Nuclear power & democracy

(Courtesy: The International News)

Praful Bidwai

India’s leading political commentator and environmental activist, is associated with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP)

So cocksure is India’s super-arrogant nuclear establishment of its infallibility that it brands its critics insane and in need of psychiatric treatment. It has prevailed upon the state-run National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) to “counsel” the tens of thousands of people protesting against the Koodankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu that it’s perfectly safe.

This marks a new offensive to thrust nuclear power generation down the throats of people who have resisted Koodankulam’s Russian-made reactors since 1988. The presumption that fears about nuclear hazards must be seen as irrational even after Fukushima betrays delusional insensitivity. Equally sickening, the police has filed 107 FIRs against an incredible 55,795 people in Koodankulam, charging 6,800 of them with “sedition” and “waging war against the state”. This sets a new record in harassment of popular protests anywhere. Such charges violate the Constitutional right to peaceful protest. Leave alone sedition, there hasn’t been one violent incident during the seven-months-long Koodankulam protests.

Yet, NIMHANS dispatched psychiatrists to Koodankulam to help people “understand the importance of the nuclear power plant”. It has debased itself by treating opposition to nuclear power as a “problem”: a disorder like schizophrenia, paranoia, or craving for victimhood. But the nuclear danger is real, not imaginary. By NIMHANS’s criteria, more than 80 percent of the population of Japan, Germany, France and Russia, which opposes new nuclear plants according to opinion polls, must also be considered insane, paranoid and otherwise abnormal. As a research and medical-care institution, NIMHANS shouldn’t act as a nuclear propaganda agency. It owes Koodankulam’s people an apology.

NIMHANS, like the Tamil Nadu police, seems to have taken its cue from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He attributed the Koodankulam protests to the “foreign hand”. But the real “foreign hand” is Singh himself, who is hitching India’s energy trajectory to imported reactors, including French reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, and American reactors at Mithi Virdi in Gujarat and Kovvada in Andhra. The cardinal truth is that after Fukushima, the safety of nuclear power, an inherently hazardous technology, can no longer be analysed from the usual “expert” perspective of what’s likely, but must be treated outside the conventional frameworks.

As the official German Ethics Commission on safe energy says, after Fukushima, perceptions of nuclear risks have changed decisively: “More people have come to realise” that the risks are “not just hypothetical, but… major accidents can indeed occur.” These have enormous consequences. As physicist Alvin Weinberg said: “A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere”. Fukushima occurred in an industrially advanced country, still hasn’t been brought under control, and exposes the imitations of the global nuclear industry’s technological risk-assessment methods. Says the Ethics Commission: Fukushima “has shaken people’s confidence in experts’ assessments. … [They] are no longer prepared to leave it to … experts to decide how to deal with the fundamental possibility of an uncontrollable, major accident.”

This applies to India too – the more because the Department of Atomic Energy has a poor safety culture and record. DAE “experts” parrot clichés about the Russian reactors’ safety. But they don’t even have full access to their design. It’s the DAE and Nuclear Power Corporation bosses, not the protesters, who are delusional. The day the Fukushima crisis decisively turned for the worse with hydrogen explosions, DAE secretary Sreekumar Banerjee said the blasts were “purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency …”. NPC chairman S K Jain went one better: “There is no nuclear accident…. It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme …”

Of course, the explosions were chemical reactions. But the presence of the hydrogen indicated severe nuclear damage. The explosions further ruptured plant structures, aggravating the nuclear emergency with three reactor-core meltdowns. The government has all along lied and deceived on Koodankulam. In September, it suspended work there until people’s safety concerns are fully allayed by a 15-member official “expert group”. This manifestly failed to convince anyone. It refused to furnish the Environmental Impact Assessment, Safety Analysis and Site Evaluation reports. It refused even to meet the independent scientists nominated by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), or answer their many thoughtful queries.

Koodankulam raises two sets of safety issues: some specific to the reactors’ design and the site, and others concerning nuclear power’s generic hazards. The reactors haven’t been certified safe by an independent international or Indian regulatory agency. Indeed, such an agency doesn’t exist in India. Further, a recent report by Russian nuclear safety experts on Russian rectors contains shocking disclosures that they are grievously under-prepared for natural or man-made disasters. ( Russian reactors are marked by 31 “serious flaws”, including: absence of regulations to deal with contingencies; inadequate protective shelters; lack of records of previous accidents, which would enable learning from past mistakes; and poor attention to electrical and safety-significant systems.

The report questions the reactors’ ability to remain safe long enough if cooling systems fail. Also, key equipment in the cooling process suffers from metal fatigue and welding flaws. Russian reactors are vulnerable to Fukushima-type hydrogen explosions. Most important, the earthquake hazard isn’t considered in designing Russian reactors. Not all have earthquake-triggered automatic shutdown mechanisms. There are serious site-specific issues too, including impact on people and fisheries, and inadequacy of safety systems and waste storage. The site could be vulnerable to tsunamis caused by “slumps” (massive agglomerations of loosely-bound seabed sediments), proneness to small-volume volcanic eruptions, and geological and hydrological instability.

Koodankulam is probably the world’s sole nuclear plant without independent freshwater supply. The desalination plant, on which it will fully depend, could fail mechanically. These issues were highlighted in an impressive 84-page scientific report by PMANE’s independent experts. The official committee hasn’t answered any of them. The NPC is now bypassing the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board safety procedures. It’s rushing into starting the first reactor, which gathered rust for five months. Prior to nuclear-fuel loading, it should be put through another “hot run”, similar to last year’s, says former AERB chairman A Gopalakrishnan. In this operation, the core is loaded with dummy fuel and hot water is circulated through it at the same temperature as its operating level to check its vessels, piping, valves, etc.

The AERB also mandates an emergency evacuation drill in the Emergency Planning Zone covering a 16-km radius, before fuel loading. Nothing suggests that NPCIL will conduct the drill. Koodankulam violates the stipulation that there must be zero population within a 1.5-km radius, and only a sparse population within a 5-km radius. Several thousands live in the 1.5-km radius. At least 40,000 people live within a 5-km radius, and 100,000 in the EPZ.

The generic hazards of nuclear power include radiation at each stage, from uranium mining fuel fabrication, reactor operation and maintenance, to waste handling and storage. Cancer-causing radiation is harmful in all doses. Routine emissions from reactors also pose grave hazards. Even graver is the problem of nuclear wastes, which remain hazardous for thousands of years. Science knows no safe way of storing, let alone neutralising, them. Nuclear power is the only form of energy production with a potential for catastrophic accidents like Fukushima. These problems make nuclear power uniquely, irredeemably, hazardous. Koodankulam concentrates these hazards, dangerously. It must be scrapped.

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