Kumar Sundaram

Through undermining the liability act and opening up nuclear sector to private players with no experience, Modi government has pushed the country closer to nuclear Bhopals.

It has been 33 years since the horrendous man-made tragedy in Bhopal. The victims/survivors continue to struggle for justice and reparation, for basic decontamination and cleaning, and expanding medical care beyond the arbitrarily-identified ‘victims’. The genetic impact of the Union Carbide gas leak has been revealed in many scientific studies, but these haven’t led to any serious efforts by the Central or state governments. It’s high time India stopped and thought – are we ready to deal with a serious nuclear accident?

Among the first things the Narendra Modi government did after coming to power was to scrap the National Disaster Management Authority. However, it is yet to come up with a better way to respond to calamities and their human consequences.

Preventing and responding to a nuclear accident goes far beyond setting up a new bureaucratic behemoth. Contrary to reassurances given by nuclear engineers and industry insiders, nuclear safety is about much more than just design safety.

Irreversible and wide-ranging consequences

When planning for the consequences of a nuclear accident, it must be remembered that the fallout is long-term, irreversible, genetic, and essentially, unrestrained in time and space.

Nuclear enthusiasts like to compare accident scenarios to car accidents or industrial accidents. But they forget that even though the immediate physical damage and number of casualties might be greater, reconstruction and relief can start immediately.

Also read: Nuclear power: can India keep its tall promises

But that’s not true of a nuclear accident scenario. Even after three decades, the 30-kilometre zone around Chernobyl hosts ghost cities like Pripyat, which would remain uninhabitable for the coming centuries. Similarly, in the Fukushima zone, once-bustling cities like Namie and Futaba are now frozen in time. Radiation levels remain dangerously hight. Even in a technologically-advanced country like Japan, the accident has remained insurmountable.

The corporation operating the reactor – the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCo) – has been found making every effort to underplay the accident, minimising responsibility by under-counting the victims, and virtually blackmailing the authorities to let it off the hook by threatening to disrupt electricity in Tokyo. TEPCo is too big to fail, and the political system in Japan has rushed to save it at the tax-payers’ expense.

More than 200,000 people continue to be displaced in Japan, leading to societal and psychological break-downs.

Safety checklist

So just what all does a country need to ensure nuclear safety? Here’s a checklist:

  • Design safety of the power plant
  • Credible safety culture
  • Independent regulator
  • Responsive and reliable civic administration
  • People-centric liability mechanism to provide an adequate response

India is found wanting on all these counts, making a potential nuclear accident a clear and present nightmare.

Regulatory nightmare

The Indian nuclear industry is completely non-transparent and unaccountable. Operating directly under the Prime Minister’s Office, it enjoys complete insulation from public and democratic scrutiny.

Serious RTI queries are routinely rejected by deploying the vintage 1962 Atomic Energy Act, evoking a ‘national security’ clause. This is despite the fact that the civilian sector was separated after the watershed moment, the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.

In the course of the movement against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) refused to part with basic documents like the Site Selection Report and the Safety Assessment Report, which are put in public domain all over the world. The Chief Information Commissioner wrote a letter to the PM but even that didn’t work.

Nuclear safety regulation is another Achilles heel. The nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, is supposed to monitor and supervise the Atomic Energy Commission. But it depends on the Commission for funds and human resources. Imagine how toothless and dependent that makes the regulator.

The last time the AERB chairman, Dr AK Gopalakrishnan, ordered a thorough safety audit of the entire sector, the report was shelved, with the Central government putting a ‘top secret’ stamp on it. Gopalakrishan has been a vocal advocate of a strong and independent regulator since then, and has proposed a moratorium on imported nuclear power plants till then.

Consider this: the government chose to set aside the post-Fukushima recommendtions of even this weak regulator in trying to get a green signal for Kudankulam in the Supreme Court. The AERB was forced to file an affidavit and call its own stipulations ‘advisory’ and not ‘mandatory’.

Design and evacuation

Still not convinced that we’re sitting on an apocalypse? Here’s another tidbit for your consideration: India is setting up six European Pressurised Reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, with the help of the French. But the French regulator itself has raised serious objections on the design.

The government’s reassurances of adequate evacuation and post-accident plans ring hollow because all Indian nuclear facilities are surrounded by dense populations, that have only grown and will continue to grow in time.

In most cases, the Department of Atomic Energy doesn’t even reveal the emergency preparation arrangement. And when it does, it comes up with ridiculous plans like relocating 50,000 people to a school premises. The mandatory emergency drills before commissioning reactors have turned out to be cruel jokes, with absurd instances like local officials ‘evacuating’ a few hundred people in buses by taking them to nearby villages.

Liability and compensation

On the issue of liability and compensation, the government has shown scant regard to potential victims. Safeguarding the foreign suppliers from any liability has been a paramount concern.

Nothing could be more absurd and ironic than the fact that since the inception of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010, the government has been busy finding a way to address the concerns of the foreign suppliers, who want complete indemnification.

The clause 17(b), holding suppliers liable, albeit with severe limitations, was introduced under parliamentary and civil society pressure by a reluctant Manmohan Singh. But the Modi governmentt has dumped the earlier BJP position on nuclear liability, and tried to create an insurance pool to channel the liability back to the exchequer, thus undermining the law.

As with Bhopal, in the case of a nuclear accident, the government would be unable to provide any relief for victims, especially as the main victims would be adivasis and villagers far away from the public gaze.

And now, a nuclear ‘make in India’: recipe for disaster

In its zeal to expand nuclear power rapidly, the Modi government amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, allowing private players a bigger role in contracting nuclear-construction for the first time. This year, Reliance Infrastructure bagged contracts for construction of the next two units of reactors in Koodankulam. Similarly in Jaitapur, the new twist in the declaration is the “maximum localization” of the project and “technology transfer” for the same. Although the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have proudly included these new terms and added a “Make in India” tag on the Jaitapur project, it actually means that the French industry would be transferring the burden of its most controversial reactor design at a time of its worst crisis.

The safety vulnerabilities of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) – the huge iron core where radioactive fission takes place – came under serious questions, raised by France’s own nuclear safety regulator Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) in April 2015. Later in 2015, Areva, the French reactor builder, had to ask the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend certification review for EPR design. The United States has been postponing certification for EPR since 2007. The Finnish regulator has taken Areva to court on this issue, and Finland has canceled the order for its second EPR. Just two days after the publication of ASN’s report, Modi reaffirmed the EPR deal from France during his visit to Paris in April 2015. It is exactly this controversial component – the RPV – that an Indian private company L&T will now be building, with no experience in the nuclear sector at all.

Labeling nuclear projects ‘make in India’ is nothing but a dangerously pervert way of rehabilitating the foreign nuclear corporations who are moving away from nuclear business and increasingly want Indian companies to share the burden as well as blame for the designs developed by them which have come under strong criticism for being unsafe.

Most recently, India’s former nuclear regulator has warned against expansion of nuclear power projects in the current situation and has demanded an immediate moratorium on building new nuclear reactors.

In the light of India’s vulnerability, the  anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy should be a moment to recognise that, in general, our administrative and political system can only be relied on to be totally inefficient and unaccountable.