Praful Bidwai on Lessons for India from Fukushima

Excerpts from a recent article by Praful Bidwai, journalist, social science researcher and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace.

The crisis holds a number of lessons for India as it embarks on a massive nuclear power expansion programme, which will double and then further triple India’s nuclear power capacity.

First, nuclear power generation is inherently hazardous. It is the only form of energy production that can lead to a catastrophic accident with long-time health damage and environmental contamination. Human error or a natural calamity can trigger a catastrophe—but only because reactors are themselves vulnerable.

Reactors are high-pressure high-temperature systems in which a high-energy fission chain-reaction is only just controlled. Nuclear reactors are both systemically complex, and internally, tightly coupled. A fault or malfunction in one sub-system gets quickly transmitted to others and gets magnified till the whole system goes into crisis mode.

Second, nuclear power involves radiation exposure at all stages of the so-called “nuclear fuel cycle”, from uranium mining and fuel fabrication, to reactor operation and maintenance, to routine emissions, and spent-fuel handling, storage and reprocessing. Nuclear reactors leave a toxic trail of high-level radioactive wastes. These remain hazardous for thousands of years. The half-life of plutonium-239, which is produced by fission, is 24,400 years. Science knows no way of safely storing nuclear wastes for long periods, let alone neutralising them or disposing of them.

Third, India has no independent authority that can evolve safety standards and regulate reactors for safety. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is dependent for its budget, equipment and personnel on the DAE and reports to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who is also the DAE’s Secretary. Over all the four decades since the Tarapur reactors were installed, the DAE has merely implemented or copied US and Canadian designs, with minimal modifications.

Finally, after the Japan crisis, nuclear safety has become paramount. It must take precedence over all else. It would be downright unethical to sacrifice safety in order to please an industry that has failed the world and to pamper a domestic technocratic elite that considers itself infallible, omniscient and above the public interest.

The DAE must be made to discard the hubristic “it-can’t-happen-here” approach and introspect into India’s nuclear safety record, with embarrassing failures like a 1993 fire at the Narora reactor, the Kaiga containment dome collapse, frequent cases of radiation over-exposure at numerous sites, unsafe heavy-water transportation, and terrible health effects near the Jaduguda uranium mines and the Rajasthan reactors.

What’s urgently needed is an independent, credible safety audit of India’s nuclear programme, in which people outside the DAE participate, pending a radical review of India’s half-baked plans to rush into nuclear power expansion. To begin with, there must be an immediate moratorium on further reactor construction, including controversial untested models like Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor that India is planning to install at Jaitapur in Maharashtra.

Read complete article here.

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