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Let's clear the atomic cloud

India's nuclear establishment must be open about its activities to dispel fears.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2012 22:33 IST

Nuclear safety has risen on the global agenda for both man-made and natural reasons. The first is the advent of religious terrorism which, unlike its leftwing and nationalist versions, has shown an interest and expressed a willingness to use nuclear and biological weapons. The second is the Fukushima reactor crisis where an earthquake paired with a tsunami nearly overcame Japan's advanced emergency response capacities. The former was why US President Barack Obama declared early on that locking down the world's fissile materials would be a major goal of America. The latter, along with the present anti-nuclear agitations in India, led Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to order a safety review of the country's civilian nuclear installations and declared nuclear safety to be at the top of his policy agenda.

A new ranking of nations on the basis of their nuclear safety issued by the Nuclear Threat Initiative is a sobering assessment for India. The report ranks India only 28th in a list of 32 countries believed to possess weapons-grade fissile material. There are some obvious flaws in the index that give India a worse rating than perhaps it deserves. The index gives poor marks to countries that actually possess nuclear weapons as opposed to those that have just the potential to build them. Thus the 10 safest countries do not have atomic arsenals. The reason is obvious: military nuclear programmes are automatically untransparent. Countries that are still producing fissile material - such as India, Pakistan and Israel - are also penalised. But these nations are not stockpiling warheads for fun. They live in tough neighbourhoods and are preparing accordingly. It is hard to think of any country that has been as reluctant to go down the path of weaponisation as India.

Nonetheless, India's nuclear establishment needs to not only be conscious of safety but also to be more transparent about its activities. The government has proposed to provide genuine independence of authority to the country's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, a much belated reform and provided briefings on the various reactors it possesses. But far greater openness and more communication by the country's nuclear establishment is required. Because of its special strategic stature, the scientists and bureaucrats who constitute India's nuclear enclave have long felt little need to explain what they do or why they do it. While much nuclear know-how needs to be kept from dangerous eyes, there is much that can be part of the public realm including lots of boilerplate regulations and rules. This is in part to reassure India and the world that India is a responsible nuclear power in terms of international and domestic actions. It is also in part about replacing an elite mystique with an easier public familiarity with things nuclear. Secrecy thwarts some threats but also creates its own. In the long run, safety is not only about action but also about communication. Only that will reduce the incidence of protests like those at Kudankulam and elsewhere.