How safe are nuclear energy plants?
On February 24, Bangla-desh's secretary of the ministry of science and deputy director- general of the Russian Atomic Energy Corporation signed a primary deal with Russia for installing a 2,000 MW third-generation nuclear power plant (reactor) at Rooppur (Pabna).
By signing the deal the Bangladesh government launched the country's first nuclear plant power project, which will be completed in 2017-18 at the cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
It is noted that France uses nuclear power to generate 77% of its electricity, and Russia gets 20% of its total energy requirements. More than 35 nuclear power plants are currently under construction around the world, 24 of them in Asia including in China.
However, the explosion at the Japanese nuclear reactor, triggered by the devastating earthquake on March 11 has raised serious health concerns for people in the vicinity as well as questions about the viability of nuclear energy.
In recent years, experts have maintained that nuclear energy is safe, that it will help the world overcome its dependence on oil, and that it prevents hothouse gas emissions. Events in Japan are being closely monitored by nuclear experts.
Until a few days ago, the future of nuclear energy appeared to be bright. Not because of any great love of nuclear reactors but because of their advantages, like the fact that they don't emit greenhouse gases and air pollutants, among them nitric and sulfuric acids, and also because it can't possibly supply all our needs through renewable energies.
Today, there are 442 active nuclear reactors in the world, and it was believed that by 2035, another 180 facilities would be set up and that they would supply a little more than the portion of total global electricity consumption they supply today -- about 16%.
The explosion of the Japanese reactor has sparked a renewed discussion about the amount of atomic energy that should be developed. There will be those whose opposition to nuclear energy will be strengthened by these events, but there will also be others who will say that, in the final analysis, the safety systems did prevent a terrible disaster like the one in Chernobyl in 1986.
What we witnessed in Japan was an earthquake of tremendous magnitude (Richter scale 9 magnitude) and a tsunami wave that hit the generators that were the back-up to the emergency system. Despite that, experts maintain that the worst case scenario has not been realised. If there is no worsening of the situation, they argue that this event will not have significant health repercussions. It's true that small quantities of radioactive materials were released, but these are not expected to cause serious health-related problems (about 60 people in Japan are being examined for radioactive contamination).
If the worst-case scenario happens and there's a total meltdown of the reactor, it is likely that large areas will be polluted by radioactive material, similar to what happened in Chernobyl. It's also possible that there will be a greater risk of developing malignant tumours, leukemia and cancer of the thyroid. Nobody expects huge numbers of people to face immediate death. It is noted that in Chernobyl, which was a dreadful and terrible incident, 41 people died, and they were directly exposed to the radiation.
There's no doubt that one of the key messages that has to be conveyed is that a problem occurred in an existing reactor. The reactors planned for the future -- called third- or fourth-generation reactors -- will use much more advanced technology. They will be built in such a way to withstand even disasters more serious than what happened in Japan. They will not reach a state of meltdown, and even if that does happen, it will be for very short periods and only extremely small quantities of radioactive materials will be emitted into the air. In my opinion, that is an extremely important message.
"The safety features of Indian nuclear plants have to be rechecked to assess whether they can tackle inoperable situations," says former Atomic Energy Commission chairman and its current member, M.R. Srinivasan, who has visited the Fukushima plant.
"It was constructed to withstand natural calamities. But what happened on March 11 was something unusual: It was a deadly combination of a strong earthquake and a tsunami which struck the nuclear plant and damaged it."
Nuclear reactors are designed to withstand earthquakes specific to the seismic zones they are located in. In the case of Fukushima, it is clear the intensity of the earthquake was more than what the plant was designed to withstand.
The design of a nuclear reactor is location specific. "The thickness and the height of their walls are planned considering the area where the plant is set up," says chief spokesperson, department of atomic energy, S.K. Malhotra.
Now, given the intensity of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, nuclear scientists will have to be prepared for extreme, or inoperable, situations.
What has happened in Japan may discourage many countries to go for nuclear reactors, and they will intensify efforts to make use of renewable energies that don't rely on nuclear power.
There are nuclear experts who have complained during the present crisis that one of the problems is that the public doesn't understand how a nuclear reactor works and what this activity means. That is indeed a problem because it is a complex subject.
Experts say that we have to wait and look at things in proportion. It could still turn out that after this is over, we'll be able to say that the safety measures proved themselves despite the terrible risks to the facility.