Nuclear Safety & Used Fuel: Concerns for Nepal

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The painful unfolding of Japan’s nuclear tragedy at 40-year old Fukushima Nuclear Plant has fed into rising concerns about nuclear energy’s safety. This crisis in Japan could not have occurred at a worse time because nuclear power has only recently gained credence as a source of clean energy. Worryingly qualms over reliance on power from nuclear reactors seem to develop at a time of increasing anxieties about the environmental and public health hazards of fossil fuels.

March 11 nuclear accident in north east Japan caused by unprecedented earthquake has provided grounds to critics who have been arguing that viability of nuclear power in earthquake-prone Japan is questionable. Nonetheless, Japan’s resource constraints in relying on nuclear power hardly offer alternatives to a country that is highly industrialized requiring more energy.

In the wake of nuclear catastrophe in Japan where the exact implications on public health because of harmful radiation level are yet to be ascertained, discussion has as usual started what could have prevented the disaster. Scientists are always challenged to make accurate predictions about earthquake although recent technological advancement has made it possible to forecast tsunami which results from powerful movements in the ocean floor.

The location of Fukushima nuclear plant is responsible for making reactors more vulnerable to havoc of tsunami. Some observers opine that Japan paid little attention to tsunami factor, which indeed caused the damage not the earthquake. Studies have revealed that reactors withstood the powerful earthquake, but the ocean waves damaged generators and backing systems, harming the ability to cool the reactors.

In connection with this kind of analysis the observations made by the former Head of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, John Ahearne are relevant. In his recent interview Ahearne has highlighted the pains of trying to draw correct conclusions from disaster in Japan. Nevertheless, there is news that more people of Japan might have been exposed to higher level of harmful radiation that may cause leukemia than thought before.

A 2006 report concerning Chernobyl accident published by the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 200000 sq. miles of Eastern Europe were blanketed with fallout, 5mn.residents of that area were exposed, 100000 people continue to receive radiation contamination from their food and environment that is above normal background level. As per that report, the people in the neighborhood of Chernobyl suffered from a syndrome in which thousands of people across the region feared every morsel they ate, every drop they drank, and the very air they breathed, regardless of how far from Chernobyl they resided.

Ongoing Japan’s struggle to recover from devastating earthquake and resultant tsunami so far blamed for thousands of death has prompted the policy makers to ponder whether nuclear industry will fall into disfavor. If Fukushima nuclear plant accident heightens safety concerns, the true picture of which will not be available before many years, it may discourage prospective entrants to get into nuclear power.

There are 440 nuclear reactors in operation around the world and 60 countries have applied for constructing nuclear plants this year as per the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). China and India, the two Asian emerging economies, have been constructing nuclear reactors rapidly and if present trend continues they may one day surpass even Japan in terms of share of nuclear energy of their total power consumption.

Preparation, construction and finally operation of nuclear reactors require long gestation period accompanied by highly-skilled scientific manpower and huge financial resources. This is why this scribe has argued in his recently-published article that Nepal can hardly afford to build nuclear reactors to generate power though the country is facing long hours of blackout. Despite this Nepal cannot escape the calamities should nuclear catastrophe occur in the region of South Asia and China, where there is larger concentration of nuclear power plants a trend in vogue forced by the economic compulsions.

It is estimated that half of the total nuclear reactors under construction globally are in China. China intends to expand its output from nearly 11 gig watts (GW) to 80 gig watts by 2020. Similarly, India hopes to expand nuclear capacity to at least 20 GW by 2020 up from less than 4 GW.

Older generation reactors lacking adequate safety measures have now become more burdensome following devastating tsunami that has damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. In this regard the initiative taken by Richard A. Meserve as Chairman of International Nuclear Safety Group (INSAG) through his August 25, 2010 letter to the Director-General of the IAEA is worth-mentioning here. In view of possibilities of nuclear meltdown because of lack of adequate safety features in older  reactors and also the shortage of experience of nuclear power among the new entrants, his emphasis on developing safety guidelines and establishing central Nuclear Regulatory Commission in countries having nuclear plants deserves due consideration.

Many valid questions have been raised by Japan’s nuclear accident. These are connected to scrutiny of nuclear plant safety regulations and emergency measures, nuclear design and spent fuel. Used fuel in nuclear reactors becomes a more serious issue due to its dual-use capacity. Secretly it can be misused for making nuclear weapons a fact established by North Korea’s atomic explosions in 2006 and 2009. The proliferation concerns of Iran’s nuclear program still linger as an unresolved standoff.

Used fuel is proliferation-sensitive. Its possible use by the terrorists to manufacture a dirty bomb is too dangerous to imagine. Here in comes the genuine concern of countries like Nepal which though does not aspire to be a nuclear power and yet is constrained to live in persistent fear. This fear is due to possibilities of nuclear meltdown, nuclear exchange and terror attacks stealing used fuel in the neighborhood. The confrontational relationship between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed since 1998 also makes us apprehensive as these two rivals were once even on the brink of nuclear Armageddon during 1999 Kargil crisis.

There is no guarantee that a worst case scenario similar to Fukushima may not happen in the region where Nepal is located over which unfortunately man has no control.

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