A tsunami of questions

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 16 March 2011

Are Indian nuclear power plants at risk? In the light of what is happening in Japan, is India prepared to deal with high-risk nuclear technologies as it embarks on a new phase of nuclear energy expansion? These are issues that have been debated on prime news channels over the past few nights. These are important issues, I believe, and relevant questions. The fact is that Japan is an amazingly technologically sophisticated country, which had built its plants for all exigencies and calamities. But even Japan is finding it difficult to contain the disaster that is still building up and is of potentially huge proportions.

I was a participant in many of these debates, which featured top Indian nuclear scientists (M R Srinivasan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Bikash Sinha, nuclear scientist based in Kolkata, A Gopalakrishnan, former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and G Balachandran, Consulting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses). I was surprised to find that the discussions quickly deteriorated—nuclear scientists, it seems, have a religion that believes that you are either with them or against them. Ask a question and either you get a response that the answer is technical and you will not be able to understand it, or you will be told that the country needs nuclear energy because it is power hungry. The assumption is that you cannot question them because then you are against nuclear power.

But let me ask these questions, once again. This time hoping that we will have a well reasoned and deliberated discussion:

  1. The fact is that the nuclear establishment in India has been extremely closed and tight-lipped about its workings. We know very little about our internal capacity to deal with a crisis or about the safety provisions of our existing infrastructure because the nuclear science establishment refuses to enter any discussion. We know because we have written about developments and have also faced their wrath (I will ask my colleague Richard Mahapatra to tell us about how we were called everything nasty when we wrote about uranium issues facing the nuclear industry). But this means that we know little about them. Today we cannot be told that everything is all right, that we should believe in them. We need more information. We need transparency. We need a public debate. Will we have these?
  2. This is not the problem of the past. Even today, when the Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra is on the anvil in the midst of huge opposition from communities, there is a deep reluctance to share information or to ensure that proper scrutiny of the plant and its safety provisions. Activists from the region will tell you that the EIA done to clear the plant is based on outdated data; it is shoddy and misses all key issues relevant to nuclear power plants. Why then should people believe blindly that they are safe?
  3. There is a growing concern, especially after what happened in Japan, that a nuclear establishment, already used to secret workings, is even more deadly when it gets combined with private industry. In Japan there is concern that not enough was shared by the industry with people about the disaster. In India, we are moving towards a new regime of large industry involvement in the nuclear sector. The first plant is being commissioned to French energy giant Areva. The problem is that no longer can the industry be taken as functioning under the regulatory gaze of countries. The fact is that relationships are now totally unequal: in this case French president is their agent. This industry, which is desperate for its renaissance in our part of the world, does not want to be asked uncomfortable questions. Isn’t there even more reason to demand open answers to these questions?
  4. It is not about being for or against nuclear power. It is well understood that nuclear is a potential source of energy across the world. The question is: what kind of safeguards should we build to protect ourselves against high risks (like Japan’s earthquake and tsunami combined)? The question is: what is the liability regime we must create to ensure that these safeguards are built, irrespective of the costs? We know when India’s nuclear liability bill was being pushed through (not without a little nudge from our friends in the US), there was outrage about the fact that liability payouts were kept low. They were kept low because otherwise the cost of insurance would be high. Ironically (and luckily) for us this discussion took place when the US was debating a similar liability issue following the BP oil accident (read my article in HT for more). The public discussion led to changes in the bill, much to the unhappiness of the nuclear industry. But perhaps in the light of the disaster in Japan we need to revisit this discussion.

I can list more questions but another big issue, I think, we need to discuss is that scientists (at least Indian scientists) are openly hostile to public discussions and debates. We have seen this in the case of GM crops. We have seen this in the case of nuclear plants. Coincidentally, I wrote about this just last week, incensed by what I have seen in the country. I wrote not to insult but to provoke discussion. I hope it will generate a debate on how we will build a scientific, literate society in our rowdy democracy.

Tags: Japan, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, nuclear energy, nuclear power plants, India, nuclear liability, A Gopalakrishnan, nuclear scientists, Jaitapur, Areva, nuclear bill

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