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Japan N-blasts trigger Jaitapur safety worries

Anusha Subramanian     March 15, 2011
The nuclear meltdown of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant following a devastating earthquake has raised concerns of safety over the proposed 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power plant that also falls in a seismically sensitive area in Maharashtra.

According to a report by the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, a civil society group that fights for global and regional nuclear disarmament and to promote the cause of peace says that Jaitapur comes under Zone IV in the earthquake hazard zoning map of India, ranging from I to V in growing seismic intensity. The zone is called 'High Damage Risk Zone'.

Activists from Greenpeace, the NGO that fights to protect the environment says that over the past 20 years alone, there have been three earthquakes in Jaitapur exceeding 5 points on the Richter scale. In 1993, the region experienced one reaching 6.3 leaving 9000 people dead. In 2009, an earthquake caused the bridge to Jaitapur to collapse.

Talking of the implications of the Fukushima N-plant, Dr A Gopalakrishnan, a honorary lecturer-Energy & Security at the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) Hyderabad and former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) explains, "Two of the Fukushima reactors in Japan seem to be steadily moving towards progressive core melting due to lack of cooling and the ever-present decay heat due to fission products. If sizeable core melt occurs, it could give rise to explosive metal-water reactions, which could disintegrate the reactor core, disperse the radioactivity, and breach the ultimate containment.

"When that happens, very dangerous species of radioactive fission products in the gaseous and micro-dust and droplet form could spread to large areas, depending on wind conditions. Even a millionth of a gram of some of these substances, if ingested or breathed in, could seriously raise the cancer risk for individuals, and especially so for children and infants".

"The full impact of the Fukushima incidents will only emerge slowly over the next 48-72 hours," he adds.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan at a press conference held on Sunday had said, "Japan is located in Seismic Zone 5, but they decided to have nuclear reactors there because of their demands for power. We take our decisions based on safety. But the atomic energy department will answer questions on this."

The government says the plants at Jaitapur are designed to withstand earthquakes and have multiple layers of backup and a situation like what happened in Japan is unlikely to play out in the EPR.

So what can India learn from Japan? Gopalakrishnan says: "India has built 18 Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) on its own. We have mastered the design through carefully learning from the mistakes of the past, and are currently moving on to build 700 MWe units of this type. We have three generations of Indian engineers who are familiar with the PHWR. If we need more nuclear power, the safest route is to consolidate and expand on our PHWR experience, import natural uranium and build more PHWRs.

"Instead, the government is getting imported French EPRs in Jaitapur, of which neither Indians nor the French know much about. If in a PHWR a major accident occurs, we have Indian engineers and scientists of all kinds who are totally familiar with the details, who can jump in and rapidly bring the situation to normal. For Indian engineering teams to react in a similar timely and effective manner against an accident in one of the planned imported reactors will be next to impossible for at least few decades to come," he adds.

On Tuesday, a day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a review of nuclear safety systems in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said the government could take a "relook" at environment concerns related to the Jaitapur plant.

The prime minister made a detailed statement on Monday asking Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to relook at the safety systems. "Based on the technical reviews by the NPCIL, we will certainly be in touch with them and if additional safeguards have to be built in as part of the environmental clearance, we will relook at it," Ramesh said. 

The 9,900 MW proposed project that would be built in collaboration with the French firm Areva is pegged to be the biggest in the world. It has been facing stiff resistance from locals over fears of security and losing their livelihoods once the project comes up.

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