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show details 3:19 PM (11 minutes ago) Dear Friends,

As might be expected, I have written a great deal on the nuclear power issue in the past couple of weeks (since March 7)—first, a follow-up on the Jaitapur project, and later, comments on the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The second set of articles overlap a little with one another, but each tries to explore a different angle or emphasise a specific aspect of the crisis. I will have some more pieces published soon in Frontline (on Fukushima) and in Le Monde Diplomatique (on Jaitapur).

I do believe that while Fukushima may not be as lethal in effects as Chernobyl, it will probably prove to be the global nuclear industry’s worst-ever crisis.

I would appreciate your comments on these pieces, published with minor changes or, in some cases, under a different title.

The first piece was published in Outlook (Mar 28)

The second was published in Hindustan Times (March 15) under the title A murky meltdown.

The third was published in Tehelka (Mar 26) under the title Nuclear lessons from Japan.

The fourth, on Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan's visit to Jaitapur, appeared in Frontline (Mar 12-25), under the title Tactics of coercion.

The fifth appeared in my syndicated column (Mar 21), which is usually carried in, 'The Kashmir Times', 'The Assam Tribune', 'Lokmat', 'Madhyamam', 'Rashtriya Sahara', 'Navhind Times', 'Rajasthan Patrika', 'Deshbandhu', 'Kalantar' and other papers.

The sixth, also on Chavan's visit, appeared in Financial Chronicle (Mar 16).

The seventh, on the UPA's recent crisis, appeared in my syndicated column.

Those of you who read French might like to read this Le Monde piece, which quotes me.




(1) Mar 28

India’s Nuclear Neros

Praful Bidwai

The colossal hubris, ignorance and smugness of India’s nuclear czars take one’s breath away. The day Japan’s nuclear crisis took a decisive turn for the worse, with an explosion in a third Fukushima reactor and fresh radiation leaks, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) Secretary Sreekumar Banerjee declared that the nuclear crisis “was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section(s) of media”. His junior, Nuclear Power Corporation chairman SK Jain, went one better: “There is no nuclear accident or incident …. It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators … are carrying out to contain the residual heat after … an automatic shutdown …”.

This is proof, if proof were at all needed, that our nuclear power programme is in the hands of men who are totally cut off from reality and have a default conviction in their own omniscience and infallibility. Their denials are as despicable as their pathetic parroting of the virtues of India’s nuclear installations and their safety.

Let’s get this straight. The Fukushima crisis is the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown a quarter-century ago. The earlier (partial, largely contained) meltdown at Three Mile Island (1979) pales beside it. The Fukushima reactors have spewed large amounts of radioactivity into the air. The vessel containing the core of Reactor 2, which fully lost water cover for hours, has been damaged. The fire in Reactor 4 released yet more radio-toxins. Only a miracle can prevent further radiation release. Japan’s Prime Minister admits to “a very high risk” of this.

The Fukushima disaster is the world’s first multi-reactor crisis, which makes controlling it the more difficult. It also poses three special problems. Large quantities of spent-fuel, containing extremely radioactive nuclear wastes, are stored in pools in the reactor building, following General Electric’s design. These are no longer being cooled. A spent-fuel leak, spreading due to tsunami-induced flooding, could have unspeakably lethal effects.

Second, Fukushima reactors’ primary containment—similar to India’s Tarapur reactors, also GE-designed—has been found by a US laboratory to be extremely vulnerable to molten fuel burning through the reactor vessel, and eventually breaking out. Third, Reactor 3 burns a mix of uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX). Researchers say MOX generally increases the consequences of severe accidents with large radioactivity releases, resulting in a five-fold increase in latent cancer fatalities.

The Fukushima crisis could worsen further. Even if it doesn’t, it is grim enough. It highlights the inherent hazards of nuclear power, in which small individual mishaps can precipitate a runaway crisis. The reactors were shut down by the earthquake; and their still-hot cores were no longer cooled. The diesel back-up came on, but went out in an hour. The loss-of-coolant led to the explosions and radioactivity releases.

That this happened in an industrially advanced country, with nuclear safety standards considered the best in the global industry, underscores the gravity of the generic problem with nuclear reactors. They are all vulnerable to a catastrophic accident irrespective of precautions and safety measures. Nuclear power generation is also bound up with radiation exposure, harmful in all doses, and radioactive waste streams, which remain hazardous for thousands of years.

India’s nucleocrats have been in denial of these problems and suppressed and censored their abysmal safety record. The list of failures is long: a serious fire at Narora, which moved from the turbine to the reactor room amidst panic-driven abandonment of fire-fighting procedures; collapse of a containment-dome safety system at Kaiga; frequent radiation exposure of workers and lay public to doses above the maximum permissible; and the spiking of drinking water with deadly tritium in Kaiga. India has the distinction of running two of the world’s most contaminated reactors.

This necessitates a radical reform of the DAE, the government’s worst-performing department, which has never completed a project on time and within budget. To start with, we must have an independent, credible nuclear safety audit, with outside experts and civil society representatives. We must review our nuclear power policy for appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance, based on a holistic view of the best ways of sustainably meeting our energy needs. If nuclear power emerges as the least desirable option, we should discard it. In the interim, there must be a moratorium on fresh civilian nuclear activity. The Environment Ministry must revoke all conditional clearances granted to nuclear projects, including Jaitapur.

Nuclear power has subjugated our energy policy and budgets to an unaccountable, self-perpetuating, pampered technocracy, imposed unacceptable hazards upon unwilling populations, and degraded our democracy. The juggernaut must be halted.

Praful Bidwai is a columnist and activist of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

(2) Mar 15

Special to ‘Hindustan Times’

It can happen here too …

After Japan’s nuclear crisis, India must review its nuclear policy and declare a moratorium on further reactor construction, says Praful Bidwai


The global nuclear industry follows a strategy of serial denial amidst human tragedies of huge proportions. In 1957, there was a major explosion in a nuclear reactor tank at Kyshtyn in the USSR and a fire broke out at Windscale in the UK. The US nuclear industry responded at once: that can’t happen here. In 1979 came Three Mile Island in the US, a partial core meltdown, with radioactivity releases. The USSR’s knee-jerk response? It can’t happen here; our nuclear facilities have “foolproof” safety systems. Seven years later, the Chernobyl reactor in the USSR had a core meltdown and exploded, killing an estimated 34,000 to 110,000 people from cancer and other radiation-related effects. The Japanese were vehement that such a catastrophic accident couldn’t occur in their reactors: “Our reactors’ designs are different.”

Now comes Fukushima in Japan—a veritable nuclear nightmare, the global atomic industry’s worst crisis since Chernobyl, and the first nuclear catastrophe that’s been watched by the global public almost in real time. This may yet lead to a meltdown not just in Reactor 1 at Daiichi, but also, according to CBS News, in six other reactors, including Daiichi No 3, which burns a more hazardous fuel (mixed plutonium and uranium oxides) than most reactors do. Even if there is no meltdown, it is clear from the release of Caesium-137, a product of fission of uranium atoms, that Reactor 1’s core has been damaged, and an unspecified quantity of radioactivity released. Reactor 1 has exploded twice and Reactor 3 once—probably from accumulated hydrogen.

Helicopters have detected radioactivity from Daiichi 100 km away. Worse, as technicians struggle to cool down all three Daiichi reactors by pushing seawater with fire-pumps against high inside pressure, they are releasing contaminated steam and radioactive vapour as a desperate means to prevent meltdown—a process that experts say could go on for weeks, even months. Meanwhile, the number of people exposed to high radiation doses has climbed from four, to 70, to 190 …. New concerns are arising, focussed on the presence of hundreds of tonnes of sizzling-hot spent fuel at the tsunami-hit site. In the Daiichi plant, based on General Electric’s Mark I design, the spent fuel is stored on site. Japan’s nuclear crisis seems fated to continue. Daiichi’s vicinity, from where 170,000 people have been evacuated, would become uninhabitable for months, even years.

Japan is special for many reasons. Its 55 reactors produce about-one third of all its electricity. They have to follow strict earthquake-proofing construction norms. Japan’s reactor safety standards are considered the best in the global nuclear industry, with multiple redundancy: if one system fails, another takes over. That’s in theory. In practice, redundancy doesn’t always work. The Daiichi reactors did shut down with the earthquake, as designed. Diesel generators, meant to provide back-up power to cool the still-hot core and control rods (which regulate the fission rate), did kick in, as planned. But they stopped working within an hour, for as-yet-unrevealed reasons.

The core started heating up, precipitating the crisis with a meltdown potential. Everything now depends on whether the multiple containment of a melting core through a heavy steel container, and a thick concrete wall and dome, works or doesn’t.

The Japanese crisis highlights the inherent hazards of nuclear power generation. Nuclear reactors are high-temperature-high-pressure systems in which a fission chain-reaction is barely controlled within a tiny space supercharged with energy. Reactors are both complex, and internally, tightly coupled. A fault in one sub-system like control rods tends to get quickly transmitted and magnified, plunging the entire reactor into crisis.

A loss-of-coolant accident, in which water circulation around the hot core is interrupted for some reason, is always a possibility in all known reactor designs. So is a meltdown Such accidents can be triggered by human error or natural calamity. But the system itself is conducive and vulnerable to them. Experts who have designed, operated or licensed reactors agree that all reactor types can undergo a catastrophic accident.

This feature is unique to nuclear power. No other form of energy generation can produce a catastrophe. This is not nuclear power’s sole hazard. It is bound up with radiation exposure at each stage of the “fuel cycle”, from uranium mining and fuel fabrication, to routine emissions, to spent-fuel storage/reprocessing. Radiation is harmful in all doses. Worse, nuclear power leaves a toxic legacy of wastes which remain hazardous for thousands of years. The half-life of plutonium-239, produced by fission, is 24,000 years. Science has found no safe way of storing nuclear wastes for long periods, let alone neutralising them or disposing of them.

As public awareness of nuclear hazards has grown, nuclear power has become unpopular the world over, putting its promoters in imperious opposition to an unwilling public. Three Mile Island sent the US nuclear industry into near-paralysis. Chernobyl did the same thing to the European nuclear industry. The Japanese crisis could be far worse and sound the death-knell of the industry globally. Nuclear authorities everywhere are questioning the assumptions on which they designed reactor safety systems and operating parameters.

We in India must be alarmed: the Tarapur reactors are also Boiling Water Reactors designed by General Electric, the same as Fukushima’s, only smaller and one-generation older, probably with weaker safety systems. For other reasons too, we must discard the hubristic “it-can’t-happen-here” approach and introspect into our 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.

We urgently need a safety audit of the entire nuclear programme, in which people outside the Department of Atomic Energy participate, pending a thorough, radical review of half-baked plans to rush into nuclear power expansion with untested reactors like Areva’s EPRs at Jaitapur. To begin with, we must impose an immediate moratorium on further reactor construction.—end--

(3) Mar 26

Special to ‘Tehelka’ Lessons for our nuclear czars

Praful Bidwai

The Fukushima disaster has spun out of control with explosions in three reactors, a fire in a fourth, and huge radioactivity releases. The Japanese government has finally admitted to the gravity of the crisis and said there is “a very high risk” of further radioactivity leaks from the crippled reactors. Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a television address pleading for calm and said: “I would like to ask the nation, although this incident is of great concern, I ask you to react very calmly.”

The disaster, verging towards catastrophe, is still unfolding. But it is clear that it is far, far worse than the Three Mile Island meltdown (1979) in the US. In its lethal effects, it may not match the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986 in Ukraine, whose anniversary falls on this coming April 26. Chernobyl caused an estimated 32,400 to 110,000 deaths, mainly from cancer. But in its economic, industrial and psychological impact, the Fukushima disaster is likely to be far more powerful and far-reaching than Chernobyl.

Put simply, Fukushima is the global nuclear industry’s worst-ever crisis. Chernobyl was “in the East”. The meltdown could be attributed to faulty designs and shoddy practices in a relatively backward society. The argument doesn’t apply to industrially advanced Japan.

Japan is a world leader in nuclear power, with 55 reactors, next only to the number in the US and France. Unlike them, it has had an active, albeit now declining, nuclear power programme. It ventured into “high-end” fast-breeders just when France, once a breeder leader, abandoned its programme. The Fukushima reactors are of US design (General Electric). The global economic, industrial and emotional impact of the Fukushima disaster, which the world public followed virtually in real time, will be immeasurably greater.

That apart, Fukushima has highlighted the supreme importance of nuclear safety. Governments, especially in the West, cannot afford to ignore public concerns about safety. Switzerland has cancelled its plans to build three new reactors. And Germany’s conservative government has reversed its controversial decision to prolong the phaseout of all nuclear reactors. Other countries too are likely to review their nuclear expansion plans. It’s a safe bet that the “nuclear renaissance” that George W Bush tried to instigate through artificial subsidies will now be a non-starter.

Nuclear authorities in many countries are questioning the assumptions on which they designed reactor safety systems and operating parameters. But in the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, complacency and smugness prevail. Its secretary denies that there is “a nuclear emergency” in Japan, only “a purely chemical reaction”. Prime Manmohan Singh promised a safety review of all DAE installations. He said his government “attaches the highest importance to nuclear safety”; the DAE has “been instructed to undertake immediate technical review of all safety systems … particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand … tsunamis and earthquakes”.

That’s a red herring. The DAE has already declared that all its installations can cope with Magnitude 7 earthquakes and heavy tsunamis. It reiterated that the very afternoon Singh made his statement in Parliament. It can be safely predicted that an internal review will be a whitewash job.

The Indian public has reason to be alarmed at the Japanese crisis: reactors at Tarapur are also Boiling Water Reactors designed by General Electric, the same as Fukushima’s, only smaller, one-generation older, and probably with weaker safety systems.

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.

We urgently need 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 the controversial untested French reactors that India is planning to install at Jaitapur in Maharashtra.—end--

(4) Mar 12-25

Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

Praful Bidwai

Consensus, not coercion

The Maharashtra Chief Minister’s visit to Jaitapur failed to quell public misgivings about the nuclear power project. He must not ram the project through, but launch broad-based democratic consultations.

** ** ** ** **

What was the purpose of Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s first-ever visit to the controversial Jaitapur nuclear project site on the Konkan coast on February 26? If it was to acquaint himself with the many criticisms, apprehensions and questions the area’s residents have about the safety of the project with six 1,650 MW reactors, then Chavan did not succeed. He did not listen with patience and humility to its opponents to understand why they have fought the project for four years. Rather, he talked down to them, told them what’s best for them, and admonished them not to be misled by “outsiders” and “foreign powers” which do not “want to see India progress”.

If Chavan’s purpose was to reassure the public that his government would not ram the project down its throats and put it on hold until a consensus emerges in its favour, then he did not achieve that either. All he said was that he would set people’s apprehensions at rest—because these are based in the first place on “false propaganda” about nuclear power and the project’s location-specific problems. He showed no sensitivity to the fact that only one person of the nearly 8,000 people who attended the meeting supported the project—an absentee landlord and long-time Mumbai resident.

“Chavan came across as a prejudiced man who does not want facts to come in the way of decision-making”, Praveen Gavankar of Madban, the largest village in the area told me over the telephone. “He treated us with total contempt, as ignoramuses. His attitude was profoundly intolerant. Why, he even insulted our intelligence by accusing us of buying into propaganda by ‘outsiders’—as if we cannot make independent judgments on issues of life-or-death importance.”

Vaishali Patil of the Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti concurs and underscores the strong-arm tactics used by Chavan’s entourage, especially industries minister and former Chief Minister Narayan Rane: “The first thing Rane did on noticing my presence was to tell the police to evict me. They failed because all the women formed a protective ring around me. But I wasn’t allowed to speak. When Dr Milind Desai made a brilliant intervention, Rane snatched the mike from him. This is no way to hold an interaction with people who are so determined to oppose the project that that less than five percent have accepted compensation offered for their land. These are mostly absentee landowners.”

The government has raised the compensation from Rs 1.25-1.60 lakhs an acre to Rs 4 lakhs, and most recently, to Rs 10 lakhs, with one guaranteed job per family. There are still no takers.

The people’s opposition to the project is based on more fundamental grounds than compensation, including the inherent hazards of nuclear power; safety problems with the French-origin company Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR); effects of reactor construction and operation, and the high temperature of the water to be discharged into the sea, on the ecosystem, agriculture and fisheries; routine emissions and effluents; long-acting hazardous wastes; and the potential of all commercial reactors for a catastrophic accident with huge radioactivity releases, like Chernobyl.

Chavan dismissed all these as imaginary: “Not even one percent of the objections are valid.” But he cited no evidence or arguments in support. Even more ludicrous was his charge that the protesters are inspired by “foreign powers”’ propaganda. Chavan carried this to even greater absurdity the next day when he claimed that “a European man” had gone around the area passing off videos of the Latur earthquake as a Jaitapur event. The people say no such thing ever happened.

It is a bit rich for Chavan to invoke the “foreign hand”. The Jaitapur project became possible only because a “foreign” power, the United States, made a unique exception for India in the global atomic commerce regime through the India-US nuclear deal. It also piloted amendments through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, which made reactor imports possible. France quickly seized the opportunity through the Jaitapur reactor deal.

The “foreign hand” is also evident in the 20 reactors that the Department of Atomic Energy operates. They are all based on foreign designs—American in the case of Tarapur, and Canadian in the others. Even the “indigenous” plutonium used in India’s first nuclear explosion of 1974 came from a reactor designed and built by the Canadians, to which the US supplied heavy water. All that the DAE did was to reprocess its spent fuel, using elementary chemistry.

Chavan might have appeared less unreasonable had he acknowledged that the project does pose problems: the EPR design has run into serious trouble in Finland where the first reactor of this type is 42 months behind schedule and 90 percent over budget in a trend-setting project. Finnish, British, French and US nuclear regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues about its design, resolving which will further raise its already sky-high costs. (See this Column, A nuclear Enron? Feb 11).

Chavan’s is a case of conflict of interest. As Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, he must protect the life and limb of the Jaitapur public. But he continues to be a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, the DAE’s policy-making principal. As such, he is committed to Jaitapur—no matter what its safety problems and costs. He recently certified Areva’s EPR design as “good”. But neither Chavan nor the DAE has the technological capacity to evaluate it. The DAE has evolved no detailed independent nuclear reactor safety standards. By contrast, Western regulatory agencies have thousands of standards and specifications on minute matters such as the strength of welds and rivets, quality of steel, instrumentation and control, reactor vessels, and emergency cooling systems.

Chavan might have cut a less sorry figure in Jaitapur had he not allowed Rane, with all his aggression, bullying and targeting of individual activists, to set the stage for February 26. Rane, whose political base in the Konkan has greatly eroded, had made repeated visits to the area, which the local people boycotted in protest against his abusive remarks against the project’s opponents and his orders to the local police to file trumped-up charges against activists. Patil has four bogus cases against her, and Gavankar has been charged with attempt to murder. In Jaitapur, journalists overheard Rane advising Chavan to have more cases filed against activists to immobilise them.

The instant result was the rounding up of a dozen activists on February 28 on charges of violent conduct during a vigorous protest on December 4 against Sarkozy’s visit to India, during which the final EPR agreement was signed.

The Maharashtra government has done its utmost to split the anti-Jaitapur project movement by through inducements or outright coercion. It will not be a surprise if it tries to divide the agitators along religious-communal lines. About 30 percent of the area’s population is Muslim, mainly fishermen. Its efforts have borne no fruit so far.

The government’s only attempt at a dialogue before February 26 was a “public interaction” in Mumbai, on January 18, held without adequate notice to the local activists while accusing them of harbouring “misconceptions” about nuclear power, thus demonising all critics. The people boycotted the event. The government tried to browbeat all those who raised critical questions about the EPR, including Frontline’s Paris-based correspondent Vaiju Naravane.

This raises vitally important issues. Is it ethical to impose a hazardous project on a uniquely precious ecosystem, without even cursorily examining its likely impact? Is it wise to ignore the warnings of reputed institutions like the Bombay Natural History Society and the Western Ghats Ecology Experts’ Panel, headed by India’s best-known ecologist Madhav Gadgil? Should the government dismiss the local people’s concerns about livelihood destruction and dispossession of land on which they have lived for generations?

We pay lip service to panchayati raj as the third tier of governance. But do we not fail the litmus test on local democracy when we impose a potentially destructive project upon an unwilling population through the colonial Land Acquisition Act, widely recognised to be in dire need of radical reform? Have we learnt no lessons from the disastrous experience of uprooting over 35 million people since Independence for “development” projects, without rehabilitating most of them?

Elementary norms of democracy require that those liable to be affected by a project are consulted and give their informed and free consent to it. The principle of public participation in decision-making would become largely meaningless if it is only exercised indirectly, through the majority decisions of legislatures. What appear to be minority and dissenting opinions from the national perspective, but are held by vast numbers of people locally—the sole operational level—must also be respected if democracy is not to degenerate into crude majoritarianism.

The principle of minority rights must be extended to local communities when projects are drafted and implemented. The government must declare a moratorium on the Jaitapur reactors unless the local people want the project. That is a categorical democratic imperative.—end--

(5) Mar 21 Global Nuclear Industry’s Worst Crisis

Lessons from Fukushima

-- By Praful Bidwai

On Day 1 (March 12), they first dismissed it as a minor accident, which would be brought quickly under control by Japan’s highly advanced nuclear industry. On Day 2, when there was an explosion in Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which had been starved of coolant water, they called it “a purely chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some sections of the media”. One of them even said, “there is no nuclear accident or incident” in Japan. “It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators … company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown.”

On Day 3, when the Japanese nuclear crisis irreversibly worsened, they maintained—in the face of what the world was watching in utter horror and in real time—that the crisis would be over soon.

These gentlemen are our nuclear energy czars or nucleocrats, who have convinced themselves that they are omniscient and infallible. The first person quoted above is Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Sreekumar Banerjee. The second one is SK Jain, chairman of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), which operates 20 reactors in India.

The DAE bosses’ statements only shows how disconnected they are from reality and how their dogma prevents them from acknowledging hard facts—even when these take the form of explosions caused by the overheating of the Fukushima reactors due to a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA), and large releases of lethal radioactivity into the air.

The Fukushima reactors are now close to catastrophe, whose magnitude is way, way beyond the Three Mile Island disaster in the US in 1979. They are spewing out huge quantities of radiation, which could kill hundreds, even thousands of people, on a scale comparable to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Ukraine 25 years ago.

The global nuclear industry never fully recovered from Chernobyl. It is a sour coincidence and a terrible irony that its next crisis should come so close to the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl (April 26). This crisis is in some ways far graver than that precipitated by Chernobyl. The Ukraine disaster could be attributed to flawed designs and shoddy operating procedures in an industrially backward society. Fukushima cannot be. Japan runs the world’s third largest fleet of nuclear reactors (55) which supply a third of its electricity. A sixth of the global total of reactors is in Japan.

Japan is credited by the global nuclear industry with its best safety standards for nuclear reactors. Japan however has had a troubled nuclear power generation programme with accidents including explosions, earthquake-induced breakdowns, crises in fast-breeders, and small radioactivity releases. But never before has a nuclear accident in Japan approached the dimensions of a catastrophe.

That has now happened in a nuclear power station with six reactors designed by a US company, General Electric, and operated by one of the largest nuclear power companies in the developed world, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). When a world leader in an industry faces a meltdown, the whole global industry reels.

To understand the context of the Fukushima disaster, it is important to recall the effects of earlier crises. Three Mile Island (1979) paralysed the US nuclear industry, the world’s largest, with 104 power reactors. It was already in trouble earlier, having not had a single new reactor order since 1973. Three Mile Island led to tighter safety regulations and further raised the already-high costs of reactors, and hence of nuclear power. Wall Street has totally shunned the nuclear industry ever since.

President George W Bush’s attempt 10 years ago to instigate a “nuclear renaissance” in America by offering generous loan guarantees and other subsidies has proved largely futile. Not a single new reactor has been licensed in the US.

Then came Chernobyl, which dealt a body blow to the European nuclear industry. The market’s confidence in nuclear power generation, never very high, collapsed. No new reactor has been constructed in the last 25 years in Europe, as governments too have had to reckon with growing public opposition to nuclear power and its high demands on the exchequer. The European industry is at best sputtering with a few nuclear projects. They are all in trouble, led by the European Pressurised Reactor developed by France’s Areva, now under construction in Finland.

The EPR is 42 months behind schedule, 90 percent over budget, and faces 3,000 safety questions from Finnish, British, US and even French nuclear regulators. If the project is abandoned because of high and rising costs, and a likely burden of up to Rs 5,000 per Finnish citizen amidst bitter litigation, it could spell the end of nuclear power expansion in Europe.

The Japanese disaster is so powerful and far-reaching that it could precipitate a terminal crisis for the global nuclear industry. Already, Switzerland has cancelled plans to build three reactors. And Germany has revoked a recent decision to prolong the phaseout of nuclear power. Other countries are likely to follow. Even France, which gets more than three-fourths of its electricity from nuclear reactors, has upgraded the level of the Fukushima crisis on the disaster scale.

What caused the Fukushima crisis? The earthquake shut down the three operating reactors, as designed, thereby cutting off the power with which to cool the reactors’ still-hot cores. As designed, the back-up diesel generators also cut in, but an hour later, cut out, for as-yet-unknown reasons. The core, containing hundreds of tonnes of fuel, started heating up further. As water circulation stopped, more than half the core was exposed in Reactors 3 and 1, and all of the core in Reactor 2. The three reactors all suffered a LOCA, with a potential for a partial or complete core meltdown.

Soon, unspecified quantities of radiation were released. Radiation from Daiichi was detected by a helicopter 100 km away. Of particular significance in the fallout are Iodine-131 (which gets concentrated in the thyroid, causing cancer), and Caesium-137 (which is similar to potassium and gets easily absorbed in human tissues).

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.—end--

(6) Mar 16 Special to ‘Financial Chronicle’

Halting the Jaitapur juggernaut

Praful Bidwai

If Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan thought he could convince the people of Jaitapur, in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, of the virtues of the giant nuclear power complex which is being built there, he must have been sorely disappointed by his February 26 visit to the area. He harangued and taunted the 8,000-strong crowd, told people they were being misled by “outsiders” who “don’t want to see India progress”, and unleashed the aggressive, abusive industries minister (and former Chief Minister) Narayan Rane upon them. Rane had earlier declared: “No outsider who comes to Jaitapur to oppose the project will return (alive).”

Chavan failed to convince. The protesters held their ground. Only one person spoke for the project—an absentee landlord long settled in Mumbai. Hundreds vocally opposed it for its hazards; livelihood destruction; deception and despotism in its implementation; and devastation of the area’s precious, stunningly beautiful ecosystem.

The “public interaction” was a fiasco for Chavan—and a “provocation” for Rane to deliver yet more coercive threats. Soon, 22 peaceful protesters were rounded up on a range of charges, including attempt to murder. Yet others were served externment notices, including former Supreme Court judge and Press Council chairman PB Sawant, whose native village is in Ratnagiri. Since December, the government has banned eminent citizens, including a former Navy chief, the Communist Party of India general secretary, and distinguished social scientists, from Jaitapur. It also disallowed a People’s Tribunal hearing on March 6 and 7.

If the government had set out to mock the concept of development, it couldn’t have done better. It established that development for it is not a process of inclusive, equitable growth in which people willingly participate to empower themselves and achieve higher social indices and justice, but an alien, disembodied object to be rammed down the throats of an unwilling population.

The Jaitapur project will be built on the backs of toiling farmers, agricultural workers and fisherfolk. This speaks to a perverse notion of progress, which sets governments into direct, imperious opposition to the people, with terrible consequences for democracy, which at minimum must respect the citizen’s right to life with dignity, and the right to reject projects that destroy livelihoods.

Jaitapur is flawed and undesirable, on four other counts too: the inherent hazards of nuclear power; safety problems with the French company Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design on which its six 1,650 MW plants will be based; exorbitant costs; and its grave location-specific ecological impact.

All nuclear reactors routinely expose occupational workers and the public to radiation through emissions and effluents. Radiation produces cancer and genetic damage and is unsafe in all doses. Reactors also produce radioactive wastes which remain hazardous for centuries: plutonium-239’s half-life is 24,400 years and uranium-235’s is 710 million years. Science has found no way of safely storing, leave alone neutralising, nuclear waste for centuries.

Nuclear power is the only form of energy production with a potential for catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl (1986), in which an estimated 65,000 to 105,000 perished. All commercial reactors can undergo a similar core meltdown with huge radioactivity releases. Reactors are complex, high-pressure high-temperature systems in which a barely-controlled chain-reaction occurs. Controls can fail. Minor malfunctions get quickly magnified through tightly-coupled sub-systems.

The EPR’s design is untested and fraught. The world’s first EPR-under-construction, in Finland—Western Europe’s first post-Chernobyl reactor—is delayed by at least 42 months, 90 percent over budget, and mired in bitter disputes and litigation. Finnish, British, US, and even French regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues about its design, including flaws in control and instrumentation and emergency-cooling systems. The design has been criticised for its excessive complexity by a French government-appointed expert.

The EPR is turning out a White Elephant. It’s not clear if and when the safety issues raised will be resolved. But tackling them will further raise its already sky-high capital costs—Rs 21 crores per MW, on current Finnish estimates, compared to Rs 5 crores for coal-fired power. Jaitapur’s unit power costs are likely to be two to three times higher than those from other sources, including coal and wind. In downstream economic impact, Jaitapur could be worse than Enron.

The government is imposing this Nuclear Enron upon the Sahyadri ecosystem, one of the world’s 10 greatest “biodiversity hotspots”—with more than 5,000 species of flowering plants and 139 mammal, 508 bird and 179 amphibian species, including 325 threatened ones. The area is considered India’s richest for endemic plant species. Two great peninsular rivers (the Krishna and Godavari) originate there.

Construction of the project and transmission systems will inevitably damage this unique ecosystem, including its flourishing agriculture, fruit cultivation (crowned by the Alphonso, the world’s best-known mango), and fisheries, thus devastating 40,000 livelihoods.

The Jaitapur reactors will daily release 52 billion litres of water into the sea at a temperature 5 °C hotter than the sea. The Bombay Natural History Society warns that even a 0.5 °C rise could lead to high fish mortality.

Jaitapur is an irredeemably bad bargain. It is being pushed by a crisis-ridden global nuclear industry desperate for orders, and its Indian collaborators. We must halt the Jaitapur juggernaut before it’s too late.—end--

March 14, 2011

by Praful Bidwai

By threatening to withdraw its ministers from the United Progressive Alliance government over a seat-sharing dispute in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham sprang a stunning surprise on the Congress. DMK president M Karunanidhi assumed a self-righteous posture and charged the Congress with greed for raising its demand for tickets for the coming elections to the 234-strong Assembly from the 60 seats agreed earlier, to 63 seats.

Finally, Mr Karunanidhi’s brinkmanship came a cropper and the Congress prevailed, but only by paying a price, as we see below. Congress-DMK differences over seats could have been resolved through mutual discussion. But Mr Karunanidhi chose to precipitate a crisis. Seemingly, however, he had to blink.

The Congress got the 63 seats it wanted, including one each from its own ally (IUML), the DMK, and the smaller PMK. The Congress has a good chance of being invited, unlike in 2006, into the next Tamil Nadu government, if the alliance wins the election. The DMK will contest 12-15 fewer seats than it did in the last election.

The DMK blinked because Congress president Sonia Gandhi reportedly told it that she wouldn’t give in to unreasonable demands bordering on blackmail. The DMK knew it had overplayed its hand and retreated. But it would be wrong for the Congress to adopt a triumphalist stand. It has emerged weakened and politically compromised from this episode. Consider the following.

The real dispute between the two parties wasn’t about seat-sharing. The DMK deeply resents the CBI’s investigation into the 2G-spectrum scam, at the pivot of which is former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja. Mr Raja was sacked from the Cabinet and jailed.

Even worse, the CBI net began closing in on the Karunanidhi family as a Rs 214-crore money trail came to light. Links were uncovered between the Kalaignar TV channel, in which the family has a majority stake, and a firm which belongs to shady Mumbai-based realtor Shahid Balwa.

The DMK’s resignation threat was meant, among other things, to extract an assurance that the CBI wouldn’t summon and question Mr Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi and her mother Dayalu Ammal before the state elections. The Congress couldn’t have delivered this openly because the CBI investigation has already been taken over by the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, an informal understanding seems to have been reached, that the CBI would only “call for clarifications” from Ms Kanimozhi, not summon her. So, the Congress too blinked by making this concession to the DMK. How this will be worked out in practice is unclear.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can’t overtly interfere with the CBI because he wants to refurbish his government’s scandal-tarnished reputation. For the same reason, he “accepted responsibility” for appointing tainted bureaucrat PV Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner. Dr Singh’s admission doesn’t settle the issue. His opponents will demand follow-up action, as in the case of Howard Davies, who resigned as the director of the London School of Economics over a donation from Libya’s Gaddafi family.

At any rate, the DMK couldn’t have sustained a confrontation with the Congress. It desperately needs an alliance in Tamil Nadu with a mid-sized party like the Congress. The Congress too needs the DMK. The DMK’s vote-share is roughly one-fourth of the total. (It was 26.5 percent in the 2006 Assembly elections.) But this isn’t enough to put it into power.

The Congress can poll 9 to 15 percent of the vote (with the higher number in the Lok Sabha elections). But this isn’t enough to win it a respectable number of seats—as it found to its dismay in 1989, when it fought elections on its own. But a DMK-Congress combination is potentially a winner.

Since 1996, the DMK has allied with “national” parties like the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party, and joined the Central government. (It has been out of national power only briefly, between March 1998 and October 1999). It has perfected a system of milking prize ministries such as telecom, highways and the environment.

The DMK has used extreme brinkmanship tactics all along. For instance, when it was part of the National Democratic Alliance, it twice threatened to withdraw support. In 2004, within 48 hours of being sworn in under the UPA, it threatened to pull out over portfolio distribution. In 2006, it repeated the threat over divestment from the Tamil Nadu-based Neyveli Lignite Corporation.

In November 2008, the DMK threatened to withdraw support over the UPA’s inaction in preventing the killing of Sri Lanka’s Tamil civilians. Yet again, during government formation in May 2009, it made the withdrawal threat over portfolio allocation. The intrigue and lobbying were eloquently exposed in the Radia tapes.

The Congress isn’t unfamiliar with the DMK’s style, and could have handled the crisis more tactfully. But it pretended that it could ignore the DMK altogether. Media briefings were informally held, in which Congress leaders claimed that the party has many other options than preserving its alliance with the DMK at a high political cost.

For instance, in Tamil Nadu, it could ally with Ms Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, which recently sealed a seat-sharing deal with film-star Vijayakant’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMDK), besides other smaller groups. But Ms Jayalalithaa has already allotted 40 to 50 seats to the DMDK, which recently won 8.4 to 10 percent of the vote. She cannot possibly spare 60 seats for the Congress.

Nationally too, the Congress’s options are both limited and unpleasant. Were the DMK’s 18 Lok Sabha MPs to withdraw support to the UPA, it would be reduced to a minority. Of course, it could then rope in the Samjwadi Party (22 MPs), Bahujan Samaj Party (21) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (4), which all support it from the outside. But the Congress would have to pay a price for that.

Effectively, that would mean abandoning the Congress’s (especially general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s) aspirations to revive the party in Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi-heartland states by going it alone. These aspirations received a setback in the recent Bihar Assembly elections. The Congress was routed. But Mr Gandhi hasn’t given up hope. He’s banking on the Youth Congress’s recent recruitment drive, which has resulted in 13.5 lakh new members.

Yet, it’s unclear if Mr Gandhi has a political strategy to put together a strong social coalition based on subaltern castes, the poor and the landless. In UP’s highly polarised politics, a party with a diffuse social base has only a limited chance of success.

Mere personal goodwill and appeal, or the attraction of an “umbrella party”, is unlikely to do the trick. But such is the Congress’s leadership crisis that there is no coherent strategic thinking by its top leadership, while sycophancy and an almost magical faith in the ability of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s ability to win elections prevail among the party’s second- and third-rank leaders.

However, it would be unwise for the Congress to expect Mr Gandhi to reproduce his mother’s earlier role in reviving the party, and leading its march to power, as she did in 2004.

The circumstances have changed. The Congress hasn’t made a transition from an older generation of leaders, of which the late Arjun Singh was the last representative, to a new generation, with genuinely fresh ideas and strategies, and a new political idiom and style of working. Mr Singh was rightly criticised for having missed an opportunity to confront the late PV Narasimha Rao on allowing the Babri Masjid’s demolition in December 1992 through shameful inaction which reeked of complicity.

Mr Singh, whose secular credentials were impeccable, could have become the Prime Minister had he taken on Mr Rao at that point of time. Yet, for all his faults, Mr Singh practised a broadly Nehruvian politics, with a strong pro-people and anti-communal agenda. With his death, the Congress has lost its last major link between the 20th century and the 21st century. But a new leadership hasn’t yet emerged.

Recent scandals, coupled with a Rightward economic drift, have damaged the Congress’s standing. Dr Singh is extremely reluctant to correct course by accepting the progressive recommendations of the National Advisory Council on food security, the Right to Information, and other issues. There are many other slippages from the Congress’s promises.

The party and the government no longer work in concert. Ministers don’t act with a unity of purpose. It’s as if the Congress had forgotten the commitments made in its own 2009 election manifesto to inclusive, pro-poor growth, and to clean, accountable governance.

The Congress is now at its most vulnerable since it returned to power seven years ago. For the moment, it has weathered the storm caused by the DMK, but not without some loss of credibility and appeal. So, that shouldn’t lead to hubris and arrogance in its attitude towards its UPA allies.

The Congress would be especially foolish to practise DMK-style brinkmanship vis-à-vis the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, where the Left is extremely vulnerable. Brinkmanship can sometimes produce unintended, extremely negative consequences, including snowballing crises and breakdowns.