P K sundaram

Just when the French Ambasador was speaking in New Delhi yesterday about the transparency, democracy and people-friendliness of the French nuclear industry, the police in Maharashtra were  hounding the thousands of farmers who had assembled peacefully to protest the forcible land acquisition for the French EPR reactors in Jaitapur. The majority of the farmers have refused to accept compensation cheques.

While the French Ambassador Francois Richier offered democratic control and grassroots dialogue as essential measures of building trust with people in order to do business, Arthur de Montalembert, the CMD of Areva India Limited showcased a 2-minute video on multiple safety systems in the EPR design. Of course, both made no mention of the fact that quite recently the Nuclear Regulatory Commission(NRC) in the US has delayed safety certification for Areva’s EPR, postponing it to the end of 2014. This delay has happened due to ‘outstanding issues‘  This is not the first time this certification has been delayed. Last January, it was extended up to Feb 2013. More than double time and cost over-runs in Areva’s EPR in Olkiluoto have led Finland to think of an alternative to nuclear.  TVO, the Finnish regulator, has started a series of litigations against Areva.

But India’s own State Minister in the PMO, who has been the govt’s chief negotiator with the Koodankulam movement, was all praise for the animation video. He reassured, on the basis of his self-confessed enhanced technical knowledge thanks to the DAE scientists’ briefings, that the Generation 3+ reactors like Areva’s EPR and Atomsroyexport’s VVER were an example of advanced technology that would bring nothing but benefits. Mr. V Narayanswamy also claimed that Indian nuclear industry has had no nuclear accidents so far in its 40 years of operation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came out with the same claim last month, but here is a reality-check that stared him in face. Mr. Narayanswamy also offered thunderous diatribes against American-funded NGOs misleading innocent people in Koodankulam, something for which his boss is facing a defamation suit. Whenever the safety of Koodankulam and other reactors are raised, all we get to hear is that the Generation 3/3+ reactors  can take care of all the eventualities that the next hundreds of generations would face or can think of.

Dr. Surendra Gadekar, replying to such an earlier claim by Dr. M R Srinivasan had written something which deserves to be quoted here at length:

By this method of reckoning, the Tarapur units belong to the zeroeth generation of design evolution, since they are older than the ones at Fukushima, and since by implication Dr Srinivasan seems to suggest that higher the generation, the safer it is, he should at the same time have suggested the richly deserved retirement of these old reactors after long years of service.

Nucleocrats love to point out the large number of “independent” redundant safety systems they employ to ensure safety. However, all reactors have these redundant safety systems that unfortunately turn out to be not so independent at crucial times. Did Fukushima reactors not have them? Yet all three out of three working reactors failed, besides the spent fuel part of reactor 4 which was not even operating when the earthquake struck. Similarly, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactors had no dearth of redundant safety systems that all comprehensively failed when needed.

What all nucleocrats badly need is a compulsory reading of Charles Perrot’s wonderful book, “Normal Accidents”, where he shows that greater redundancy does not necessarily lead to greater safety and can sometimes be the cause of lesser overall safety.

The higher one physically sets the safety system, the greater the chances that it would be affected by the earthquake and the lower one keeps it the greater the chances that the tsunami will get it. Since following Fukushima, attention is concentrated on tsunami as the main cause, higher physical elevation is in the vogue. Old generals too have this habit of fighting the last war. Unfortunately, nuclear technology is an unforgiving technology and a wrong guess is likely to prove fatal to local occupants. Armchair analysts are safe either way.”

The occasion for these high proclamations was an international conference organised by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM)’s Nuclear Energy Group (NEG). The NEG was set up as “an Expert Committee for the industry to promote Technology, Trade and Commerce of Civil Nuclear Energy in India.”  The NEG is chaired by G. R. Srinivasan, Former Vice Chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). In case of Japan, the close linkages of nuclear regulators and the industry, known as the “nuclear village” was held responsible for complacency in Fukushima by none other than its Ex-PM, Mr Naoto Kan as well as an independent investigative committee. But nobody takes conflicts of interests seriously in India when it comes to nuclear, neither other things like transparency, accountability and democracy. Even in the US, the NRC has been criticized often for being too close to the industry.

There was no response in the conference hall when Greenpeace India’s Samit Aich reminded the audience about more than 55,000 people facing serious criminal charges in Koodankulam , including sedition and war against the Indian State – all just for entirely peaceful protests.  Not a single case of violence has taken place in Koodankulam, but the sedition charges are biggest in the region, perhaps second only to Kashmir. The govt last month employed psychiatrists of NIMHANS to counsel the protesters, despite the fact that a recent BBC-GlobeScan survey,  conducted on 23,231 people in 23 countries, has shown that the public opposition to nuclear energy has toucedh an unprecedented high of 71%. In Germany its 90%, in Areva’s France it is 83%. NIMHANS could probably find a skill-outsourcing opportunity here.

A Senior Scientist currently with the AERB also spoke in the conference about the independence of India’s nuclear regulator which reports to the Atomic Energy Commission itself and is dependent of the nuclear establishment for its funds as well as technical and human resources. She termed the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA), under discussion in the Indian Parliament for establishing an independent regulator, just a formality, as the AERB is already independent by all means and it was just its reporting to the AEC that came under question abroad every time ! However, Dr. A Gopalakrishnan, the former AERB Chairman, has his own stories of comprehensive safety reports being shelved after being labeled ‘top secret’ and even the proposed NSRA being nowhere close to independent in real sense of the term.

Yours truly was also present in the above mentioned conference in New Delhi as an audience, thanks to the organiser’s generous waiving of the Rs. 2000 entry-fee on request.  In the first session when the Minister, the Ambassador and the Areva India CMD spoke, only 2-3 questions from the floor were allowed and my raised hand couldn’t get the opportunity. In the second session (in between, there was a ‘networking tea’ and the conference ended with a ‘networking lunch’), NDTV’s Science Correspondent Pallav Bagla who was conducting the session thanfully allowed me to ask questions. Twice. In response to my first question as to why the NPCIL has denied sharing the Koodankulam Safety Assessment Report (SAR) with the public despite orders of the Central Information Commissioner, and why the nuclear industry wants to be exempted from the Right to Information, as suggested by amendments sought in the RTI Act under the NSRA Bill, Dr. Sreekumar Bannerjee, recently retired from Chairmanship of the Dept. of Atomic Energy (DAE) denied that NSRA has sought any killer amendments in the RTI Act ! On the Koodankulam SAR question, he said that the document pertains to design secrets of the Russian company Atomsroyexport and hence cannot be made public.

This led to some debate and several other people from the audience asked questions. In the end Pallav again gave me a chance to ask a question (I had earlier told him I have one short question each for every speaker) and I asked AERB’s Rita Rani Malhotra about Dr. Gopalakrishnan’s missingsafety audit reports, and she replied she cannot comment on any individual’s remarks. When I was asking the second question, a person his way upto my seat with difficulty and clicked his camera right in my front. I consider this was routine.

Meanwhile, some progress has been reported in the joint India-US efforts to circumvent nuclear liability. This would pave way for building AP1000 reactors in Mithivirdi in Gujarat. As Sam Tranum (Kolkata-based journalist specializing in energy issues) has pointed out, this is still “an agreement to negotiate an agreement”. Undermining of a liability provision passed by the Indian parliament after prolonged discussions and protests would not be so easy after all. Its not for nothing, that our political and business leaders alike often can’t hide their longing for China’s model of decision making, notwithstanding all their jingoist fervor.