Author
Dr. E.A.S.Sarma
Former Secretary (Power), Govt. of India
Former Adviser (Energy), Planning Commission

Letter to Shri Abdul Kalam, Former President of India

Dear Shri Abdul Kalam,

I refer to your highly reassuring article in The Hindu today on the safety of nuclear power. I understand that you even went to the extent of assuring the people of Kudankulam that nuclear power is “100% safe”. Though my knowledge of statistics is rather rudimentary, I wonder how one can make such a resounding assertion, especially when anyone with some semblance of familiarity with the technology would hesitaste to assert like that!

My native place is Srikakulam in A.P. Quite close to my place, at Kovvada, Nuclear Power Corporation of India ltd. (NPCIL) proposes to set up a fairly large nuclear power plant complex. I have many genuine apprehensions about the safety of nuclear power. Now that it is coming in my back yard, my apprehensions have multiplied considerably. Such apprehensions are natural for one who is at the receiving end of such a technology, though, for those who pen articles at a distance, those apprehensions may sound like “comic bookish imagination”.

I understand that NPCIL has adopted a zoning system around nuclear power plants to caution the people residing in the area surrounding the plant site. I understand that the “exclusion”, “sterilised” and “emergency monitoring” zones extend up to 16 kilometers from the rim of the site. My family at Srikakulam is yet to be told about this! Perhaps, NPCIL is waiting to complete the plant before announcing this to the people at the receiving end! Your article, of course, is diplomatically silent on this. NPCIL may not like to get such trivial facts highlighted!

Knowing your stature, I have gone through your article with a great deal of care to understand how safe I am in the immediate vicinity of Kovvada “nuclear park”, as it is how NPCIL calls it to make it look “clean” and “green”.

At one place, you were kind enough to have made the following assertion.

“Another argument which surrounds the nuclear debate is that nuclear accidents and the radiation fallout as the aftermath would not only harm the exposed generation but also continue to impact generations to come. If available facts and scientific inquiry was given more weightage than mere conjectures and comic-bookish imagination, this argument will in all probability be proved a myth”

You must have scanned the whole gamut of scientific literature on this subject before making such a statement. I am sure you have done it. I agree with you that scientific enquiry should be given more weightage, than impressions and conjectures. On reading every sentence of the article, I could not but help zeroing in on the following concerns that still rankle my mind.

  1.  When you brushed aside the safety concerns about nuclear technology as mere conjectures, did you make an effort to ask the nuclear establishment whether NPCIL had ever carried out a reliability engineering study of each existing nuclear power plant to estimate the compound probability of an accident taking place as a result of a mechanical failure arising from the failure of individual components? If this has not done, can you jump to the conclusion that the probability of an accident is negligible, merely on the basis of your own appreciation of the number of accidents that have taken place during the last few decades? Is not such a conclusion statistically infirm, as it is based on a highly constrained sample that could lead to a misleading estimate?
  2. You have thankfully admitted that there is some correlation between radiation exposure and cancer risk. However, you have underplayed the possible long-term adverse impact of radioactivity on human health, especially on the human cells. Did you, by any chance, make a comprehensive survey of the available scientific literature on this subject? Can you confidently deny the fact that there are wide gaps in scientific knowledge on the likely impact of both low-intensity and high-intensity radiation on the human health, including the genetic effects? By way of an example, I have enclosed an article on the possible effect on human cells, of even low-intensity radiation, that appeared in The Hindu sometime ago, just as your own article has appeared in that esteemed news paper. I hope you have gone through the scientific literature carefully before making assertions on the health impacts.
  3. While going eloquent on the positive aspects about nuclear technology, you did not fully cover its negative aspects. I can appreciate the reasons for this. In the case of many technologies, the technology establishments, in their anxiety to push through their technologies, tend to underplay the costs but overplay the benefits. In public policy, one should necessarily remain wary of this.
  4. Did you make an effort to find out the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant on the basis of the plants, if any, decommissioned so far? Since you have talked about the “opportunity costs”, did you also make an effort to estimate the cost of managing the accummulating radioactive waste in the long run? Are you aware that these costs are difficult to quantify? The cost of decommissioning Chernobyl will never be known, as it can never be decommissioned. With foreign financial help, Russians are building a sarcophagus around the contaminated Chernobyl reactors! Till date, the cost of Fukushima is not known.
  5. You have talked about the links between energy and economy. I hesitate to question your wisdom on this. However, I am not sure whether you are aware of the impact of efficiency improvements, demand management and other measures on the link between energy and economic development. I wish you had the opportunity of interacting with Prof Amulya Reddy of IISc on this subject, when he was alive. I would strongly advise you to read “Soft Energy Paths: Toward a durable peace” by Amory B Lovins Penguin Books (1977). I benefitted a great deal by reading that thought-provoking work.

Shri Kalam, I write this letter with the intention of placing my genuine human concerns, not to find fault with your article in any manner. You are a highly erudite writer. But, to a person placed in my position or to the people living in the vicinity of the existing nuclear power plants, what matters are not articles based on pre-conceived notions but scientifically substantiated logic. I am afraid that your article raises more questions than answers!

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E.A.S.Sarma

Former Secretary (Power), GOI

Former Adviser (Energy), Planning Commission

Visakhapatnam

6-11-11