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 and news-paper editorials over the past few weeks. 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 [as we go to press] 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 which 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 faced their wrath (the magazine I edit, Down To Earth, has been 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 proper scrutiny of the plant and its safety provisions. Activists from the region will tell you that the EIA [environmental impact assessment] 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. [See box on page 105.] The first plant is being commissioned to the 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 the 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?
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