Nuclear Energy: A Deadly Route

Mallika Sarabhai | The Week

Friday the 26th of July was a red-letter day for many of us. It was the day of the release of the Indian People’s Charter on Nuclear Energy. A clarion call from all of us (and I hope some of you) who truly believe that nuclear power is a deadly route for India to take.

Grassroots movements for a safe energy future have been around for close to two decades. Every time there is a disaster, the calls to stop its proliferation become hoarser. And the deafness of the powers that be, those who have other agenda in seeing nuclear energy grow, becomes more intense, more obtuse.

nuclear-deadly-routeNuclear power accounts for only 3 per cent of our power generation. But the costs incurred and the infrastructure required are too huge to make this a good option, even without considering the glaring problems of substandard equipment, building and all else associated with a facility.

Insiders who have been closely following the government’s moves believe that our aim to increase nuclear power is a thank you to the US for the Indo-US nuclear deal and to other countries which helped get this endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The argument that nuclear energy is indispensable to our growth is dubious and the entire debate needs to be made public, like the debate on Bt brinjal a few years ago.

India’s record of safety in its nuclear facilities (and in all infrastructure from roads to bridges to buildings to airports) has been shameful. Defective vessels, substandard pipes and valves, fires, massive leaks of heavy water and radiation, releases of toxic effluents and nuclear waste dumping leading to thousands of people getting sick are common, and never publicly investigated and rectified.

In addition, ZiO-Podolsk, the Russian company building the Koodankulam reactor, is known for its substandard equipment and fraud. Its director Sergei Shutov was arrested last year and is in jail for fraud and corruption and for supplying defective equipment.

What the charter demands is total transparency in all decisions—financial and scientific—and a separate, independent citizens’ panel that includes social scientists and civil society leaders to assess the appropriateness, desirability, safety, environmental soundness, costs and long-term problems posed by nuclear power generation. Another committee of independent experts would need to be set up to examine the health and environmental aspects. Land acquisition and the concomitant displacement of thousands of people should be put on hold. The power to veto a site must be in the hands of locals. Safety, health and environmental audits must be carried out periodically by independent groups and the information made public. Independent health reviews of workers at the facilities must also be carried out regularly.

The charter also states that in view of failure of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to uphold the tasks set before it, it should be delinked from the department of atomic energy (DAE) and staffed by senior personnel known for their integrity. DAE and Nuclear Power Corporation of India must be brought under the RTI Act, and the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, which allows withholding information and obfuscation, must be replaced. The government must withdraw all cases of sedition and other violations slapped on peaceful protesters, especially those involved in Koodankulam.

While a bridge collapse will kill a few hundred people, a nuclear disaster will destroy hundreds of thousands of lives and live in genes for generations. Bhopal is there for us to see. And yet, we stay silent, as greedy corporations, governments and individuals put us all at risk for profit. At what cost is our non-involvement?

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