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Editorial | May 2011


The decision to review nuclear plant safety is a rational step. While the Japanese still prefer nuclear power to other forms, right in the shadow of the Fukushima disaster, Indians have shown much more scepticism. As many nuclear experts have reiterated, it is important in a Tsunami situation to distinguish between casualties and impact caused by the N-disaster and those caused by sources, including the Tsunami itself. This indicates that the two kinds of impacts are generally obfuscated. That is one side of the story.

Asia is most prone among all world regions to earthquakes. Worse, many plants in Asia are perched close to fault lines that cause the most catastrophic damage. The Manila Trench zone hasn't seen a major explosion in 440 years and that, precisely, say experts, should be the cause of worry for nuclear plants in the entire region. Estimates are that at least 32 plants in operation or under construction in Asia are at risk of one day being hit by a tsunami. One of the world's biggest nuclear plants is coming up on the coast of China, near Hong Kong, and will be hardest hit in such a situation. If multiple plants are hit in a series, the disaster would be in exponential degrees. World experts say that modern N-plants in China, Taiwan, India and several other countries are not really taking advantage of scientific advancements, such as carbon dating-historical data is critical to predict disaster and to determine whether these areas are safe.

Like that in many other countries, the Indian nuclear policy for safety banks on 'design conservatism' and 'shared learning', upon which is built statistical data. Conservatism in a plant includes redundancy, and as Dr SK Jain, CMD, Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) says nuclear reactors of the future are a lot safer in view of higher reliance on passive systems for safety critical functions. In the more traditional and qualitative Deterministic Safety Assessment approach, 'likelihood', as it is called, enveloping scenarios are taken into account with large margins of significance. In the more contemporary Probabilistic Safety Assessment method, safety assessment with likelihood addressed on a quantitative basis, takes failure rates of basic events (based on historical data or engineering evaluations) as input. The model can then be used to assess the frequencies of occurrence of the sequences, and more importantly, the relative importance of various features and safety measures.

SS Bajaj, now Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman, had previously campaigned for a combination of testing and collecting data. Such a combination, he says, provides a better understanding and helps form better safety decisions.

Meanwhile, as Jaitapur's political schemes found the Japan nuclear disaster a convenient leverage to latch on to while protesting the nuclear plant, our nation's quintessential habit of offering knee-jerk reactions continues. However, true to his original reaction after Fukushima, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the state government seem determined to go ahead with the project. In an environment where politics may determine whether the lure of power or the threat of disaster will win, the government must be careful to react to politically motivated protests in Jaitapur in a most scientific, not political, way, and ensure that testing standards are not merely benchmarked-owing to the geographical, geological and locational differences-but to independently assess them.

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