03 April 2014

Protest at TEPCO AGM in Tokyo © Masaya Noda / Greenpeace


As the victims of the Fukushima disaster left their homes and their lives, some of them never to return, the Japanese government slowly egged back to its old ways. After having sworn off nuclear and shutting down all the 48 commercial nuclear plants in Japan following the disaster, the government has reversed track and declared nuclear as a key source of energy in its new 'Basic Energy Plan' introduced on Feb 25, 2014. The plan not only allows for restarting of the plants once they meet the new safety standards, it also provides scope for building of new nuclear reactors, in line with the kind of plan of action such a resource-starved nation needs. Because wasn't the disaster that led to the evacuation of 160,000 evacuees and rendered vast stretches of land uninhabitable for decades, the result of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 10 m tall tsunami. Not, going by the parliamentary report published in July 2012.

The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), the first independent commission established by the parliament to investigate the accident, has shown clearly in its report just how much fault lay with the predicted natural disasters and how much of it was due to the operator's negligence and deceit. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has a history of cover ups and lies. In 2002, it was found that TEPCO had submitted falsified safety inspection reports, hiding critical cracks in the reactor vessels at Fukushima I and II. The Mark 1 reactor design chosen for 5 of the 6 reactors at the Daichii Nuclear plant was found to be so flawed by the very designers who modeled it from General Electric; they resigned in protest, convinced that a devastating nuclear accident was inevitable.

As a requisite to the revised anti-seismic guidelines introduced by nuclear regulator, Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) in 2006, TEPCO submitted anti-seismic back-check reports for its 6 units in 2009 which clearly indicated the lack of several key safety installations and equipments in accordance with the guidelines. None of these structural reinforcements were added to the plant at the time of the disaster.

The final nail in the coffin, however, is the fact that the regulatory bodies, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and NSC, were aware of this non-compliance but chose to go along with it. They chose to grant TEPCO autonomous control on publishing seismic assessment reports, performing structural reinforcements according to the new guidelines and despite being aware that the station lacked proper counter measures in case of a tsunami, insisted that possibility of a total station blackout was very bleak and did not provide any instructions to address the issue.

If Japan with its global reputation as a technology genius and engineering prodigy, suffered such a setback, what is to stop a similar fate from striking the likes of Indian plants like Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu or Jaitapur in Maharashtra. The proposed site for the Jaitapur Nuclear Reactor park is located in a Seismic Zone 4 region and is set to house 6 of the largest reactors in the world; the European Pressurized Reactors. EPR reactors are not operational anywhere in the world which means there is no data available on safety or feasibility of these plants. The quality of construction and safety of the complex at Koodankualm plant has been called into question by the very workers and contractors who worked on the site. There is a population of 1.8 million and 1.2 million living within a 30 km radius of the Jaitapur and Koodankulam, respectively. Both coasts where the two plants are located have a history of earthquakes and tsunamis of high intensities and frequencies. One could not have asked for more obvious harbingers of future doom.

The Japanese Nuclear Damage Liability Law allocates exclusive liability in case of a disaster to the operator. Nuclear technology manufactures, in this case GE, Hitachi and Toshiba, are indemnified from any accountability. In this matter, the Indian Nuclear Civil Liability Act was the first of its kind, having introduced a clause for Supplier Liability as well, if the accident takes place due to flawed equipment or poor service. If this Bill is diluted, the Indian Nuclear market will be blown wide open with contenders from all over the world tripping over in their haste to get here and set up more and more nuclear plants across the country. Already, the country's nuclear capacity is set to increase to 63,000 MW by 2032 from the current 4,780 MW.

A Fukushima-like disaster does not announce its arrival. It is not predictable and it costs dearly. But despite its calamitous force and obvious destruction, it was but a contributing factor to the debacle. Try as it will, TEPCO will not be able to cover up the fact that the damage to the Daichii Nuclear Power Plant had started well before the earthquake ever reached its wall.

Sunanda Mehta is a researcher with Greenpeace India.