As they waged a grim battle to contain radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan, we had Prem Ballab Maithani, director, Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD), holding forth at a seminar in Mysore. He said nuclear power was the only viable energy option for us, and that our nuclear plants were ‘very safe’.
Far from being reassured I felt irritated. Agreed, Mr Maithani was merely responding to questions from the media. Arguably, he said it all in good faith, wanting to assure us we had little cause for concern over nuclear safety. But then Mr Maithani of atomic minerals directorate isn’t quite the person with the right credentials to talk about safety of our nuclear plants, not at this time. My issue with Mr Maithani is his tactless timing.
Those of us exposed to TV visuals of Japan’s nuclear disaster are afflicted with, what I would term, the ‘Fukushima Syndrome’. At times such as this off-the-cuff safety assurances, even if it were to came from the top guy in our atomic energy establishment, sound somewhat hollow. You expect them to be modest in their claims, to speak in tentative terms, and talk of introspection, review and reassessment of safety norms.
Take President Obama. He has said the Fukushima Daiichi crisis has convinced him to order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of nuclear plants in the United States. The California Public Utilities Commission has postponed an April hearing to consider extending the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s life by 20 years because of the unfolding disaster in northeastern Japan. In Germany Chancellor Markel said the country’s 17 nuclear power plants would be placed under strict new safety reviews – “we will suspend the extension of the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear power plants …this is a moratorium, it will last for three months.”
The US and Germany, with relatively advanced safety mechanism in place at their plants, are talking of a review and reassessment. Fukushima has stirred public conscience the world over. I heard on TV an EU leader talking of a nuclear-free Europe – ‘we must think of ways to move forward without nuclear power’. Such extreme stance on future of nuclear power may well get watered down when they come down to talks, dialogue and discussions. But the bottom line would be an agreement, after due deliberation, to raise the bar on safety standards of nuclear plants the world over.
That Fukushima designers hadn’t planned for tsunami; and that the triple onslaught – quake, tsunami and reactor explosion – was a one-off occurence is unlikely to restore fully public confidence in the safety of other nuclear plants elsewhere in the world. Fukushima has become a much dreaded F-word in nations half a world away from Japan. Reporting from Tokyo I heard a CNN anchor say that in the minds of people there fear of radiation has overshadowed the misery and dislocation they endure in the wake of the quake, tsunami and continuing after-shocks.
Nuclear radiation is more dreaded, presumably, because you don’t see it coming; its effect lasts a life time, and it cuts across nations in its sweep. They say radioactive isotopes such as cesium 137 in high doses can cause acute radiation sickness. Lower doses can alter cellular function, leading to an increased risk of cancer. Cesium 137 can enter the body through many foods, including milk. The thyroid gland is extremely sensitive to iodine 131 — another of the deadly byproducts of nuclear fuel. It can cause thyroid cancer. My source for such info. is The New York Times.
If such is the damage a nuclear leak can cause, people can’t be faulted if they don’t trust official claims and pat assurances, about relatively risk-free nuclear energy. Fukushima is a mind-changer – it has turned the likes of me who were fence-sitters, with no firm opinion one way or another, into nuclear skeptics. And pre-Fukushima skeptics may now swell the ranks of anti-nuclear activists.
Appeared as a column in The Viewspaper