that 64% of Thyroid Cancer patients lived in the most contaminated areas of the Ukraine (Kiev province, Kiev city, provinces of Rovno, Zhitomir, Cherkassy and Chernigov).
  • Psychological consequences: There has been an increase in psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, helplessness and other disorders which lead to mental stress. These disorders are not a consequence of radiation, but a consequence from the stress of evacuation, the lack of information given after the accident and the stress of knowing that their health and their children’s health could be affected.
  • Economic, political and social consequences: The worst contaminated areas were economically, socially and politically declining as the birth rate had decreased and emigration numbers had substantially risen which had caused a shortage in the labour These areas could not evolve industrially or agriculturally because of strict rules that were introduced because the area was too contaminated.
    • The few products made were hard to sell or export because people were aware that it had come from Ukraine and so were scared of being affected, this caused a further economic decline. Socially people have been limited on their activities making everyday life very difficult.

Scenario India’s case:

  • There have not been any serious nuclear accidents in the past in case of India.
  • The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan has been a lesson for the world to delicately manage the country’s nuclear affairs.
  • However more transparency can be witnessed in India’s nuclear plants and more open to IAEA weighing citizen’s safety first and foremost.

 

Risks associated with nuclear reactors:

  • High temperature cores and support systems like heavy water which upon failure may destruct the plant premises endangering workers.
  • Radioactivity: Nuclear materials are radioactive and if not handled properly, their leakage can be devastating as radioactive rays emitted from them are very harmful and uncontainable
  • High energy reactions: In reactors, high energy reactions take place and if moderators are not calibrated properly, the energy released by fast moving neutrons and other particles will destroy the area surrounding reactors leading to casualties- shutdown of Kakrapar Nuclear energy unit in Surat, Gujarat due to leakage of heavy water (moderator)
  • Waste disposal: The biggest problem is their disposal, as they continue emit radiations (for infinite time, theoretically) and hence pose a great threat

Safety measures:

  • Periodical supervision of maintenance: Atomic Energy Regulatory Board should ensure regular supervision of all nuclear reactors
  • Human safety: scientists, office staffs should be provided with modern technology less uniforms so as to avoid any radiation exposure in case of accident
  • Significant error margin for equipment: Each equipment should operate by considering significant error margins so that even if there is fluctuations, one gets alerted without any damages
  • Waste disposal: Nuclear waste are also radioactive in nature and needs to be disposed of carefully. Otherwise it could have serious repercussions.
  • Following international standards: As set by IAEA

With India targeting to increase nuclear power to 20000 MW by 2020, various measures need to be taken to ensure safety of the nuclear plants:

  • Govt and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) should be learning from previous accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl and adopting new stringent security measures
  • Security of the area surrounding nuclear plant should be robust, and if possible, the sites for nuclear plants should be chosen in a manner that they are as far away as possible from conflict areasAERB should be empowered and given more autonomy

Conclusion:

India’s safety record in terms of nuclear power has been good till now, with significant failure of the coolant system at Kakrapar nuclear plant being the first such incident. However, it needs to be noted that India’s nuclear energy generation is quite small when compared to that of the West and risks increase with the scale. With growing protests in the developed world against nuclear energy, foreign companies are targeting India as a possible market. Indian govt should tread cautiously as the type of many of the reactors which are being, and are going to be, installed in India over the next few years are not in operation anywhere across the world. Thus, high safety standards should be set for the nuclear industry.

Mains oriented question:

What are the inherent dangers of running nuclear power plants? What precautions should be taken to ensure nuclear reactor safety? Comment on India’s track record on this issue. (200 words)