When Will We Ever Learn? - Surendra Gadekar

The short answer to this question is: Never.
We are a country whose elites, irrespective of political views, are already sold on the idea that “The country needs hundreds of thousands of Megawatts of new electrical power and there is no alternative but nuclear to get us there.” A country whose scam tainted government's Prime Minister genuinely believes that negotiating the sell-out, otherwise known as the 123 deal with the Americans, was the greatest 'achievement' of his government; a country whose atomic energy chief has become world famous as the prime exemplar of an acutely virulent case of the 'foot in the mouth disease' with his statement, “It was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section of media,” when referring to the nuclear disaster that now engulfs Japan and is on its way to engulf the world; a country whose media gives eight column headlines to news of India beating some obscure part of the erstwhile British empire at the game of flannelled fools while blithely ignoring news regarding protests involving thousands whose lands are being looted in the name of 'development'; a country whose military generals have distinguished themselves in occupying small territories of strategically placed land on the 24th or is it the 32nd floor of some 'ideally' placed apartment: a country where members of the highest judiciary have been caught red-handed but not red-faced; a country where even I waste my time solving stupid Sudoku puzzles rather than shouting myself hoarse trying to alert others to our utter lack of imagination regarding our real needs and lifestyle choices. Need I go on any further berating the point? But before I give up, let me deal with a concrete example of the mindset I am describing. Consider the report published in The Hindu of March 15, 2011 under the headline, Indian nuclear plants are safe: scientists” it goes on, “Stressing that Indian atomic power plants were constantly upgraded to match current levels of safety requirements and were safe, scientists on Monday said that the events in Japan cannot slow down the country's nuclear energy programme in any way. Indian organisations had already announced they would revisit all safety aspects of nuclear plants in the country after the situation in Japan.” What do they mean when they say that “they would revisit all safety aspects” when in the very previous breath, they have categorically said that, “Events in Japan cannot slow down the country's nuclear energy programme in any way.” Unless, by “revisit” they mean actual physical visits to Japan which they probably do or at least hope.

But in this very report there is this nugget: S.K. Jain, NPCIL chairperson, said that they had taken the events in Japan very seriously and safety audits of nuclear plants were of primary concern. Unlike regulatory practices in other countries, in India the regulatory board gave clearance for five years at a time and after that it was mandatory to conduct a safety assessment to seek re-licensing, he said. In fact, three plants which had completed five years were undergoing a safety audit, he pointed out. He said that all the nuclear plants in the country operated on a high level of safety. At the Tarapur atomic power station, where two units are 40 years old, they had undergone detailed safety audits in 2004 and requirements to upgrade the safety systems to current levels were incorporated, Mr. Jain said, adding that the company was meeting all the norms of nuclear safety.

I suppose and fervently hope that these great scientists are able to add five years to 2004. According to me, the answer ought to be 2009, but then I am no great scientist but just a small farmer in a remote village. This is when the next mandatory re-licensing was due. The fact that this has not been done despite the mandatory requirement, in 2009 is obvious, because if it had, Mr Jain would have mentioned it. You don't find him telling about earlier license events like the ones in 1999, or before that in 1994 and so on all the way up to 1974 when the first re-license was due since the reactors started operation in 1969. So the question is: Why was no mandatory safety audit done for these decrepit, four decades old set of Fukushima type reactors located just hundred kilometres north of Mumbai, when it actually fell due in 2009? How mandatory is the mandate? Why was Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) not stopping the reactors and arresting the plant authorities for operating a dangerous poison producing plant without a license. And also why did none of the “packed house” of journalists dared to ask these scientists about it? Or are they too unable to add four to five? The mindset I am talking about is the total lack of 'scientific spirit' – an attitude of questioning authority. Till we acquire this spirit, we can have Fukushimas and Hiroshimas, Chernobyls and Chelyabinsks or what else have you, we are not going to learn to change our path towards oblivion.

So, let me rephrase the question:

What Could We Learn from the Nuclear (with apologies to Dr Banerjee (DAE chief)) Disaster in
Japan, If We Had an Open Mind? Actually all that we really need to learn is just one lesson. How to get out of this mess into a nuclear- free, carbon-free world. My friend Dr Arjun Makhijani has written a whole book with just this title. It describes a roadmap of how it is eminently possible for a country like USA to become carbon-free and nuclear-free by the year 2050. If USA with its more than a hundred reactors and its obscenely energy intensive lifestyle can do it, for India where nuclear power accounts for just about 2.5% of electricity and where electricity accounts for just 11% of total energy, getting out of nuclear should be a breeze. The book Carbon-free and Nuclear-free is available as a free download from www.ieer.org But there are many other lessons to learn as well. The most important of these is to develop a sceptical attitude towards official pronouncements. “Don't believe anything until it is officially denied” was Claude Cockburn's dictum and it is something that ought to be deeply inscribed in our minds.

This is as true of hapless Japanese officials as it is of the clueless Indian ones. The New York Times of March 26, 2011, reports that “the word 'tsunami' did not even appear in Japan government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants began dotting the Japanese coastline. After an advisory group issued non-binding recommendations in 2002, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant owner raised its maximum projected tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi to between 17.7 and 18.7 feet — considerably higher than the 13-foot-high bluff on which the reactors had been built. Yet the company's only response was to raise the level of an electric pump near the coast by 8 inches, presumably to protect it from high water,” regulators said.

Japanese nucleocrats are in no way unique. The nauseating sight of arrogant and ignorant officials with barely concealed contempt for the anxious public as they go on and on 'allaying fears' and compounding confusion is a common phenomena all over the world. The only antidote is an awakened citizenry that takes the trouble of becoming more knowledgeable and stops believing whatever claptrap they hear.

Coming to some other 'lessons' that need urgent learning:
1. Placing many reactors together at a site is a universally common practice. While it is hugely advantageous to the economics of nuclear power, it is definitely not advantageous both as a reactor safety and a public health measure. As has been demonstrated at Fukushima, problems in one reactor may be infectious to the health of its neighbours while rescue teams
and workers at a perfectly working reactor may be hindered in their work due to radioactivity releases of a neighbouring reactor.

2. The practice of having reactors in earthquake prone regions on the grounds that “If they can do it in Japan, we can do it in India” needs a definite 'revisit' since now it is proved that they can't do it even in Japan. Less said about India in this respect, the better. In fact, before the 2004 tsunami came and flooded the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam, the Indian Department of Atomic Energy had in a publication categorically said that tsunamis did not come in India at all and hence could be ignored while planning reactor safety measures. This point is most applicable to the reactors at Narora in U.P. and the proposed reactors at Jaitapur since they fall in zone IV, where earthquakes are frequent.

3. The experience of the disaster in Japan is especially relevant to the Tarapur reactors. These are of the same type as the Fukushima reactors except that they are two years older than the oldest (reactor-1) that was the first to explode at Fukushima. There are so many different issues raised here, that it is better that I write a separate article about those. But one point needs to be made. Old reactors are especially attractive to the nuclear establishment. This is because the main costs in nuclear are the capital costs involved in building the reactors. These itself are so horrendous that they make the whole enterprise uneconomic. That is why nuclear power needs large doses of subsidy from the pubic exchequer. But once the reactors are willy-nilly built, the running costs of nuclear plants is lower than other centralized electricity generating technologies. Hence, we have the phenomena all over the world of establishments trying to extend the life of old plants. Units that were designed with an expectation that they would last 25-30 years are still running after 40 years and the operating utilities ask and are granted extensions up to 60 years. This is actually a form of Russian roulette with lives of millions at stake. As the reactors get older they are prone to all kinds of surprises and sudden collapses due to neutron bombardment embrittlement. But there is no thought of retiring these ageing reactors whatever the risks they pose, because every atomic energy chief thinks in the very short term of his own tenure at the job.

4. The evacuation plans that we have in India in case of a nuclear emergency are a joke. They would be funny, if the consequences of relying on them were not so tragic. They have been conceived by some bunch of nucleocrats and civic authorities with no input from or knowledge regarding the public whose presumed protection is their prime stated intention, and who would bear the consequences of the shoddy planning. They are not serious, in the sense that the nucleocrats themselves do not believe that there ever will be a nuclear emergency and have made them purely because they have been directed to do so as requirement stipulated by International Atomic Energy Agency. As a result we have, howlers galore. For example, the district headquarters of Vyara (a town of thousands) is scheduled to be evacuated to a small school in Bardoli that normally has difficulty holding its hundreds of students. Nucleocrats belong to the school that believes that anxiety due to radio-phobia is a greater killer than the radioactivity releases from nuclear power plants. That is the lesson they have learnt from Chernobyl. If Fukushima can start the process of unlearning it, that would be something positive, but I doubt it.


Surendra Gadekar

A well-known Indian anti-nuclear activist and physicist, Gadekar lives in the remote tribal village of Vedchhi near the Kakrapar atomic power plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There, with his wife, a physician, he runs a Gandhian school for young activists and monitors the Indian nuclear industry, conducting surveys of power plants, uranium mines, and nuclear-testing facilities to determine the effect on the public's health. In 1987, he founded Anumukti, a journal devoted to establishing a non-nuclear India



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