Japan’s Nuclear Crisis and The Indian Bureaucrat-Scientist – A Very Modest Note

March 18, 2011

By Kuver Sinha

As Japan’s nuclear crisis continues, the reaction of top officials of India’s nuclear establishment makes for interesting reading.

“There is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan’s Fukushima plants…It was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section of media” – Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Dr. Banerjee has evidently been living under a rock – in the outside world, the fact that Japan is facing a nuclear emergency is not a conspiracy theory created by “some sections of media”. It is the truth. Japan itself acknowledges that it is on the brink of a very much nuclear disaster, and the real time updates on Google News get refreshed every minute as the world watches. To my knowledge, Dr. Banerjee is the only public official till now who has dismissed Fukushima as a chemical glitch.

One can debate about how exactly the explosions happened, but when a radius of dozens of miles has been cleared due to radiation threats and people in faraway Tokyo are locking themselves up inside, the word “chemical” is just plain mischievous.

How does one explain this ridiculous statement coming from a top bureaucrat-scientist?

These days one finds several newly minted capitalized words which, Atlas-like, carry the weight of the nation. India Inc., Indian Culture – these words carry the hopes and aspirations of the future generation, the generation that will leave its mark on the world stage. To these, one may add the thundering authority of Indian Science.

The bureaucrat-scientists are the high priests of this edifice. They are an exceptional group of people. For some among them, acronyms of academies and honours voted in by other top dogs in the old boys’ club keep accumulating at the end of their names, till one gets lost in the maze of letters and deciphers only a single word – “Entitlement”.

Amply entitled, these Very Important Persons sometimes descend from the Chairs of their Academies and Agencies, to pronounce the final word on scientific policy.

The nation needs a report on GM crops? Give the fools a copied out version of a cobwebbed layman’s report typed up in a hurry by some arbitrary person a few years ago. Just make sure it toes the correct line. If the media calls you out, who cares – the Academies wrote it – They define Science.

Japan’s nuclear plants face meltdown? Who cares – just call it a “chemical reaction” failure or something. Tell the public that what’s happening there doesn’t fall in the category of a “nuclear incident” – after all, nobody got nuked, did they? Tell them that India’s nuclear industry doesn’t even need to think twice about such trivial “chemical failures”.

This is not the place to enter into a debate on nuclear power or the politics (or even bribes) behind treaties. It is not the place to point out the conditions in Jadugoda, or the fact that India has seen devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, and cyclones recently, or even to point out the fact that our greatest industrial disaster, Bhopal, didn’t need an earthquake or a tsunami. The mere presence of the plant in a third world country, where the lives of workers have no value, was enough. One may argue that that’s the way political economy works, the assurances of the Banerjees and Andersons notwithstanding.

We will not debate these things, because one cannot debate in the face of diktats. The bureaucrat-scientist doesn’t even engage with the question seriously. He has two methods of dealing with evolving questions. First – there is no question. Second – in the remote possibility that there is a question, it is trivial.

“There is no nuclear incident” – “There is no debate about GM crops”.

In our country, the bureaucrats of the nuclear establishment don’t even pretend to play anymore.

This is remarkable, because in the sciences one is generally taught to question authority and pursue logic ruthlessly. Oracles die hard. The fact that there has been very little criticism of the ridiculous statements emanating from the Entitled is ominous.

Ominous, but not surprising. One has to step back, and remember that there is a difference between science and Science. The first, science, deals with the way Nature behaves. The second, Science, is a class-construct to push agendas that make money and create power. It deals with the way classes behave.

In Science, two and two can make four, six, or eight, depending on the class alliances.

The Very Important Persons of Indian Science are actually not all that important, since ultimately they are beholden to class dynamics. If one gets the impression that they are sometimes cavalier in their methods – after all, nobody else, absolutely nobody, has called Japan’s crisis a “chemical reaction” – it is because the game has already been fixed.

The game has been so overwhelmingly fixed that the bureaucrat-scientist doesn’t even have to pretend to play.


6 Responses to “Japan’s Nuclear Crisis and The Indian Bureaucrat-Scientist – A Very Modest Note”

  1. Rahul Goswami Says:
    March 19th, 2011 at 03:36

    The course of action is clear. The Government of India, whether through PMO or Department of Atomic Energy, must sack Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

    He must be sacked because this statement shows his incompetence in matters relating to safety issues concerning nuclear power generation. He is incompetent as an officials of the AEC. He is both incompetent and malicious as the head of the AEC.

    The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis was already at INES 4 – International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. INES 4 is “accident with local consequences”. Today Japan’s Nuclear safety agency raised the level to INES 5, “accident with wider consequences”.

    Already at INES 4 there is “release of radioactive material” and “fuel melt or damage to fuel”. The INES scale is an IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) method for communicating the safety significance of nuclear and radiological events.

    The IAEA gets it, the Government of Japan gets it, the Japanese nuclear safety agency gets it. Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission does not get it.

  2. sankar ray Says:
    March 20th, 2011 at 07:27

    TEPCO and Japan government ignored the urgency of timely decommissioning of at least three of the Daiichi units, which went on stream in 1971. But more importantly, a leading leader of the Communist Party of Japan and a member of Diet, the Japanese Parliament, in an interview to L’Humanite, daily of CP of Japan, revealed things that the mainstream dailies missed.
    I am reproducing the full text:

    Tepco, Security Sacrificed on the Altar of Profit by Rosa Moussaoui (http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/spip.php?article1713)

    Translated Wednesday 16 March 2011, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Henry Crapo
    Since 2003, the big Japanese private group aimed at “reduction of costs of maintenance” in order to render profits “secure”.
    Profit at any price. This could be the motto of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the multinational that exploits the nuclear power plants at Fukushima. The largest producer of electricity in the world illustrates the excesses of an industrial sector in which neo-liberalism has unfurled to the last extremities of its destructive logic.
    Proof. At the beginning of 2010, Tepco announced net earnings of 157.7 billion yen (1.19 billion euros) for the period from April to December 2009, as compared with a loss of 137.7 billion yen (1.04 billion euros) a year earlier. Miraculous recovery, for a multinational company whose annual turnover decreased, at the same time, by 14%. In order to restore profits, the officers of the company affirm, Tepco had to restrict its “current expenses”, which dropped by 22%. Officially, this was due to a drop in the price of petroleum needed for the functioning of its thermal power plants. The explanation is a bit thin, for an industrial outfit that insisted, in a financial document in August 2003, on the necessity of “a rationalization of the totality of operations, including a reduction of the costs of maintenance” in order to render its profits “secure”.
    Has performance of maintenance, and thus the security of equipment, become a variable for adjustment? Tepco has not hesitated to do this in the past. Between September 2002 and April 2003, the multinational was constrained to shut down its 17 nuclear reactors. This was a consequence of revelations concerning the falsifications of some thirty inspection reports on three nuclear power plants in the group. It involved, among other aspects, the electro-nuclear giant’s act of disguising three incidents that had occurred in the nuclear facilities in Fukushima and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.
    This scandal implicating Tepco is not an isolated one. In March 2007, to cite but one example, the company Hokoriku Electric Power admitted having knowingly hidden a nuclear incident that occurred at the plant in Shikamachi eight years earlier, the 18 June 1999.
    But who cares about security, when the race for profits takes command? With 28 million clients in Tokyo and in the region, Tepco announced triumphantly last 30 July that it wished to multiply by 5 its projections of profit for 2010-2011. Between April and December 2010, the multinational banked a net profit of 139.8 billion yen (1.27 billion euros). Surfing on the green wave, the group, already in the lead with its parks of wind turbines, planned to invest heavily in renewable energies. Ever so ready to threaten whole countries, the stock and bond rating company Standard and Poors granted Tepco an AA- on its long term debt, which is its fourth highest rating.
    At the Heart of the Catastrophe, Tepco Remained Obsessed by Financial Considerations
    Even at the heart of the current catastrophe in Fukushima, TEPCO remained obsessed by financial considerations. “It seems the the company waited until the last possible moment to drown the heart of the reactor by pumping sea water. In fact, if you drown the heart of the reactor, it becomes no longer usable,” observes the Energy branch of the CGT [1]. Clearly, public ownership is not an all-risk insurance policy in these matters. But to what horrifying excesses can we be lead by the shameful acts of profit-taking. In 2005, in his essay From Tchernobyl to Tchernobyls [2], the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, Georges Charpak put us on our guard: “The problem of security in the nuclear power plants is too crucial to be left only in the hands of financiers, those champions of stock market optimization”. Cruelly premonitory.
    [1] The French labor union, Confédération générale du Travail
    [2] De Tchernobyl aux Tchernobyls

  3. sankar ray Says:
    March 21st, 2011 at 01:33

    Non-communist media too questions overestimation of Japanese technological commitment .

    Japan Nuclear Disaster Caps Decades of Faked Reports, Accidents
    By Jason Clenfield – Mar 18, 2011


  4. sankar ray Says:
    March 21st, 2011 at 23:08

    For those who missed Ramana-Raju’s piece in HT.

    React on reactors by M V Ramana & Suvrat Raju 17 Mar 2011 (http://www.hindustantimes.com/editorial-views-on/editorials/React-on-reactors/Article1-674637.aspx)

    As this article goes to press on Thursday, the Tokyo Electric Power Company was continuing with its unusual emergency procedure of pumping large amounts of sea-water into the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors. The company hopes to cool the reactors and avert a complete core meltdown although the sea-water will corrode the plants, rendering them useless.

    Meanwhile, the pools of water where radioactive spent fuel is stored have begun drying out resulting in fires due to hydrogen releases. Radiation levels have risen alarmingly and the workers involved in these operations themselves face significant health risks.

    It is not necessary to paint worst case scenarios to point out that the situation is dire.

    The tragedy in Japan should serve as a critical wake-up call for India, which has announced a vast expansion of its nuclear programme. A close examination of the events that led to the Fukushima accident holds important lessons.

    The Fukushima plants are boiling water reactors – somewhat more advanced versions of the Tarapur I and II reactors near Mumbai. Even though the reactors were technically ‘shut down’ when the earthquake occurred, their cores continue to produce large quantities of heat. This will continue for weeks to come, and is a feature common to all nuclear reactors.

    Although the reactors contained multiple cooling systems to remove this heat, the primary system collapsed when the earthquake led to a loss of electrical power. The emergency diesel generators, which provide back-up power, were flooded by the tsunami.

    This resulted in a ‘station blackout’ and disabled the systems which provide cooling-water to the radioactive core. Station blackouts have occurred in the past, for example at the Narora 1 reactor in 1993, and are very dangerous.

    The next stage of cooling depends on using the steam generated in the reactor itself to drive the cooling-water, but this requires DC power from emergency batteries for its controls to function.

    When the emergency batteries ran out, the temperature in the reactor core started to rise causing chemical reactions that produced hydrogen – a highly inflammable gas – and eventually led to the multiple explosions of the past few days. The explosions at units 1 and 3 reportedly only breached the outer-wall of the reactor but the explosion at unit 2 appears to have damaged the containment enclosing the reactor core.

    What lessons should we draw from these events?

    First, no nuclear plant is completely immune to the possibility of a major accident. Multiple safety systems do not rule out accidents because they can be disabled by a single root cause, which in this case was the earthquake.

    Redundancy may not help either: there were supposedly 13 diesel generators at unit 1 but none of them worked. Furthermore, new technology is not a panacea: the sophisticated electronics at Fukushima were of no use when the power supply failed.

    Second, there were also a host of small failures, for example, release valves which did not work in the face of high pressure – precisely when their services were required. What could fail became evident only after the fact.

    For example, replacement generators could not be used because the hook-up is done through electrical switching equipment that was in a flooded basement room. These small problems can, in some cases, combine to cause major failures. Such problems also make it clear that it is not possible to plan for all contingencies, and therefore protect against all possible accident pathways.

    Third, the Indian government has argued that having multiple reactors at one site makes them cheaper and easier to build, but this comes with a safety penalty. Reports suggest that explosions at one reactor damaged spent fuel pools in co-located reactors. Moreover, the radiation leak from unit 2 made it difficult for emergency workers to approach the other units.

    Fourth, the safety of all Indian nuclear facilities must immediately be reviewed in a thorough and transparent manner; all new reactor project plans must be suspended till this audit is completed and the detailed results are publicly available.

    The prime minister has mentioned such an audit but it is imperative to involve independent experts from outside the atomic-energy establishment. In fact, the recent statement of the managing director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, who said that “there is no nuclear accident in Japan’s Fukushima plants.

    It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme”, hardly inspires confidence in the ability of this body to conduct an impartial safety investigation.

    The accident in Fukushima also vindicates the local people at Jaitapur who have been protesting against plans for six reactors, each nearly four times larger than Fukushima-Daiichi 1.

    Jaitapur is also in a seismic zone and worse, its reactors are untested: not a single reactor of the Jaitapur design is in commercial operation anywhere in the world. After Fukushima, it would be sheer folly for the government to force this untested technology on the reluctant locals, who will bear the brunt of any accident.

    The fable about the boy who cried wolf is often invoked when concerned citizens raise the possibility of accidents. It is worth remembering, though, that at the end of the fable, the wolf did come one day.

    MV Ramana is a physicist with the Programme on Science and Global Security, Princeton University and is the author of a forthcoming book on nuclear power in India. Suvrat Raju is a fellow, Department of Physics, Harvard University. Both are with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace

    The views expressed by the authors are personal

  5. sankar ray Says:
    March 24th, 2011 at 00:50

    Atomic dharma in dangerous times by A Gopalakrishnan 23 Mar 11 (http://www.asianage.com/columnists/atomic-dharma-dangerous-times-780)
    The Japanese are the world’s best experts in earthquake-resistant designs. They are also the most knowledgeable in protective designs against the impact of tsunamis. To add to this, Japan is a country that has a superb disaster management organisation and an often-rehearsed working team to handle such emergencies.
    In contrast, India is most disorganised and unprepared for handling emergencies of much less severity. In fact, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s (AERB) disaster preparedness oversight is mostly on paper and the drills they conduct once in a while are half-hearted efforts that are more of a sham.
    In the name of earthquake engineering, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited’s (NPCIL) strategy is to have their favourite consultants cook up the kind of seismicity data which suits them, with practically no independent verification of the data or design methodologies. A captive AERB, which reports to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), thus, makes the overall nuclear safety management in India worthless.
    There needs to be a complete re-organisation of the AERB, making it totally independent of the DAE. The AERB, which today works as a lap dog of the DAE and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), should be made stronger with the recruitment of reputed senior specialists.
    While it is unlikely that the kind of devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan may strike an Indian nuclear plant as well, the earthquake-resistant designs and tsunami abatement measures we have adopted for our nuclear plants do need a high-level, in-depth review by an independent expert group, predominantly consisting of non-DAE and non-NPCIL experts.
    Ever since the United Progressive Alliance government came to power in 2004, the collusion between the PMO, DAE, NPCIL and various corporate houses in India and abroad has substantially increased. This closeness was deliberately engineered by the PMO initially to bring home the Indo-US nuclear deal, but the continuity of this closeness between corporate business houses interested in nuclear power and concerned supervisory government agencies is distorting and damaging the independence of government decisions. This is leading India speedily towards large economic losses and a sharp increase in the potential for hazardous reactor accidents in India. This trend must be immediately arrested, if necessary, by Parliament’s intervention.
    The decision of the government to import nuclear reactors is all the more perplexing when we know that India has already built about 18 pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) on its own over the last four decades and has perfected its design through extensive years of operation. We can continue to expand nuclear power in India by setting up 700 per megawatt electrical (MWe) PHWRs of our own design and 1,000 MWe ones thereafter. In view of the vast nuclear devastation we are observing in Japan, I would strongly urge the government not to proceed with the Jaitapur Project with purchase of European pressurised reactors (EPRs) from France or any other import of nuclear reactors.
    Secondly, the promoters (NPCIL and Areva) are completely silent about the serious problems which India, and especially the local community, have to face after operations commence and spent fuel starts accumulating at the Jaitapur site. The higher burn-up spent fuel from EPRs has its own unique hazards at the storage and transportation stages, unlike in the case of current light water reactors (LWRs) which use lower burn-ups.
    Thirdly, we are buying into all these high risks at an enormous cost to the taxpayers. An EPR will cost no less than `20 crores per Mwe if the government does not hide most of the costs through invisible subsidies. As against this, an Indian PHWR will cost at the most `8 crores per MWe. Why not purchase natural uranium alone from abroad and multiply the number of 700-1,000 MWe PHWRs, for which India does not require any technology imports?
    Today, there is very little public trust in the country’s various atomic energy institutions and their heads, unlike in the days when Indira Gandhi or Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister and Homi N. Sethna or Raja Ramanna was Atomic Energy Commission chairman. The ethical standards in the PMO, DAE, NPCIL and AERB have fallen considerably, especially since 2004, perhaps because of the current Prime Minister’s direct interference with these institutions to meet the political ends of getting the Indo-US nuclear deal passed through Parliament.
    All along, the nuclear agencies of the government have also colluded with and were assisted by major Indian and foreign corporate houses and their federations interested in the sizeable nuclear power market they are helping to create in India. Even in the evaluations and negotiations of cost, and safety and liability of imported reactors, the official nuclear agencies today are operating hand-in-glove with their friends in corporate houses and business federations. Under such circumstances, these government agencies must first be visibly delinked from corporate influences and made truly independent before the public can be expected to believe any of their assertions.
    It will be best if a high-level national commission on nuclear power is appointed to review India’s nuclear power policies and their implementation at the earliest. The members of this commission must be people of high ethical standards with expertise in matters of nuclear power, safety and economics and preferably people outside the government, who are not connected with business houses or federations.
    The author is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board

  6. janaki Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 17:56

    The members of this commission must be people of high ethical standards with expertise in matters of nuclear power, safety and economics and preferably people outside the government, who are not connected with business houses or federations.

    Are there such

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