Japan was struck by a massive earthquake on March 11, followed by a devastating tsunami that deluged many parts of Japan. Not only was the disaster colossal in terms of the human casualties (more than 10000 at last count), but it also damaged Japan’s nuclear reactors causing radiation leakage. As of this writing, the Fukushima nuclear facility was emitting radiation and warnings about tap-water and certain other foods contamination were being issued.
The nuclear disaster in Japan, led analysts and policy experts across the world to contemplate the safety and disaster preparedness of other nuclear installations in countries such as the US, India, China, Pakistan etc. The radiation leakage prompted some to question the benefits of nuclear energy and if the world would be better off without it. However, the disaster in Japan was also a case in point that the correct design, security mechanisms and emergency preparedness can contain and even avert a nuclear catastrophe when natural disasters strike. Radiation fears are valid, but their actual levels and impact might be exaggerated.
In India, it did not take long for doubts to be raised about the US-India nuclear deal (the U.S. clarified that Japan’s disaster would not affect the deal, and it would continue) and India’s plans to maximize the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation. Though India’s disaster relief and emergency preparedness leaves a lot to be desired, India has so far displayed a disaster-free record when it comes to its nuclear facilities. Expect for minor instances of accidents at such facilities, India’s nuclear program has been disaster-free. The Indian nuclear program and the US-India nuclear deal are also in compliance with the IAEA and NSG safeguards and guidelines. Nothing in India’s nuclear history suggests that India might not be able to deal with a disaster as the one that struck Japan. In fact, during the 2001 and 2004 earthquakes in Gujarat and the Indian Ocean, the nuclear reactors in the vicinity had been successfully shut down.
In 2009, India’s National Disaster Management Authority issued a researched set for guidelines for management of nuclear and radiological emergencies. The report lays down exhaustive guidelines for natural as well as man-made nuclear disasters, and reading it instills confidence that India can effectively deal with and control a nuclear disaster. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also asked for a security review of all nuclear installations in the country following the Japan earthquake.
While accounting and preparing for a worst-case scenario is essential when it comes to sensitive issues such as nuclear disasters, it is also important to remember that such instances are rare. Earthquakes and tsunamis of the magnitude of that in Japan do not occur regularly. And even when they do, adequate preparations and an efficient people (such as the Japanese) can effectively tame any situation. At a time when global energy needs are expanding and non-renewable resources depleting rapidly, nuclear energy is an important and efficient resource for us to consider. Instead of scurrying to shut down nuclear plants and scrapping nuclear deals out of fear, it is important to build even better reactor designs and safety mechanisms that attempt to nullify the effects of any potential disaster.
The Nuclear Liability Bill (2010) passed recently by the Indian Parliament (as part of the long-drawn process of implementing the US-India nuclear deal) could have been integrated completely into this safety mechanism. However, the bill leaves out liability for the operator in case of “grave natural disasters.” The Japanese earthquake and tsunami combo is definitely a grave natural disaster. While it can be argued that the operator cannot predict natural disasters, and therefore cannot be held accountable for damages caused by forces beyond his control; it also cannot be argued that a company and/or operator is totally without responsibility for ensuring maximum safety standards, including for natural disasters. In fact, attributing accountability would force operators to ensure maximum safeguards at nuclear facilities out of fear of potential monetary losses in case of nuclear disasters. Because such disasters are rare, the probability of them losing money by having to pay compensation is very little.
Along with continuing their commitment to nuclear energy, the U.S. and India should look at the Japanese nuclear disaster as an opportunity to increase collaboration in nuclear research and development, disaster management and emergency preparedness. Nuclear technology has developed significantly since the Fukushima nuclear reactor was installed, but its reaction to the earthquake and subsequent disaster should be studied to make reactors even better equipped to deal with crisis situations. Both India and the U.S. have a big pool of skilled nuclear scientists and engineers, and it is time to increase collaboration between them.