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Rejoinder: Worldwide anxiety post-Fukishima is fading, slowly and steadily

By Dr KS Parthasarathy* 
EAS Sarma, former Secretary, Government of India (GoI) in a letter addressed to the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), GoI, stated that, there has been "worldwide anxiety about the consequences of catastrophic nuclear accidents, either due to manual lapses or natural calamities" (Counterview, December 2, 2018). "In the recent years, globally, the pace of growth of nuclear power has escalated in leaps and bounds, causing a great deal of public concern and apprehension."
On December 5, 2015, Sarma wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shizo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan saying that nuclear power is unsafe and too costly for India. Scientists in their cocooned existence do not see it that way.
Evidently, there is a seemingly unbridgeable communication gap between public and the nuclear community. Trust deficit of decision makers at higher levels of Government is not a welcome sign.
Sarma raised many important issues. This writer addresses a few of them.
Sarma's perception on public concern is correct. We saw it in the aftermath of the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). However, this anxiety is fading slowly and steadily.
No one abandoned the 'unloved" nuclear power reactors because of accidents. The myths on nuclear power survive. Many do not know the realities. "The US electric companies connected 50 out of the currently operating 104 nuclear power reactors (NPRs) to the grid since 1979, the year in which the Three Mile Island accident occurred; 19 of these after 1986, the year in which the Chernobyl accident took place. Canadian companies connected all the 14 currently operating NPRs to the grid after 1979.Of the 59 French reactors, 53 came on line after 1979".

Developments post-Fukushima

How did various countries react post-Fukushima?
Everyone will worry less if they learn of the status of nuclear power worldwide now.
Germany did not totally abandon nuclear power thus far. They may. The travails of renewable power in Germany are well known. Some humorless agencies claim that Germany manages because it imports French and Czech nuclear power. the Use of lignite in German coal power stations has increased. Economics of power in Europe is very complex. Electric power flows seamlessly across the borders of all countries. You may sample the conflicting claims here, here, here and here. You are lucky if you can keep sanity at the end!
France took a political decision to reduce the fraction of nuclear power progressively from the present level of 75% to 50 %. This is a contentious issue.
In his address at the 102nd Indian Science Congress at Mumbai, Dr Bernard Bigot, then Chairperson, French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, drew a road map for atomic energy in France. It consists of fast neutron reactors as its fourth generation reactors, the technology for which will be ready by 2040, extension of existing Generation II reactors until then, deployment of Generation III reactors until 2070 and Generation IV from 2030 to well over 2080 and Fusion system after 2080. Deployment of solar, biomass and wind may start progressively from 2030 to 2080. Undoubtedly nuclear power will continue to play a pivotal role in France.

Japan

Fukushima site continues to be a challenge. However, the Japanese realized that this need not be a disincentive against nuclear power. They know that Fukushima was preventable. Survival of Onagawa nuclear power plant which faced the same earthquake and 14.3-metre tsunami as against 13.1 meters at Fukushima, because of “safety culture” gives them confidence. Onagawa is about 60 km closer to the epicentre of the earthquake compared to Fukushima Daiichi.
"Everyone knows the name Fukushima, but few people, even in Japan, are familiar with the Onagawa power station. Fewer still know how Onagawa managed to avoid disaster", Najmedin Meshkati, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering and his colleague Airi Ryu wrote in the March 10, 2014 issue of "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists".
“The plant experienced very high levels of ground motion—the strongest shaking that any nuclear plant has ever experienced from an earthquake,” but it “shut down safely” and was “remarkably undamaged”, they quoted from a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission that visited Onagawa and evaluated its performance,
In Japan, "Currently 42 reactors are operable. The first two restarted in August and October 2015, with a further seven having restarted since. 17 reactors are currently in the process of restart approval". The progress is understandably very slow.

USA

The Nuclear Energy Institute provided the following information:
"The USA has 98 operating nuclear power reactors in 30 states, operated by 30 different power companies. Since 2001, these plants have achieved an average capacity factor of over 90%, generating up to 807 TWh per year and accounting for about 20% of the total electricity generated." Twenty two of these reactors operated with a capacity factor of over 100% in 2016. The capacity factor is the average power generated, divided by the rated peak power. Capacity factors (%) in USA in 2017 by fuel type: Nuclear: 92; Geothermal: 76; Gas (combined cycle): 55; Coal: 54; Hydro: 45; Wind: 37; Solar PV: 27; Solar( thermal): 22; Oil (ST):13; Gas (ST):11.
Nuclear power is declining in the USA mainly because of the availability of copious amounts of cheap gas. The USA which produces the maximum nuclear power in the world faces a challenge. Recently, a 248 page report titled "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World" from the MIT highlighted the need for a share of nuclear power as a low cost option in reducing green house gases.

Status worldwide

According to the World Nuclear Association (2018), currently about 450 nuclear power reactors generate around 11% of the world's electricity. Fifteen countries are constructing about 50 more reactors; different nations plan an additional150-160 reactors. Fukushima accident did not stop them. Public concerns did not come in the way of nuclear power.

India

The indigenous nuclear power programme is on track. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has implemented safety enhancements in light of the recommendations of various committees post Fukushima. Scientists from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) have participated in accident review meetings held at IAEA; they are abreast with the issues and remedies. They must ensure that they will not be negligent like Japan who also attended similar activities of the IAEA in the past.
The DAE enjoys the support of both sides of the isle in Parliament. The recent approval of 10 PHWRs of 700 MWe capacity gave a shot in the arm of Indian nuclear industry. The discerning members of the public must read, understand and appreciate the role of nuclear power in India and worry less after arriving at decisions based on informed judgment.
The public concern on nuclear power has faded primarily because people are using their informed judgment after reviewing the nuclear accidents.
Sarma has attached with his letter my article titled "Body's adaptive response to low dose radiation" in "The Hindu" (September 15, 2011). Contrary to what Sarma implies, the study on which I based my article demonstrated that probably, at low doses there might be protective mechanisms at work.
In the European Heart Journal (August 23, 2011), the researchers claim that low level radiation exposures typically received by interventional cardiologists can induce biological and cellular changes that might offset the hazards of radiation.
Some believe that this modest study demonstrates "radiation hormesis" -- beneficial effects of radiation.
Our knowledge on what happens at very low levels of radiation is not complete. However, we know enough to assert that the radiation risk, if any, from doses within the dose limits prescribed by regulatory agencies is very small. At such low levels, the risk may very well be zero.
Some low dose research indicates that radiation hormesis or beneficial effects of radiation exist. Then low dose may boost our immunity! It is a comforting thought and an additional bonus! However, regulators are a very conservative lot; they do not accept hormesis! Not yet, though many scientists argue in favour of it very persuasively with lot more evidence.
Expert epidemiologists may not smilingly accept the never-ending, futile job of looking for the "incidence of radiation-related diseases, including carcinogenic diseases around Kaiga", at doses, a few hundred to a thousand times lower than the natural background radiation! Regrettably, this is what Sarma wants.
The Annual reports of AERB, available at (www.aerb.gov.in) provide the estimated annual radiation doses to the members of the public at various distances from nuclear power stations. These doses have been a very small fraction of the dose limit permitted by AERB. Actually, these doses are so small that they are virtually indistinguishable from the background radiation present at the location even in the absence of the reactors. At such trivial additional doses, there is no question of any member of the public suffering from radiation-induced diseases.
You may get the relevant details such as the values of the background radiation at different places here. This may help those willing to learn and develop a pragmatic approach to radiation issues
Each one of the trillions of cells in our body daily undergoes thousands of biochemical reactions. Radiation exposure also results in some reactions. Because of the impressive advancements in radiobiology, we can now study subtle changes in the cell. Some people tend to portray such subtle changes as harmful. This is farfetched, and is a typical instance in going over-board.
The scientists at the Environmental Survey Labs near each nuclear power station must open their doors to members of the public, to enlighten them about natural background radiation, its variation from place to place and how trivial is the contribution from nuclear power stations.
My request to Sarma and also the members of the public is to visit the Environmental Survey Labs located outside the nuclear power stations to get an idea of the way these labs work and how scientists from these labs collect samples of air, water food, soil and sediments periodically and measure the radioactivity in the samples to assess the dose to public. At very nuclear power station including Kaiga Generating Station, the data of doses from the inception of the station are preserved. Indian scientists have been pioneers in the field.
Sarma wants the Government of India to enhance the independence of the proposed Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority by passing the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill after incorporating the suggestions of the Parliamentary Committee.
He goes on to assert that proposing "additions to nuclear generation capacity without strengthening the regulatory structure would amount to exposing the people around Kaiga to huge risks." Again, this is a needless worry.
It seems that passing a new version of the NSRA Bill is not a priority for the present Government. May be the Government is happy with the performance of the Board.
I believe that the perceived lack of independence has not affected adversely on the Indian nuclear regulatory framework. [Full disclosure: I spent half my official career 1984 to 2004 in different capacities in AERB. I was among the first handful of officers to join the agency. I was secretary, AERB from 1987-2004. On no occasion, any one influenced AERB in its decision making. I welcome the possible enhancement of the legal status of AERB.
AERB has adequate powers under the Atomic Energy Act 1962 and Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules 2004 to regulate nuclear power in the country. The Board has worked out the procedures needed at various stages (construction, commissioning and operation.
AERB has institutional capability and competence to enforce nuclear safety (“The Economic Times”, September 19, 2012).
In an article titled "AERB not quite subatomic" in “The Economic Times”, this writer listed some of the regulatory actions of the Board against DAE Units. In 2008 when this writer reviewed the evolution of the nuclear regulatory system in India, he counted over 50 such actions.
These include 'reducing power levels of nuclear power reactors and shutting them down for specified periods to carry out appropriate tests and evaluations, among others… Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) may have felt that at times AERB has been a little too harsh. NPCIL implemented AERB directives without preferring appeals.
"After investigating the Naroara fire incident, the Board ordered sequential shut down of each unit of the pressurized heavy water reactor (PHWR) stations for inspection of its turbine, generator and associated components to assess its state of health and fitness for continued operation and to modify the turbine roots. NPCIL complied with the directive.
"In 1994, subsequent to the failure of the inner containment dome of unit 1 of the Kaiga Atomic Power Project, AERB suspended the civil construction activities related to the inner containment domes of Kagia unit 2, and units 3 and 4 of the Rajasthan Atomic Power Project. AERB lifted the hold only after satisfactory resolution of related safety matters.”
AERB has stopped work at DAE construction sites on some occasions because of deficiencies in industrial safety.
"Some critics feel that AERB ‘merely serves as a lapdog of the Department of Atomic Energy’.” Though the statement makes good copy, many regulatory actions of AERB from 1983 do not support the criticism. They show that a lapdog may just bark, AERB actually bites.", this writer wrote in the same issue of “The Economic Times.”
Still a "lapdog", I was not amused by the friendly fire from an acerbic critic from the DAE family .
"DAE is bound to develop nuclear power as directed by India's Parliament through the Atomic Energy Act 1962. Parliament can question them if they do not develop nuclear energy."
A few writ petitions, particularly the ones against the setting up of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant led to a very interesting judgment All interested in nuclear energy must read it.
Over the years, concerned people have filed PILs in various courts. Many of them invoked Article 21 (Right to life) of the Constitution. Regarding right to life under article 21 of the constitution the apex court in its judgment has stated thus:
“Para 184 ( Civil Appeal No 4440/2013)
“Nuclear power plant is being established not to negate right to life but to protect the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The petitioner’s contention that the establishment of nuclear power plant at Kudankulam will make an inroad into the right to live guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, is therefore has no basis. On the other hand it will only protect the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution for achieving a larger public interest and will also achieve the object and purpose of Atomic Energy Act.”
Sharma referred to an article titled “Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents” by J Lelieveld, D Kunkel and MG Lawrence in “Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics” on May 12, 2012. It is an interesting article.
In a lighter vain, the authors chose a priori , the highest probabilities for every variable to ensure that they arrived at the following conclusion as stated lucidly in PreventionWeb site by the main author Dr Lelieveld on May 22, 2012, the day the journal published the paper:
"Germany's exit from the nuclear energy program will reduce the national risk of radioactive contamination. However, an even stronger reduction would result if Germany's neighbors were to switch off their reactors.
KS Parthasarathy
"Not only do we need an in-depth and public analysis of the actual risks of nuclear accidents. In light of our findings I believe an internationally coordinated phasing out of nuclear energy should also be considered ".
Issues associated with nuclear power are admittedly complex. There are understandable reasons for public concern. The communication gap between the public and the nuclear community seems to be unbridgeable. Scientists including me must accept the blame . Public can be persuaded to accept nuclear power or atleast to look at it benignly by sincere and well organized dialogue.
---
*Former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). Contact: ksparth@gmail.com

Comments

b.ramamirtham said…
This is an exhaustive summary of global nuclear power vis-a-vis electricity demand with particular reference to India highlighting its robust regulatory board and the Environment Survey Laboratory attached with each nuclear site.

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