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Monday, May 16, 2011

Drawing lessons from Japan's nuclear disaster


By SANDEEP PANDEY
Citizen News Service

NEW DELHI — In 1945 the catastrophe was inflicted by the enemy. In what remains to date the most horrendous attack on human beings, more than 300,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many more went on to suffer because of radioactivity-related ailments. But today Japan's catastrophe is self-inflicted.

What makes this tragedy more ironic is that the Japanese had resolved not to develop a nuclear-weapon program because they did not want to see any other population suffer the way they did in 1945. In spite of this noble resolve, the Japanese chose to go ahead with a large nuclear energy program. They 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 working to contain the damage round the clock but new reports of radiation releases pour in every day. In a ridiculous attempt to allay public fears, first the Tokyo Electric Power Co. reported a radiation level in water at the Fukushima No. 1 plant's reactor No. 2 to be 10 million times higher than the permissible limit, causing panic among workers, but it later retracted it claiming it to be erroneous and stated that the radiation levels were in fact only 100,000 times higher. Should that be considered a cause for relief? Even that level can be fatal for humans.

Already radiation released by this accident has affected water, soil and food in this area and has probably made the area inhabitable for some time to come, and people have been forced to evacuate by the government. 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, 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 its nuclear-energy program.

Japan has begun seriously researching renewable energy options, and hopefully it eventually will rely more on technologies that are safer, cleaner and cheaper to meet its energy needs. Japan has resolved to become a low carbon society in the near future; now it must commit itself to be no-nuclear society too.

The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has shaken popular confidence in nuclear energy as never before. Countries that were toying with the idea of either starting or reviving their nuclear-energy programs are now having second thoughts. It is people's awareness that has prevented a single new nuclear power plant to be built in Europe and the United States for the last 25 to 30 years. Nuclear power plants are turning out to be the most costly and dangerous method of producing electricity. Most developed countries that have them will be phasing them out in the coming years.

One compelling reason for phasing out nuclear-power programs is that scientists have not been able to figure out how to safely dispose of the radioactive waste created by the plants. The spent fuel is cooled in pools and continues to pile up.

The most common hazards faces by human beings due to exposure to radiation are cancer or leukemia and genetic mutations that can affect future generations. The high doses of radiation at the Fukushima nuclear plant may not prove to be immediately fatal to workers involved in the cleanup, but it is likely to manifest itself in the form of cancers later in life and could even impact the workers' future offspring. In short, such people will suffer through no fault of their own.

Japanese energy policymakers should be held responsible for the resulting misery as no government has a right to expose its citizens to radiation hazards. They should adopt safe technological options for producing electricity. Citizens should have a role in determining the energy policy of the government, and well informed public debate must precede decision-making.

Consider the nuclear power plant at Narora in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh state. It is situated on the banks of the Ganga River. In 1993 there was a major fire at this nuclear power plant, and it was only sheer luck that it did not get out of control.

If an accident of the scale that took place at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal (1984) happened at the Narora nuclear plant, it would jeopardize all life along the banks of the river for much of the breadth of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and parts of Bangladesh. Depending on the direction of wind, Delhi could be affected too as it is merely 50 to 60 km from there.

We must not play with nature. The safest place for uranium is underground. This radioactive material must not be mined. There are better ways of producing electricity to meet our energy demands, and some energy demands could be filled without utilizing electricity. Hence a wise and sane energy policy must be developed in consultation with the people.

Dr. Sandeep Pandey leads the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM).


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