One disaster is terrible enough, but two are truly catastrophic. There are two types of disasters that strike in us an elemental fear.
One is when the earth shakes violently. Buildings, bridges, and built-up structures sway before toppling, roads crack open, electric poles snap, gas lines erupt into flames, oceans erupt with killer tidal waves, and whole cities are decimated as in the case of Nepal most recently. We can do nothing but ponder our insignificance, scramble to a safe place if we can, and watch helplessly as the world as we know it is lost or reduced to rubble.
The other fear is of a nuclear explosion or mishap, when the dreaded imagery of Hiroshima after “Little Boy” had done its 15 kiloton job looms. Of a city reduced to a smouldering ruin, with people far from ground zero hit by the thermal shock wave and finding their skin hanging in shreds from their bones. An atom bomb is a man-made device and use of it a man-made calamity.
A nuclear power plant is a controlled atom bomb. But it can blow because of a natural disaster, design fault or errors in operating it. An earthquake, by unsettling its foundations, can lead reactors to malfunction, to uncontrolled fission, release of immense heat, a meltdown of the reactor core, and the spread of lethal radioactivity ending, perhaps, in less physical destruction but in dangerous radiation poisoning of the surrounding air, land and water bodies.
Nothing can be done to prevent earthquakes, considering that the Indian subcontinent is on a moving tectonic plate that is constantly crashing into the Himalayan range and pushing under the Eurasian plate at the rate of 5cm per year. Some areas are thus seriously earthquake-prone owing to aggravated faultlines and fissures in the earth.
Mixing earthquakes and nuclear power plants, therefore, would seem like courting a nightmare, which is what Jaitapur may be facing. This town, located on the unspoilt Ratnagiri coast of Maharashtra, is at the confluence of seismic zones 3 and 4, the latter the penultimate category in the national system for assessing earthquake-sensitive areas and identified as a “High Damage Risk Zone”. It is also the site prospectively for the largest nuclear power complex in the world, expected to pump 9,900 MW of electricity into the national grid.
The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., the eventual operator of this plant, is perhaps persuaded by its favourable features — namely, stable hard rock for a solid foundation, a low population density area and access to seawater as coolant for the reactor core — and insists the plant site is in the lower-risk seismic zone 3. But on the basis of computer simulation, geological experts Roger Bilham and Vinod Gaur in 2011 claimed that the Jaitapur region lies in “a compressional downwarp”. This, apparently, is why so far 93 earthquakes/major tremor incidents have been recorded, most recently the 1993 6.2 Richter scale catastrophe in nearby Latur.
A quake triggers earth motion with vertical and horizontal acceleration — the latter side-to-side movement bringing down most structures. Areva, a French company contracted to put up this gigantic power station offers reassurances. It is also pointed out that in France, nuclear plants are designed to withstand earthquakes “twice as strong as the 1,000 year event calculated for each site” and that 20% of nuclear reactors worldwide operate in regions of “significant seismic activity”. Besides fortified construction, this plant, like the power reactors in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea — also in active earthquake zones — will be fitted with seismic detectors to automatically and safely shut down the plant once ground motion reaches a certain tripping level.
Mother Nature, however, always musters nasty surprises. An earthquake and a tsunami — an unforeseen combination the designers had not planned for — downed Fukushima! Why tempt Nature and take chances? Move the nuclear power units to a safer place at little cost as no construction work has yet begun. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also pacify the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s coalition partner in the state – the Shiv Sena– that has joined the local people in clamouring for the termination of the Jaitapur project.
By Bharat Karnad,