Delayed Reaction

Can the Fukushima disaster in Japan force an overdue reassessment of India’s civilian nuclear programme?

01 April 2011
A nuclear reactor safety vessel is erected at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam.
A nuclear reactor safety vessel is erected at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam.

THERE WERE MANY DIFFERENCES between my grade school in Los Angeles and the one I entered in Bombay in 1967. Take safety drills, for example. In my convent school in India, there were none. In California, in addition to fire drills, we practised earthquake drills, hunched tightly under our desks with our hands cupped behind our necks, and Soviet attack drills, during which we ran to the wall farthest from the windows and covered our eyes so that we wouldn’t be blinded by the flash of a nuclear blast. We did not, however, practice any drill that combined an earthquake with a nuclear disaster: there was no reason to do so at the time.

According to India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), there is still no reason to associate natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, with nuclear risk. In the wake of the catastrophe in Japan, India’s nuclear establishment rushed to assure alarmed citizens that the country’s existing and planned reactors were completely safe, built in seismic zones where earthquakes as strong as Japan’s temblor, which cleared 8.9 on the Richter scale, have never occurred, and, therefore, could not possibly ever occur. According to these authorities, the country’s many coastal reactors—nuclear plants require large amounts of water to cool radioactive material—are located where tsunamis do not occur; or are located at elevations superior to the 10-metre height of the Japanese tsunami; or have already been proven to withstand any tsunami because the Madras Atomic Power Station, though flooded by the 2004 tidal wave, did not fail.

Alas, in nuclear safety, as in financial investment, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Just because there never has been a catastrophic nuclear incident in a country doesn’t mean there never will be. As Japan proves, it takes just one of these to inflict immense and long-lasting damage to even the most advanced economy.

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    Mira Kamdar is a Contributing Editor at The Caravan. The award-winning author’s essays and opinions appear in publications around the world.

    Keywords: Japan Fukushima explosion earthquake nuclear energy power plant