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Nukes and India

Have our rulers decided to place India on the wrong side of history and arrest her social progress? Going by their policy of forcibly promoting nuclear power regardless of its hazards, environmental damage potential, high economic and social costs, and unpopularity, that seems to be the case.

Eight weeks into the Fukushima disaster?which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst-ever industrial accident, at Chernobyl?it is clear the world is moving away from nuclear power and embracing renewable energy as never before. The number of nuclear reactors in the world has fallen to 437 from its 2002 peak (444). Nuclear electricity generation has annually declined by 2 percent over the past four years and now only accounts for 5.5 percent of the world’s primary energy.

Globally, annual renewables capacity additions have outpaced nuclear start-ups for 15 years. In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulative installed capacity of wind turbines, small hydro, biomass and solar power reached 381,000 MW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375,000 MW prior to Fukushima.

The global nuclear industry faces a bleak future. It was making losses despite huge subsidies for more than a quarter-century. The US, with the most reactors in the world (104), hasn’t ordered a single new reactor since 1973. Western Europe?including France, the world’s Number Two in number of reactors (58)?hasn’t completed a new reactor since Chernobyl.

With Fukushima came the turn of the world’s third-most nuclear country, Japan (55 reactors). Japan has written off four reactors and is radically reviewing the over-optimistic assumptions underlying its nuclear programme. Country after country is pausing, auditing or cancelling its nuclear power programme?including the US, the European Union, even China. Italy and Austria have opted out altogether. Germany has shut down seven reactors and will rapidly phase out the remaining 10.

Only Russia says it will proceed with its nuclear power plans. Russia is where the Chernobyl design originated. Russia isn’t known for high industrial safety. Besides, it’s oil- and gas-rich and unlikely to expand nuclear power greatly.

India wouldn’t enhance its stature or energy security by joining the camp of Russia, and possibly, China. China may eventually revoke the present moratorium on 38 reactors, but it knows that nuclear power, even if it expands, will only form about 7 percent of its electricity generation, and under 3 percent of its primary energy production by 2030.

Yet, the Indian government is forging ahead with new projects based on imported reactors?as if Fukushima were a minor accident. But Fukushima is the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe in a multiple-reactor station, in which three reactors underwent a partial core meltdown and the spent-fuel pools of four reactors lost their water cover and spewed radioactivity.

The amount of toxic iodine-131 and caesium-137 released from Fukushima is estimated to be of the same order as the quantity leaked from Chernobyl. And the accident hasn’t ended. Nuclear-industry companies believe it will take many years to bring the reactors under control. As the Swiss investment bank UBS puts it: “We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power.”

Yet, so eager is the Manmohan Singh government to deliver on its commitments to the French and US governments that their corporations will get Indian reactor orders in return for pushing the US-India nuclear deal through the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it is proceeding with the Jaitapur project in Maharashtra by crushing popular opposition. Maharashtra’s police even broke up the April 23-25 Tarapur-to-Jaitapur citizens’ peaceful yatra.

Jaitapur is to have six reactors of French company Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor design. But this is untested and hasn’t received regulatory approval anywhere, including France. The first-ever EPR under construction, in Finland, is a fiasco: four years behind schedule, 90 percent over budget and mired in bitter litigation over a contract that forbids cost escalation. The EPR has attracted hundreds of safety queries from Finnish, British, US and French regulators. A French government-appointed expert has called its design excessively complex and recommended “optimisation”. Put simply, the EPR design is not yet frozen. But that hasn’t prevented the DAE or Maharashtra Chief Minister Chavan from certifying it as safe!

Recently, Areva flew a group of Indian journalists to its headquarters. Its officials boasted: “The EPR has the highest safety standards, it can resist an air crash?an Airbus A380 crash.” This is of course unverifiable. Areva and the French authorities claim that the EPR design is protected against both terrorist attacks and air crashes. Yet, when the EU mandated comprehensive reactor “stress tests”, covering threats from airplane crashes and terrorists, France lobbied for their exclusion from the audits.

Areva is as hypocritical as India’s Department of Atomic Energy in denying the Fukushima disaster’s gravity. DAE Secretary Srikumar Banerjee said that the March 12-14 hydrogen explosions at Fukushima, which arose from serious core damage, were “a purely chemical reaction, not a nuclear emergency ?.” Nuclear Power Corporation Chairman SK Jain described the crisis, which sent operator TEPCO into panic, not as a “nuclear accident”, but “a well-planned emergency preparedness programme ?”.

That men prone to such delusions run our nuclear programme inspires no confidence. That they aren’t publicly accountable is positively frightening. Areva’s CEO also pronounced that “Fukushima was not a nuclear catastrophe.” Yet, on March 12, Areva pulled out all its staff from the Fukushima station.

The Jaitapur project is being rammed down the people’s throats through a vicious campaign of illegal detentions, false charges, externment notices and firepower?witness the unprovoked firing of April 18, killing one person and injuring over 15. Bullet wounds in the upper torso show the police shot to kill, not to immobilise people.

The government has finally decided to separate the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from the DAE. This is welcome. But the AERB’s responsibilities and powers must be defined in advance and its members selected with exemplary care so that only persons with the highest integrity, impartiality, and commitment to the public interest are chosen by a broad-based collegium. This is as important as choosing the Lokpal. The life and death of millions will depend on the AERB.

However, the government has given very little thought to nuclear regulation. It hasn’t studied the experience of other countries to learn how to prevent “regulatory capture” or sham nuclear regulation. Such capture is a fact in the US, France or Japan. In Japan, corporations like TEPCO have regularly appointed their executives to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. NISA in turn has shielded the industry, by ignoring countless safety violations and extending the operation of outdated reactors. The 40-year-old Fukushima reactors were granted a 10-year-extension only a month before the accident. India’s experience with regulation in telecom, insurance and hydrocarbons has been unhappy. But the government has learnt nothing from it.

In its haste to push through “nuclear power parks” in five coastal locations and two inland sites, the government will probably create a poorly conceived and flawed regulatory structure, which is likely to be monopolised by retired and serving DAE officials, who deny that nuclear power poses grave hazards, and who can’t be trusted to defend public safety.

Praful Bidwai is TNI Fellow and former senior editor of The Times of India, Praful is a freelance journalist and insightful columnist for several leading newspapers in South Asia writing regularly on all aspects of Indian politics, economy, society and its international relations. He is an associate editor of Security Dialogue, published by PRIO, Oslo; a member of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation (INESAP) and co-founder of the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament (MIND).

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