This article was first published in The Mint
It has been a decade since 11 March 2011, when the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan triggered a tsunami and killed over 19,500 people and displaced over 230,000. It was the country’s worst natural disaster since 1995. The ‘Great East Japan Earthquake’ or ‘Great Tohoku Earthquake’ is better known as the ‘Fukushima nuclear disaster’ and often cited as Exhibit A in the case against nuclear energy. Yes, the quake and tsunami caused a catastrophic failure of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi power plant, leaving a contained radioactive mess that will take decades to clean up, and triggered a mass evacuation during which 2,313 people died. Yet, for all the horror stories, the actual number of deaths or cases of radiation sickness due to the accident is—take a deep breath—zero. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the disaster, a United Nations scientific committee confirmed findings that there have been no adverse health effects linked to radiation exposure. Nobody died and no one fell sick due to the reactor accident.
That’s not all. The popular narrative often neglects to mention that there were 11 operational reactors—including the three at Fukushima Daiichi—at four nuclear power plants in the region. All of them shut down automatically, but the three at Fukushima failed to complete the process. Sixty kilometres away, three reactors at Onagawa were undamaged and shut down safely, despite being closer to the epicentre and suffering a more powerful tsunami. None of this is to downplay the human, environmental and economic damage that the Fukushima accident caused, or indeed the risks arising from nuclear power plants; only to put it in perspective. What we have is a case for greater attention to safety and governance, not a knee jerk rejection of nuclear energy as we saw in many Western countries soon after the incident.
A dispassionate assessment of technology and economics suggests that nuclear energy has to be part of the civilizational response to climate change. In its latest report, the International Energy Agency points out that while wind and solar power are already competitive compared to fossil-fuels, nuclear “remains the dispatchable low-carbon technology with the lowest expected costs in 2025.” The cost structure for renewable energy must include that of energy storage systems if it is to replace coal and gas for base-load capacity. Even if, in line with current expectations, the economics of renewable energy become more attractive over time, nuclear will remain an important source of low-carbon diversity. As a country dependent on fuel imports, India must invest in renewable energy, but cannot afford to ignore nuclear.
Vaclav Smil, one of the world’s most thoughtful energy analysts, calls nuclear energy “a successful failure” for its inability to gather public support despite its ability to deliver. Despite the facts, ‘Fukushima’ is a one-word argument made around the world to silence any debate on building new nuclear power stations.
The derogation of nuclear energy is not a failure of technology or economics. It is a failure of public policy. In that sense, India’s 2010 civil liability law is not unique in preventing greater investment, innovation and development of nuclear energy. It is a nearly global phenomenon. Other than Russia and China that have used the decade since the Fukushima accident to become global leaders in the field, almost every other country has adopted statutes and policies that strangle the development of the nuclear industry.
India has done well to remain invested in nuclear despite the adverse global sentiment, but the pace has been slower than estimated, and, more importantly, the industry governance structure remains unreformed. Against the promise of producing 20,000MW of nuclear power by 2020, India currently has operational capacity of 6,780MW, constituting only 2.4% of the electricity generated. In addition to the eight under construction, the government has approved 12 more reactors, targeting 22,480MW by 2031.
In a reply to a Lok Sabha question, the government stated that it has no plans to promote domestic and foreign investment in the sector.This makes Fukushima’s lesson especially relevant for India. The causes of that accident were traced to a poor safety culture arising from regulatory capture and poor oversight. Investigators blamed a “mindset that emphasises hierarchy and acquiescence and discourages asking questions.”
If India’s nuclear industry is government-run for the foreseeable future, then it is all the more important to restructure its governance. The case for an industry regulator and safety auditor independent of the India’s atomic energy establishment has been clear since 1995, a point re-iterated in a 2015 review by an independent international expert group.
The Narendra Modi government should restructure the civilian nuclear energy establishment in the manner it did the space sector last year: structurally separate the policymaker, regulator, research and development, and commercial operators. Safety requires more, timely and better information. Not everything needs to be in the public domain, but an effective governance structure will give the government better-quality information on the state of affairs in the sector.