Technology is No Guarantee to Safety (Part-II)

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

In my earlier article, I wrote about the fact that the most high tech military aircraft have crashed despite being thoroughly evaluated for their technical prowess. Due to limitation of space, I could not get to the other facts of this industry and how its eerie parallels with the Nuclear Power sector.

It is not as if only the IAF jets have crashed. The whole of the Indian civilian airline industry has had too many crashes in its short history. Let’s look at some of them – not for posterity, but to understand the reasons why they occurred.

Bangalore Airport, 14 February 1990, Indian Airlines Flight 605 crashes killing 92. Reason- The newly launched Airbus A320 had complicated flight system panels and controls, coupled with lack of suitable training for pilots.

Imphal, August 16, 1991 Indian Airlines Flight 257 crashes killing all 69 on board. Reason- Failure of the navigation and the Instrument Landing System on the ground made the pilot lose contact.

Patna, July 17, 2000 Alliance Air Boeing 737 passenger plane crashes on housing colony. Death toll, 58 charred bodies. Reason – An ageing 20-year old poorly maintained aircraft, which was supposed to be non-air worthy.

One can go on and on about the horrific civilian aircraft crashes. They have claimed the lives of several notable people. A.V. Birla, Mohan Kumarmangalam, Dorjee Khandu, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, G.M.C. Balayogi, O. P. Jindal, Madhavrao Scindia, Sanjay Gandhi are among the notable and public figures who perished in aircraft failures.
In fact, the father of the Indian Nuclear Energy programme – Homi Bhabha – was also a victim of an aircrash.

Airforce crashes –
Sirsa, December 02, 2011, MiG 21 crashes because the aircraft caught fire. Cause not yet disclosed.
Bikaner, Rajasthan, August 2, 2011. MiG crashes in a field while on a routine mission.

In fact, at the end of last year, the nine crashes involving IAF planes which taken place included five MiG-21s, two Jaguars and one MiG-29, besides the Sukhoi SU-30 crash near Pune.

Let us also bear in mind that these fighter jets are missile capable and carry nuclear payload during war.

Over the past 40 years, more than half of India’s workhorse fighter jets, Russian MiGs, have crashed — 482 out of 872 to be exact. Yet, Air Force officials told India Today magazine that the MiG-21 was a fantastic aircraft, just difficult to land!!

If you want further damning proof, then check what Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian astronaut, said a few months back. He outright blamed faulty planning in defence public sector units for MiG crashes. And it is the same type of public sector undertakings such as NPCIL are implementing and using to control the Indian nuclear establishment.
He goes further and I quote “As a test pilot with the HAL I would send back fighter planes to the laboratories if I detected snags in their parts. But I soon found out that instead of doing research and development on these parts, the laboratories fitted the parts in another fighter plane. The parts used to keep repeating the full circle consuming time and energy without any result,” he said. The HAL does not even have an in-house test-pilot team, he said.

And now read this too – A study of the past ten MiG crashes showed that experienced pilots with hundreds of flying hours to their credit were behind the controls in most cases!
So the billions spent on the latest technology failed not because of human failure, they were let down by the latest “fly by wire” technology. This is the exact same logic which the NPCIL bosses use to justify their purchases and which the government gives out regularly.

At Koodankulam, we are putting up nuclear reactors which have the so-called “core catcher,” while at Jaitapur, we will be using the latest EPR technology from France. Both of these are not fully tested. In fact, the French reactor is not even certified by the US and Finland has cancelled its plan to build a reactor based on this technology.

Yet, the entire nuclear establishment, including the NPCIL and the government has given a carte blanche certificate to this technology! They know fully well that it is an untested, non-certified design and yet they claim that the billions of dollars are being spent on a “safe” reactor! However much the government of India tries to make it look like that nuclear energy is the best option, the fact remains that Murphy’s Law will always catch up.

“When something has to go wrong, it will. Because, for no other reason but because of technology!”

It is not my case that anything high tech should be rejected outright. Far from it. The point is that one cannot look at high tech as a saviour. Accidents happen despite the best of technology in place. The Three Mile and Fukushima accidents happened primarily because the technology used was faulty. The designs were wrong.
If, at every stage, we continue to say that, “We have learnt from our past mistakes and will ensure not to commit them in future” only means a defeatist and a negative attitude, a fatalistic attitude.

Any other accident can be taken as a learning experience. But a nuclear meltdown leaves people, and countries in total mess. It is a huge human loss, an economic and environmental disaster and what’s worse, its effects will remain for hundreds of years. As a technical professional particularly involved with computer systems, I have seen absolutely dumb designs, which make software and systems crash. It happens even with giant companies like Microsoft or Google. They mess up big time and it takes a whole lot of effort to clean up the mess caused by a stupid design.

I would hate to see this happen in any of our nuclear reactors. Enough has been written about how the Americans infected the Iranian nuclear program with stealth viruses. Does anyone imagine that the Russians or the French would not have done something on these lines? A friend today could very well be your enemy tomorrow. And it is easy to infiltrate through technology.
So how much confidence are we putting into these friends, and by imagining that nothing is inherently wrong in these systems – either by error or by design? None of the countries are so clueless as to not understand that political situations are extremely fluid.

Tomorrow, France or Russia may decide the India is a threat to their nation or to their national interests. Does anyone think that these countries will continue to have any interest in maintaining these nuclear reactors? Far from maintaining, they would try to sabotage them! Where will India go when it realizes that its former friends are its enemies and it cannot run its reactors without foreign aid? Or conversely, should India continue to be friendly with these countries out of fear of retaliation? That, my friends, is called the “moment of truth.”

Neither France, nor Russia will give anything to India without their pound of flesh. Given more business or upgrade contracts or defence deals, then probably they would. That’s the reality – tied between nuclear energy and defence deals. And it won’t change because India refuses to accept the fact that its civilian nuclear program is isolated from its defence program.

Yet, India is choosing a dreadfully dangerous path with its civil and nuclear program. It is falling victim to the policies practiced by those countries that have a vested interest in business and military affairs. The Russian nuclear program is falling apart, with its industry unable to sustain goals set up during the Cold War era. France has so much of domestic resistance to nuclear power that the government may find it extremely difficult to prop up Areva – a government baby.

Why not wake up to the newer realities of geopolitics. Do we really need to spend this money on a questionable technology? Business logic makes one evaluate everything in terms of “risk-reward ratio,” whether it is investing in projects or for strategic purposes. We always subconsciously evaluate everything in these terms. Even while driving a car, we always look at the risk-reward ratio!

The risk involved with nuclear energy does not justify the rewards.

With anything nuclear, it is never a question whether an accident can occur. The question is when it will happen.

That’s an undeniable fact and there is no escaping it.

There is absolutely no point in saying that we have the latest technology. Because technology is not a guarantee to safety.




One Comment

    Join discussion: leave a comment