India’s sprawling nuclear quest

By Usman Ali Khan

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop.” Rumi

We know that we’re all different, have our own opinions and everyone is never going to agree on everything. Having said that, the bottom line is as it always has been. If you can’t say something nice, well, you know the rest…

In India, the real debate on nuclear power begun right after its independence, and in all likelihood it will intensify in coming years. Nuclear power programme has now metamorphosed into a giant business venture, encompassing dozens of functional nuclear power plants, substantial mining operations and the establishment of several allied industries. But the picture is all not rosy as the viability, sustainability and safety of these projects are seldom discussed in the public domain.

Many people in India are out to please their new BJP masters! While there is a significant in-safe and insecure management of the nuclear enterprise.

Massive Indian nuclear buildup plans is alarming, where it is likely to quadruple the nuclear capacity by 2020. Even more serious is tripling it by 2030, pumping billions into reactor imports from France, Russia and America besides subsidizing the domestic Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), as was observed by Mr Bidwai who breathed his last a week ago.

Indians are clumsy in brushing the safety and security issues under carpet. Since many misgivings have been reported by some senior AERB member from India recently stated that all nuclear facilities are sited, designed, constructed, commissioned and operated in accordance with strict quality and safety standards ignoring what happened in Fukushima. According to Princeton professor M V Ramana in his book The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, some nuclear projects in India have come close to disaster stating ”practically all nuclear reactors and other facilities associated with the nuclear fuel cycle operated by [India’s Department of Atomic Energy] have had accidents of varying severity”. A nuclear disaster like Fukushima would have dire consequences in heavily populated India. Memories of the Bhopal tragedy, which killed an estimated 10,000 people in 1984, are still fresh, and so is the mismanagement of the fallout by the government of the day, including letting the senior management of U.S. firm Union Carbide escape scot free. India’s nuclear stance is sharply at odds. Are its nuclear safety standards up to scratch?

In India the nuclear muddle is all about the secrecy that has raised unrest in different regions like Jaitpur, KKNPP, etc. The details of nuclear programme information on several fronts are unavailable to the public. These include the question on:

  • What exactly is the purpose of the nuclear programme- production of energy, or use of nuclear technology for ‘peaceful’ purposes, for India’s security or for all purposes keeping in mind the story of CANDU reactors?
  • What is the extent of nuclear energy potential in India on the basis of fuel to be used
  • What is the extent to which technology is imported from other countries
  • How much is spent on the development of nuclear technology and individual projects in India

Apart from the law that shields the nuclear programme from the public, it is the nuclear bureaucracy that guards its projects and schemes. The Kalpakkam nuclear power facility was battered by a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 that left 6,170 people dead in India. The answers given yet are all tellingly short on facts and abundantly long on unsupported reports and media information.

Here the nuclear scientists in India do not learn from all that happens around. India seems to strike its own lonely path even if that happens to lead it towards disastrous consequences. As per an article in the Down to Earth magazine, the AERB identified 134 problem areas during a safety audit in 1995. These has also been identified by the DAE as early as the 70s and 80s. But these reports remain classified and out of the reach of citizens till today and nothing much has changed in many decades since then. And you are certain the normal safeguard are in place?

If one looks at the history of nuclear power projects in India, practically each reactor took longer to build, cost more than projected, and performed worse than had been envisaged when plans were made. The safety record of Indian nuclear power plants are far from reassuring and lack a comprehensive nuclear security culture. For example, in 1993, a fire broke out in the first unit of the Narora nuclear plant, which led to a partial fuel meltdown in the reactor core. Similarly, the Madras nuclear plant suffered a leak of 14 tons of highly radioactive heavy water in 1999. Most recently, in 2009, a radioactive leak was discovered in the Kaiga plant. At least 45 employees were exposed to harmful radiation.

This is obnoxiously true that “Jaitapur” is no different! Even after “Fukushima” the environmentalists who oppose the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Park (JNPP) are branded “green fanatics” and “myopic” and the protesting farmers and fishermen who are likely to lose their livelihoods because of the Park are called “anti-national”.

In summation, this is unfortunate that scientist ignores the fact that Jaitapur’s French-built nuclear plant is a disaster in waiting, jeopardising 40,000 people’s survival. The protestors shouldn’t be treated like ignorant and misguided children to be coached and disciplined by a nanny state. Their leaders are well-informed professionals, including S.P. Udayakumar, who has taught at a US university, M. Pushparayan, a lawyer, and Tuticorin’s Bishop.

Hence blindly following bad policies is neither in any nation’s best interests nor the worlds. Lost in a world of their own, the situation become worse for a nation, when one put at risk enviable reputation as a responsible global citizen for attaining short-term gain.

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Usman Ali Khan

Usman Ali Khan is a Researcher at the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad

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