Lessons from Japan

In 1945 the catastrophe was inflicted by the enemy. In what remains till date the most horrendous attack on human beings, over three lakhs were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many more continued to suffer because of radioactivity related ailments. Today it is self-inflicted catastrophe for Japan . What makes the tragedy of this most ill fated nation on earth, from the point of view of nuclear mishaps, more ironic is that it had resolved not to develop a nuclear weapon programme. The Japanese argument was that they would not like any other human population on earth to suffer the way they did in 1945 attack. In spite of this noble resolve they chose to go ahead with a big nuclear energy programme for power generation. They would have never imagined that their nuclear power plants would one day bring back the nightmares of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to haunt them.

There seems to be no end to the horror at Fukushima . The emergency crew is on the job to contain damage round the clock but new reports of radiation release pour in every day. In a ridiculous attempt to allay public fears first the Tokyo Electric Power Company reported a radiation level is water at the reactor No. 2 in Fukushima Daiichi plant to be 1 crore times higher than permissible limit causing panic among workers but later retracted it claiming it to be erroneous and conveyed the radiation levels were in fact only 1 lakh times higher! Should that be considered a cause for relief. Even one lakh times higher radiation levels can be fatal for human beings. Already radiation release from this accident has affected large parts of water, soil, food in this area and probably made it inhabitable, at least for some time to come. Already people are leaving the place as they don’t consider it safe living here.

One can only salute the emergency crew members who are trying to bring the plant under control knowing full well the dangers that their government is exposing them to. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki people had no choice as they were caught unawares. In Fukushima even though the earthquake and tsunami caught them unsuspecting, the scientists who built the nuclear power plants were well aware of the dangers involved in this technology.  The Japanese government has put its population to tremendous risk by adopting the nuclear energy programme and it must accept its mistake.

Japan had seriously begun researching the renewable energy options and hopefully would over a period of time rely more on such technologies which will be safer, cleaner and cheaper to meet its energy demands. But the earthquake-tsunami came a bit too early, maybe as a warning not only to Japan but to the rest of the world too. Japan has resolved to be a low Carbon society in near future. Now it must commit itself to be no nuclear society too.

The Japanese accident has shaken the confidence of people all over in nuclear energy as never before. Countries which were toying with the idea of either starting or reviving their nuclear energy programmes are having second thoughts now. It is people’s awareness which has not allowed a single new nuclear power plant to be initiated in Europe and US for the last 25-30 years. Nuclear power plants are turning out to be the most costly and dangerous method of producing electricity. Most developed countries which have a nuclear power programme would be phasing out their nuclear power plants in the years to come.

An important reason for abdication of nuclear power programme is that scientists have not been able to solve the problem of safe disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. The spent fuel is cooled at the plant site in pools and continue to pile up. One doesn’t know what to do with a host of radioactive elements produced in the process of fission of Uranium atom. They continuously contaminate the water, soil and atmosphere in the surroundings.

The most common hazards faces by human beings due to exposure to radiation are cancer or leukemia and genetic mutation potentially affecting future generations. The high dose of radiation at the Japanese plant site may not prove to be immediately fatal to workers involved in clean up but is likely to manifest itself in the form of cancer some years later in life. They could also produce deformed babies. The people will suffer for no fault of theirs. It is the Japanese energy policy makers who will be held responsible for the resulting misery.

No government has a right to expose its innocent citizens to radiation hazards causing health risks. They should adopt benign technological options for producing electricity. People should have a role in determining the energy policy of the government. Well informed public debate must precede any such decision making.

Consider the nuclear power plant at Narora in Bulandshahar district of UP in India . It is situated on the banks of river Ganga . In 1993 there was a major fire at this nuclear power plant. It was sheer luck that this did not get out of control. If an accident of the scale which took place at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal were to happen here it which would jeopardize all life along the bank of river for much of the breadth of UP, Bihar and West Bengal and parts of Bangladesh. Depending on the direction of wind Delhi could be affected too as it is merely 50-60 km from here.

We must not play with nature. The safest place for Uranium is beneath the earth. This only naturally occurring radioactive material must not be mined. There are better ways of producing our electricity and meeting our energy demands, some of which may be fulfilled without electricity. Hence a wise and sane energy policy is required in consultation with the people.

Dr Sandeep Pandey is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for emergent leadership (2002) and leads the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). He did his PhD from University of California, Berkeley in control theory (used in missile technology) and taught at IIT Kanpur before plunging full-time in social activism. He is also a member of national presidium, Lok Rajniti Manch. Email: ashaashram@yahoo.com

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