Sham safety regulation, ill-thought expansion plans: former regulator cautions on India’s nuclear anachronism

We are re-publishing the article that the former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board(AERB) wrote recently for The Citizen website, warning us of the potential risks of the massive nuclear expansion that India is conducting, without taking lessons from the Fukushima disaster. 

Dr. A Gopalakrishnan

The Fukushima accident in Japan in March 2011, led to dramatic course-corrections in various countries having nuclear power plants. India has merely carried out a cursory walk-through inspection of its plants and projects under construction and is still continuing on with an accelerated program to add on more large-scale nuclear units. This approach does not make any sense from the economic, safety, or social and environmental impact point of view. Therefore, it is essential that these plans are halted immediately and seriously re-evaluated with the participation of a wider set of non-governmental experts.

Post-Fukushima Actions by others

Immediately after Fukushima, eight of seventeen functioning nuclear plants in Germany were shut down, and in June 2011, that nation decided to establish a timeline for shutting down all their remaining plants by 2022. In 2010, Germany’s electricity mix had 23% nuclear and 17% renewables; in 2014, it had beenaltered to 16% nuclear and 28% renewables.

In May 2015, France’s lower house of Parliament approved a Bill aiming to reduce France’s dependency on nuclear power from the current 75% to 50% by 2025. The new Bill also fixes the goal of increasing the proportion of renewables in French electricity production to 40% by 2030 .

Nuclear Power Plans and UPA commitments

Till very recently, the Indian target for installed nuclear power was 63,000 MWe by 2032, of which 40,000 MWe was to be generated from imported foreign reactors. This figure was developed during the later stages of the India-US Nuclear Deal to justify that, unless these reactors are imported through this Deal and an indigenous fast breeder reactor program is linked to it, India’s electricity needs of 2050 and beyond cannot be met. But this conclusion was not reached on the basis of any studies on electricity needs. Rather, this convoluted argument was presented by the UPA government to justify the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, in course of which the UPA government by then had already committed to the US, France and Russia, without informing our Parliament, that India shall purchase at least 10,000 MWe worth reactors from each of them as a quid pro quo for their support at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) in getting the India-specific concessions agreed to by them.

Thus, today’s NDA government can project an apparent claim that the path to a large growth rate in Indian nuclear power was handed down to them as a fait accompli by the UPA government through formalized agreements and understandings with foreign governments, and that the tenets of foreign policy dictate that today’s NDA government has no other option but to follow through in the UPA path. But, this argument is incorrect when one examines the details of this policy.

US acted in bad faith after India signed the Deal

I would hasten to add that the NDA government need not feign such helplessness and feel tied down by the UPA’s hasty commitments of the past. The Indo-US Deal was not based solely on an one-sided commitment to buy certain minimum number of costly reactors from the US, France, and Russia. Rather, through the Indo-US 123 Agreement, there is a return binding commitment from the US that, once the Deal is cleared, the associated Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) clearance will enable India to access allnuclear technologies from developed countries on mutually agreeable commercial terms. This was promised by the UPA Prime Minister, more than once, to our Parliament , based on US assurances. Since India is badly in need of technology and equipment imports for use in civilian nuclear enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing for plutonium extraction (ENR Technologies), the UPA government might have considered that the entering into the nuclear Deal can eventually be explained to the Parliament & the people of India as a ‘balanced’, mutually beneficial set of commitments. But, after the Nuclear Deal was signed and sealed, the Indian establishment was appalled to find the US government , within the next two months itself , actively ensuring through the NSG to modify their policy, so that thenceforth ENR transfers can be allowed only to countries who are members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have accepted Full-scope IAEA Safeguards. India is not and never intends to be a NPT member, and being a nuclear weapons-State, can never come under IAEA full-scope safeguards as well. Thus, this was an intentional act in bad faith by the US solely to deny ENR technologies specifically to India .Though the UPA government made some feeble complaints about this to the US State Dept. no redressal was forthcoming. Therefore, in my view, there is a strong case to renege our commitments to purchase imported reactors and compel the NSG and the developed countries to reverse the present ban on ENR technology sales to India. An excellent article on this entire ENR denial has been published by Siddharth Varadarajan, which will give more insight into the matter. I urge the government to take up the issue with the US government and initiate a correction of the wrong done to India.

Transparency in Civilian Nuclear Matters

There is a statement under the title ‘Quest for Transparency’ in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) website, which says “Prime Minister Narendra Modi firmly believes that transparency and accountability are the two cornerstones of any pro-people government. Transparency and accountability not only connect the people closer to the government but also make them equal and integral part of the decision making process”. This is quite a laudable policy, if it can also be seen to be implemented uniformly and is not merely put up in the PMO website for its rhetoric value.

Sadly , the promised transparency is not visible in the case of the Kudankulam reactor (Unit-1), which is a civilian reactor under IAEA safeguards. A very large amount of public funds have been spent on this reactor, with very little benefit accrued to the people in return. The reactor is known to have suffered continuous and unprecedented problems during the construction, erection and commissioning phases as well as during the present initial operation period till date. Instead of being callous and aloof, the least one expects from public institutions like the NPCIL and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is an honest explanation of the obviously serious problems and their origin. Through various open articles, I myself had brought out the shortcomings in material procurement for Kudankulam units and the associated suspicion of corruption, the Supreme Court Directives on ensuring safety in the Kudankulam plant, on mistakes made by Indian contractors in electrical & communication cable selection and their routing, etc.

There had been no reactions to my specific criticism of the plant activities from the NPCIL or the AERB. It has been a regular practice of both the governments to term all persons who criticize the nuclear power program as anti-nationals or foreign agents without any proof. “It looks to us as a very well-designed agenda for them, whoever is funding them, to stall or delay the development of our country” is what our new Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission is reported to have recently said. In Kudankulam, doubts still persist about serious deficiencies and corruption during the procurement phase ; use of Indian subcontractors and corporates inexperienced in VVER erection and commissioning because of their long-term close association and dealings with NPCIL, DAE, and AERB ; and the simultaneous under-utilisation of Russian consultants to save on costs ; absence or shortcomings in independent third-party quality assurance of bought-out critical equipment and components, etc.

Though such transparency which the PM desires is generally absent in the nuclear issues, in the Kudankulam case, where strong indications are that there are serious flaws of one kind or other, lack of transparency certainly raises the doubt that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) , NPCIL and AERB together may be hiding some serious deficiencies from the public. This impression needs to be removed by the AERB & NPCIL through honestly answering the doubts and questions raised by the public regarding this plant.

Nuclear Safety Regulation is a mere sham

The AERB as an “independent” safety regulator is more of a myth than reality. In 1999, I was the first person to openly bring out the total lack of independence of the AERB from its masters in the DAE . Ever since I left as Chairman of the AERB in 1996, almost every new Chairman the government has appointed had been a long-standing DAE or NPCIL ex-employee, whose loyalty was almost entirely to the DAE organisations than to the general public. Since then, very scathing criticism about the lack of independence of the AERB has come formally from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), theController and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the JSCOT Committee of the Australian Parliament, etc. In recent years, there was an inadequate Bill presented before the Parliamentary committee for creating an ‘improved’ nuclear safety regulator. But I understand, because of inaction of the government, that Bill has lapsed and a fresh Bill has to be again re-introduced in Parliament. It is high time that the Government considers doing this, after due consultation with experts in this field. Until then, AERB is only seen as subservient to the Government, and their opinions will not carry the weight of credibility or conviction anywhere in the world.

In summary, there are several valid reasons why the nation should not plunge into a rapid expansion of the nuclear power sector without further serious introspection. Firstly, the per MWe capital cost of even the cheapest nuclear plant is about 5-8 times the cost of coal power plants or hydro power stations. In a capital-scarce economy like ours, is it not madness to waste money like this, when tens of high priority social needs of the poor are not addressed because of shortage of funds?

We need to re-examine our minimum electricity needs and cater to it through minimum-cost, reliable and environmentally acceptable generation technologies. Simultaneously, one needs to emphasize conservation of power and improvements in energy efficiency. India being a very large country with an enormous population , we must not have the romantic notion that renewables alone will mostly meet our minimum electricity needs. However , we must tap to the maximum extent Solar and Wind energy , as supplementary sources . We need to limit and tailor our lifestyles, as a caring society, to make the least demand on electricity as a source of power.

At the same time, under the name of a “Make-in-India” approach, solely for cost-reduction of the imported nuclear reactors, some of their equipments and subsystems are going to be made in Indian corporate manufacturing industries, starting with the very first such reactor. But, attempts to minimize costs in a similar manner at the first two Russian reactors in Kudankulam have resulted in very visible problems and serious safety concerns for the plant and the public in the vicinity. We need to pause and modify our “Make-in-India” approach to avoid the pitfalls we are suffering from in Kudankulam.

We need to keep in view that we have in recent times a situation in India where corruption and collusion among some of the administrators, politicians, industrialists and scientists & technologists in decision-making positions may be increasingly influencing high-cost purchase decisions entered into without any independent oversight. This approach could easily result in disastrous consequences in the case of hazardous technologies like nuclear power installations, especially in a nation like ours where nuclear regulatory capture is already a reality and no independent safety regulatory oversight is possible .

It is hard to believe that all those who are pushing hard to accelerate the Indian nuclear power program are doing so in the national interest. Personal and institutional profit motive could also be driving them to do this . Decisions on nuclear power have so far been taken by a small senior & select group within closed doors , stating ‘secrecy’ as necessary from the national security viewpoint. This argument is weak, because we are dealing with the “civilian” nuclear power sector, which is open for scrutiny even by an international body like the IAEA. Therefore, a wider consultation on the future of the Indian nuclear power sector with experts outside the government, eminent economists, environmentalists, sociologists etc. is the imperative of the day. A pause of the current expansion plans and their scrapping or reconsideration will allow the much-needed course correction.

(The author is a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of the Government of India. )

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