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Lessons From Japanese Tragedy

Our hearts go out to the people of Japan at this hour of their national tragedy which is a global tragedy.It has deeply affected all of us.The world has seen massive tragedies of a traumatic nature in the past, but what the Japanese have suffered is a series of multiple tragedies—quake, tsunami and dangers of nuclear contamination following an explosion in a building housing a reactor of a nuclear power station at Fukushima.

2 To quote from a BBC report on the subject: “An estimated 170,000 people have been evacuated from the area around a quake-damaged nuclear power station in north-east Japan that was hit by an explosion, the UN atomic watchdog says. A building housing a reactor was destroyed in Saturday’s blast at the Fukushima No.1 plant. The authorities said the reactor itself was intact inside its steel container. The Japanese government has sought to play down fears of a meltdown at Fukushima No.1, saying that radiation levels around the stricken plant have now fallen.”

3. In a separate commentary, the BBC’s Environment correspondent has said: “‘The term “meltdown” raises associations with two nuclear accidents in living memory: Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. In both, excess heat in the reactor caused fuel to melt – and in the first, wider melting of the core. The question is whether the same thing has happened in Fukushima. It appears that the reactor was shut down well before any melting occurred, which should reduce considerably the risk of radioactive materials entering the environment. However, the detection of caesium isotopes outside the power station buildings could imply that the core has been exposed to the air. Although Japan has a long and largely successful nuclear power programme, officials have been less than honest about some incidents in the past, meaning that official reassurances are unlikely to convince everyone this time round. ”

4. France and Japan have high reliance on nuclear power. The design and construction of nuclear power stations in Japan have always taken into account likely dangers from quakes and tremors. People, who raised questions of safety, had always been assured by the Japanese experts that there would be no dangers of an explosion or radio active leakage in case of natural disasters.

5. Their confidence in the safety of their nuclear power stations is likely to be shaken as a result of this explosion. Public opposition to the reliance on nuclear power stations could increase as a result of the explosion—-particularly in Japan itself, China and even India.

6. Our conventional wisdom and assumptions regarding nuclear safety during natural and man-made disasters need to be reviewed urgently in the wake of the Japanese explosion. We can no longer be complacent thinking that everything that needs to be done to assure nuclear safety has been done and that there is nothing to worry about.

7. The Fukushima blast should not be exploited to undermine our confidence in the importance of nuclear power. At the same time, it is important to question our confidence in the adequacy of the safety measures taken till now.

8. Fukushima was the result of a natural disaster. How about the dangers of a man-caused disaster—such as some suicide terrorists forcing their way into a nuclear power station and trying to blow it up. I had in the past raised this issue in many seminars and at meetings of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and the Special Task Force for the Revamping of the Intelligence Apparatus, when I was a member of both in 2000-02. The stock answer I used to get was that our nuclear experts were aware of this danger and had taken necessary precautions. I could understand their reluctance to spell out these precautions, but it is important to revisit them urgently.

9. The Fukushima explosion should be of great concern to the whole world—-not just to the Japanese people. Over-confidence in our security measures will be suicidal for the world. (13-3-11)

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )

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