C Gopinath

A wake-up call from Japan

C. Gopinath | Updated on March 29, 2011

It is perhaps time to visit nuclear power all over again, given the grave safety risks the plants pose.

Japan, unfortunately, has had to suffer this double disaster. I do not mean the earthquake and tsunami, but those arising out of the war and peace of atomic energy. Japan is the only country that has suffered from the ill-effects of atomic bombs when the US dropped two in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing over 200,000 civilians.

Although Japan turned pacifist, they did not swear off nuclear energy believing, like the Dalai Lama often argues, that it is the humans who choose whether to put science to evil or peaceful purposes.

Not being blessed with coal or oil to generate power, Japan went nuclear in a big way accounting for about 29 per cent of the total power generated. Hence, their suffering from the peaceful use of radiation is especially ironic.

Coping with disasters

Yet, the stoic personality of the Japanese has helped them cope with disasters. They had installed earthquake warning devices and hearing the warnings on March 11; children ran out of school buildings and trains stopped. Otherwise, the loss of lives would have been even more.

Disciplined and orderly to a fault, rescue teams knew what to do. Disaster squads were quick on the scene, people obeyed instructions. Every year, on September 1, the nation commemorates the loss of lives in the 1923 earthquake and schoolchildren go through a drill to learn survival skills. But there have been no drills to get ready for a nuclear disaster.

So, let us get back to energy. The six reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant have kept the attention of the world long after the earthquake and tsunami.

One by one, each reactor started catching fire, rupturing and even leaking. As tension rose around the world, suspicions were voiced that the electric company operating the plant was not revealing all it knew about the disaster or dangers arising there from.

Engineers on the ground were undertaking desperate solutions to cool the spent fuel rods, including pumping salt water and using helicopters to dump water like commonly used to fight forest fires. Yet, radiation contamination has been detected in food even far away in Tokyo.

Perhaps, it is time to visit nuclear power all over again. There have been mumblings from experts around the world that the Japanese nuclear industry has been ducking safety issues and covering up past problems. Even the much- maligned WikiLeaks are being quoted about concerns the US officials had about the Japanese nuclear industry.

Perhaps, that is meant to assuage us that there is nothing wrong with the technology and it is the people that are at fault.

But, if that is the situation in Japan, it must certainly give cause for pause at other rapidly-nuclearising states, including India and China, who play the cover-up game on a routine basis and whose safety records are generally dismal.

Let us not forget Chernobyl (Ukraine) as an example of a worst case scenario, when a nuclear power plant disaster led to thousands dying.

Leaders around the world are stoutly defending the safety of their nuclear facilities but, at the same time, ordering a review of the same. They too have their suspicions. China has suspended approval of 28 nuclear plants and undertaken review of the safety of the current ones.

Germany has ordered its own review of nuclear facilities even closing some of its older plants provisionally. The French get high marks for bravado. France said it will check all its 58 nuclear reactors, but the Prime Minister, Mr Francois Fillon insisted it would be absurd to condemn nuclear energy out of hand. Understandable, since France generates about 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants.

Science, not politics

Clearly, there is a lot about this technology that we still do not know. Tokyo is over 300 km miles away and is supposedly out of danger of radiation. Yet, many countries and companies are evacuating their personnel from Tokyo.

There is a clear disconnect between speech and behaviour. Do we or do we not know how far the ill-effects of radiation can travel? This is science, not Japanese politics.

When you realise that humankind has a history of only about 6,000 to 8,000 years on this planet, it should make you sit up to note that every nuclear plant needs to build concrete chambers in which it will store spent fuel rods for the next 10,000 years before they become safe.

This is either an example of our audacious hope, or inordinate foolishness. Every disaster such as Chernobyl or Fukushima brings breast beating about sources of power, but nothing much happens.

Looking at the world energy situation, we should be able to more meaningfully account for the risk attached to each source when calculating the cost per unit. There does not seem to be a completely safe choice. If you choose coal and other fossil fuels, you run into disasters due to mining, pollution and climate change.

But a larger lifestyle issue is the dependence on electric power in our lives. Do we need to play sports in the night with scores of high power lamps burning fuel? If we played all our sports during the day time, we could shut off a few power plants as not required.

I read an interesting calculation the other day about all those little devices that blink at us as we move around the house in the night. The VCR on stand-by, the paper shredder kept ready for use, and the phone charger that remains plugged into the wall socket even when it's not charging. They account for another couple of power-generating plants. How much are we prepared to give up current convenience for a safer future?

Meanwhile, as I write this on a visit to California, there is some anxious discussion on the airwaves about whether the radiation from Japan will reach across the Pacific Ocean to this coast.

And other Californians are worrying about the two nuclear power plants on the coast and on earthquake fault lines. Fukushima has woken up a lot of people.

(The author is Professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston,US. >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in.)

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Published on March 27, 2011
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