Technology is never a guarantee to safety

Anuj Wankhede

Anuj is a Masters in Management Studies, an avid environmentalist who believes that bigger the problem, bigger the opportunity.

He can be reached at benchmark.anuj (at) and 9757475875

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
— Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes

When I repeatedly hear about ’Nuclear Safety’ in India and its track record, I’m a bit perplexed. After all, nuclear safety is an oxymoron.

I have written here refuting these claims and provided documentary proof about the same. It seems to have worked because, earlier, only the PM and the NPCIL were touting “nuclear safety.” Now, his whole office, its staff and even the gardener there seems to toe this line!

In this context, would it not be far better to have a nuclear reactor within the parliament or Rashtrapati Bhavan premises? After all, Delhi is suffering from crippling power cuts. Take the ‘safest form of energy’ and use as much power as you need!!

I know it will not happen, because they know the facts and they will not accept it. In 2010, it was announced with much fanfare that Sansad Bhavan would go “green” with Solar PV panels and biogas plants for backup power. There does not appear to be anything done after that. Not that one expects much, just wishful thinking.

A lot of media attention is focused these days on the German green revolution. The fact is they threw the nuclear option out and opted for a mix of solar, wind and other renewables. What has been less highlighted is the fact that Germany was on the path of solar much before Fukushima happened. Almost since the past five years prior to Fukushima, Germany had changed its Electricity Act and allowed private operators to connect to the grid. They provided subsidies to the private sector investing in renewable energy. And given this policy push, a whole host of companies came forward to take advantages of the tax breaks and the profits. THE INFRASTRUCTURE WAS IN PLACE! In fact, Germany is now slowly taking away the subsidy it gave to set up this infrastructure! Now that things are in place, Germany can well afford to let its nuclear industry wither away, like what is happening with the giant companies like RWE and E.ON. Fukushima was just a tipping point for Germany. The decision had been made years back and had been put in place with typical German precision! Safety, economics, sustainability were all thought about proactively and not post-facto in Germany.

But back in India, let us accept one fact. There has been no such thing as a “Safe India.” That is a moronic thought. Another oxymoron, if you please.

India is a country that sees the highest number of road accidents. Highest number of rail accidents. And the highest number of human lives lost in the whole world each year to these two combined forms of transport. It ought to be shameful. But it is not. We lumber along, slumber on the way, awaken with a start only to hibernate once again. The standard refrain is that of “over population.” Why then, is China not at the top of this list? In fact, China does not come anywhere near the top. Don’t the Chinese travel by roads or trains built in extremely harsh and difficult conditions?

What makes us so spectacularly accident prone? Why are Indians so highly safety averse that in practically every sector, the accident rate is far higher than the worldwide average! Is it genetic predisposition?

Transport in itself is a quasi civilian problem – because drivers drink and drive, the law is lax and enforcement is difficult. Mind you, these are more of excuses, but for the moment we shall let it pass.

Nuclear power is government controlled and regulated (with some portion given out to sub contractors). The technology is from a friendly foreign country and each contract runs into billions of dollars. It requires a whole lot of spares and constant maintenance to run smoothly. These spares and upgrades and maintenance cost another few billions each year. The contracts to buy the technology and the subsequent orders are negotiated between the two governments in private. A lot of diplomatic and economic bargaining is done for each contract. In short, a huge amount is spent on keeping then afloat. They are symbols of progress that show we are indeed an advanced country.

Let me come to my moot point. Obviously, roads and railways cannot be compared with nuclear reactors if we use all the above parameters.

So, let us choose the closest ‘industry’ based on the above parameters – The Indian Air Force. A brilliantly capable organization having even more brilliant officers and pilots who have time and again proven themselves during war and peace.

I am not comparing the two on the merits or demerits of their people. There is another reason to compare them – their similarities with their processes and their tools.

Our leaders hasten to assure us that we have the ‘latest’ nuclear technology, the best brains to run and sustain them and therefore they will NEVER EVER fail.

Well, the same case is made with our fighter jet aircraft.

But a look at the statistics points to a startling fact. The IAF has lost a huge number of its fighter jets, be it the MiGs or Mirages. They are absolutely world class planes, bought after a lot of technical debate and use the very latest technology.
Yet, they crash. Repeatedly.

How is it possible that a fighter jet worth millions of dollars, selected after careful and detailed analysis, flown by the BEST and most capable pilots in the country suddenly crash? And they crash not on an enemy missions but on routine sorties.

The MiG jets are termed as “flying coffins” and “widow makers” among the air force because of the fact that they are prone to crashes.
Every fighter jet is equipped with the latest in technology – termed as “fly by wire.”

On board computers do most of the job of steering the flight on course doing millions of calculations per second. Without this technology, a modern fighter jet would not exist.

Yet, it is this technology which brings down the best of the fighters. Over the past 40 years, India had lost more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft.

The human losses matter, of course, but what is incredible is that the MiG, Mirage and the Sukhoi are considered to be the absolutely the top class military hardware in the world.

The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft ( FGFA ) costs approximately $100 million each. This is only the production cost. Add to it the maintenance and spares cost plus the ground level infrastructure and it turns out to be a whoppingly expensive machine!
As a patriot Indian, I never questioned the fact that our armed forces were ever lesser than God himself. I still don’t. But doubts creep in when I read about the horrific crashes of MiGs and think of the families and institutions behind it. If the IAF can go wrong and select a wrong technology, what is the guarantee that our civil nuclear program is not on the same path?

After every crash, there is an inquiry made about the cause of the accident. Most often, it is brushed aside as pilot error.
Yet, the facts emerge.

More often than not, the cause of the millions of dollars falling out of the sky are design related. Technology related.

A retired Wing Commander said, “As a senior pilot, I have trained several juniors on the MiGs and we have faced problems. But in keeping with the unwritten code of the armed forces, we could never point out shortcomings in the aircraft.”

“It is an established fact that several young IAF pilots lost their lives because they were not willing to eject despite engine flameouts. Nobody ever cares about these factors as the super bosses have their own point to prove – that MiGs are very safe and airworthy,” another officer pointed out sarcastically.

Source –

Faulty design of the fight systems, improper positioning of switches, bad software design and perhaps most importantly overuse caused these jets to crash. Add to this the heavy maintenance cost. One millisecond of error can prove to be fatal when dealing with jets and atomic energy. There is no second chance. The reason to compare India’s nuclear programme with the Air Force Jets is because of the startling similarity between the two.

Russia and France are the pivot of the Indian Air Force as well as India’s nuclear power sector. It is not by coincidence that defence deals go through with France or Russia. The quid pro quo is always that for every defense deal, a civil deal should happen. And some of those deals happen to be Koodankulam (Russia) and Jaitapur (France). Despite knowing that better technology exists, India purchased high cost military hardware from these “friendly” nations, even when some of these purchases were unnecessary and unjustified. The West and Russia have a huge vested interest in fomenting an arms race. They do it with admirable alacrity and also push countries to develop “peaceful” nuclear programs.

Whom does this most benefit? Obviously, Russia and France gain both ways. Sell defence equipment, get involved in a long term partnership for maintaining the hardware, and as a bonus, set up nuclear power plants in India from where the material to manufacture nuclear weapons can come. Make no mistake about it. Far from benign, nuclear power is actually the breeding ground for nuclear weapons. Hence, it is in the keen interests of the US, France and Russia to occupy this space.

Can India, which has invested heavily in the latest technology from Russia and France, explain what happens in the same latest technology when jets made by these countries crash? Whatever the cause of the MiG and Sukhoi crashes, the fact remains that the hundreds of millions of technology wonder did crash.

You may blame the pilot or the weather or technology or spares or stress or any number of reasons, the fact remains that they crashed. A fighter jet allows a pilot to eject to safety and they do so in cases of emergency. The plane crashes but the pilot survives, although in many cases pilots have lost their lives and families have been shattered.

When such an incident occurs at a nuclear power plant, there is no way that anyone can eject or deny the reality. A plane crash in a desolate area and a nuclear meltdown are totally different. The billions spent on the IAF jets will at the most kill the on board pilots.

A nuclear accident will not only kill thousands but will keep doing so for hundreds of years.

A faulty jet may make you lose a battle. A faulty nuclear plant will make you lose the entire war.





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