No margin for error
The government is suppressing citizens' rights and demonising nuclear critics in its bid to promote nuclear plants like Koodankulam. Praful Bidwai writes.Updated: Jun 04, 2012, 21:30 IST
When it comes to thrusting nuclear power down the throats of unwilling people, official India sets a record of violations of dignity and rights that is embarrassing. Which other government but India's maligns all anti-nuclear protesters as foreign-inspired and lacking any agency? Where else would the police file 107 FIRs against 55,795 peaceful anti-nuclear protesters, but at Koodankulam, charging 6,800 with "sedition" and "waging war against the State"? And which other government has asked a psychiatric institution, in this case, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (Nimhans), to "counsel" people and convince them that the project, despite the hazards, is good for them?
To its discredit, Nimhans despatched psychiatrists to Koodankulam to "get a peek into the protesters' minds" and help these insane people to "understand the importance" of the plant. According to reports quoting its director, Nimhans has "commenced the collection of primary data" and is now seeking "field reactions" to write "multiple strategies" to address "the problem" (the opposition to nuclear power). Such opposition is thus equated with schizophrenia, fear of sexual intimacy, paranoia or craving for victimhood, to be cured by drastic means. By this criterion, more than 80% of the people of Japan, Germany, France and Russia - who oppose new nuclear plants - must be considered abnormal.
However, five in under 15,000 reactor-years of operation worldwide hitherto translates into one meltdown every eight years in one of the globe's 400-odd reactors. The question is if humanity can afford any meltdowns, with their destructive consequences, for multiple generations. There's no reason why a meltdown would cause in India fewer than the 34,000-70,000 cancer deaths estimated conservatively from Chernobyl. According to a study, a single meltdown would cost Germany the equivalent of twice its GDP. The damage in India would be similar.
Leaving aside accident probability, it's not remotely irrational to regard nuclear power as inherently irredeemably hazardous, and nuclear plants or uranium mines as bad neighbours which can cause damage. Fear of and loathing for nuclear power is shared by millions worldwide. Their numbers have grown exponentially after Fukushima. Indeed, it couldn't have been otherwise.
If anything, then, the really delusion-prone people are on the other side, in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). The day the Fukushima crisis took a turn for the worse last year, with hydrogen explosions ripping through three reactors, DAE secretary Sreekumar Banerjee said the blasts were "purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency …". NPCIL chairman SK Jain went one better: "There is no nuclear accident….It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme …"
The explosions were chemical reactions. But the very presence of hydrogen indicated severe nuclear fuel damage. The explosions further ruptured plant structures, aggravating the three meltdowns and releasing huge quantities of radiation. The leaks were at least two-and-a-half times greater than earlier feared, and the quantity of caesium-137 released was officially estimated at 160 times that from Hiroshima.
The government fails to comprehend the cardinal truth that after Fukushima, the safety of inherently hazardous nuclear power can no longer be analysed from the usual "expert" perspective of what's likely, but must consider what seems impossible within conventional frameworks. As the official German Ethics Commission on nuclear safety recently said, after Fukushima, the perception of nuclear risks has changed decisively: "More people have come to realise that the risk of a major accident is not just hypothetical, but that such major accidents can indeed occur."
Fukushima occurred in an industrially advanced country, still hasn't been brought under control, and exposed the limitations of the technological risk-assessment methods used by the nuclear industry. Says the Ethics Commission: Fukushima "has shaken people's confidence in experts' assessments of the 'safety' of nuclear power stations. … [They] are no longer prepared to leave it to committees of experts to decide how to deal with the fundamental possibility of an uncontrollable, major accident."
Our nuclear "experts" regurgit-ate clichés about safety and the Rus-sian reactors' "superior design". But they don't have access to the full design. The government has misled on Koodankulam. In September, it suspended work until people's safety concerns were allayed by an official "expert group". This manifestly failed. The group refused even to meet the independent scientists nominated by the People's Movement Against Nuc-lear Energy, or answer their queries.
Koodankulam raises safety issues both specific to the site, and generic nuclear hazards. The reactors haven't been certified safe by independent agencies. A recent report by Russian nuclear safety experts says Russian reactors are under-prepared for natural and man-made disasters and have 31 "serious flaws", including absence of regulations to deal with contingencies; inadequate protective shelters; lack of records of previous accidents, and poor attention to electrical and safety-significant systems. The earthquake hazard isn't considered in designing Russian reactors.
The site-specific issues include the plant's impact on people and fisheries, lack of secure waste storage, and vulnerability to tsunamis caused by massive agglomerations of loosely-bound seabed sediments, volcanic eruptions, and geological and hydrological instability. Koodankulam is probably the world's sole nuclear plant with no independent freshwater supply.
The NPCIL is rushing to commission Koodankulam while bypassing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board safety procedures, like an emergency evacuation drill in a 16-km radius before fuel-loading, and the stipulation that there must be zero population within a 1.5-km radius, and only a sparse population within a 5-km radius. The NPCIL must be stopped.
Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist
The views expressed by the author are personal