Nuclear secrecy is a matter of concern

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Wednesday 16 March 2011

The nuclear crisis in Japan has highlighted the perils of restricting the flow of information. Starting from the International Atomic Energy Association to the senior officials in charge of managing the crisis in Japan, there is a growing frustration over the way the country's nuclear power company has shared information on the state of affairs in the tsunami-stricken reactors. This has apparently contributed negatively to crisis management.

For us in India nuclear secrecy is a home truth. Nuclear power is still an exclusively government affair. The Atomic Energy Act of 1962 allows our nuclear establishments to not share information as well as keeps the establishment completely out of bounds for people, except for the few chosen ones. It is impossible to get information on a nuclear power plant – say, on design, evaluation or internal review reports – except on its potential generation capacity. Besides, nuclear establishments also use radioactive material. The Act prevents people from knowing their credibility as well.

To dig the history a bit, the blanket ban on information on the nuclear establishments through the Act was necessited by the fact that India had never demarcated between civilian and military nuclear facilities till recently.

When the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the Bill for Parliament to enact, there was opposition to giving so much information protection to the nuclear establishment. Parliament records of sessions show that a member of Parliament, Krishnamurthy Rao, vehemently opposed the secrecy granted to the nuclear establishment. He compared it to a similar legislation in the UK that debarred information sharing on defence-related nuclear establishments only. He posed a question to Nehru: “Does the proposed bill cover the peaceful (nuclear) purposes?” Nehru replied: “I do not know how to distinguish the two (peaceful and defence purposes).”

That dilemma continues to this day. Despite the nuclear sector undergoing a major makeover, particularly in the past 12 years. In a short span, India has turned from a nuclear pariah to a global darling. In 1998, we tested five nuclear weapons. Officially, we became a country possessing nuclear weapons. Soon a series of developments followed that culminated in the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005. This has opened up the nuclear sector to global investments. Now there is a virtual scramble for setting up nuclear power plants in India.

As part of this push for civilian nuclear use, there has to be clear demarcation of civilian and military establishments. In 2000, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was given charge of the civilian establishments, keeping strategic centres out of its purview. AERB is the body that looks after safety aspects of the nuclear plants. Even here, getting information on nuclear power plants and their safety is difficult. Many doubt its credibility.

It comes from the fact that AERB is not independent. Its administrative control lies with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which is chaired by the head of the department of atomic energy. The Nuclear Power Corporation also has administrative control over AERB. It means AERB is prone to manipulation as it is controlled by the same organisations that it is supposed to regulate for safety. Experts see this as a violation of the International Convention on Nuclear Safety, of which India is a signatory. With new nuclear plants coming up, sharing of information will be of critical importance. Government cannot give the excuse of “strategic affairs” with the new plants as they are meant for power generation only. India will also be using new nuclear technology brought in by various companies. A safety plan will be ineffective if we do not have complete information on the power plants.

The Japan nuclear crisis has further emphasised that foolproof scrutiny of nuclear plants in totality is vital. For example, the reactor in crisis in Fukushima Daiichi plant did not simulate a scenario of failure of the back-up power supply to the reactor, even though it is situated in tsunami-prone areas. The plant had been in operation since 1971.

In October 2010, the former minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office, Prithviraj Chavan, said that the Central government was about to amend the Atomic Energy Act. This was because India was already a major player in the global nuclear energy field and regulation of new plants was essential. Not much progress has been made on this front.

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