(The News International, November 12, 2011)

by Praful Bidwai

India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam brought himself no credit by visiting the Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu, and declaring it “100 percent safe”. The idea that any technology, especially a complex hazard-prone one like a nuclear power, is “100 percent safe” is patently unscientific. All technologies carry finite risks. The more complicated, energy-dense, and dependent on high-pressure high-temperature systems they are, the higher the risk.

Kalam, the father of India’s missile programme, supports outlandish and destructive ideas, such as interlinking India’s rivers (thus damaging their basins’ integrity, besides pumping up water with electricity), making India “fully developed” by 2020, with per capita energy consumption rising 20 times to US levels (thus burning gigantic amounts of coal, displacing millions, and raising greenhouse gas emissions sky-high), and using genetic engineering to make Ayurvedic medicines.

Kalam failed to convince the protesters who have been on a relay fast for over three weeks. Their earlier hunger-strike impelled the Tamil Nadu cabinet to demand suspension of the reactors’ construction until people’s apprehensions about nuclear hazards are allayed.

Kalam didn’t bother to meet the protesters and blatantly sided with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) officials. His 10-point proposal for local development fails to address people’s concerns. It evokes derision.

Kalam’s visit was part of a three-pronged attack by India’s nuclear establishment against Koodankulam’s protesters. The second prong is disinformation that they are imperilling the safety of the nuclear plant which recently had a “hot run”. The third is a malicious campaign alleging that the protesters are misled by “foreign” elements, including environmentalists and nuclear manufacturers with rival designs to Koodankulam’s Russian-origin reactors.

Thus Department of Atomic Energy secretary Srikumar Banerjee claimed: “It is not a plant which can be just switched on and off...We have done the hot run. We can’t go from hot run to a freeze condition. .... There is a serious concern about the damage to our programme...” NPCIL chairman SK Jain added: a reactor is “not a car factory where you can switch off the systems... You have simulators, ventilators, computer and electronic systems....”

Such scare-mongering is deplorable. There is no nuclear danger at Koodankulam yet. Reactor 1, under advanced construction, hasn’t gone critical, with a nuclear fission chain-reaction. For all intents and purposes, it’s like a car factory, which too has simulators, ventilators and computers.

A “hot run” involves loading dummy fuel (without uranium) into the reactor, and then heating the primary coolant water to “280 degrees Celsius ...”, according to site director MK Balaji (“The Hindu”, June 5). After the three-week-long hot run, “the reactor would be disassembled”, not just shut, and the reactor vessel, pipelines, gauges and safety devices inspected. The hot run’s purpose is to test the coolant circuit.

Until nuclear fission occurs in Reactor 1, its safety won’t be affected in the least if operations are suspended even for months. Shutting down reactors even after they have gone critical isn’t rocket science. All reactors are periodically closed for maintenance. Many have been shut down safely for good – recently in Japan and Germany, and earlier in the US, France, Britain, Italy, etc.

The DAE/NPCIL hasn’t produced a shred of evidence for the charge that a “foreign hand” is behind the Koodankulam protests. I confirmed through telephone calls that there are no foreign protesters there. The only foreigners who have been around are the Russian engineers invited by NPCIL!

The charge is a bit rich coming from a department, all of whose reactors are based on Canadian or US designs, and whose very survival depends on reactor imports.

Former DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar told Marathi daily Sakaal (Jan 5) that India is handing out lucrative reactor deals to foreign suppliers for their governments’ support to the US-India nuclear deal: “We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and ... companies ...America, Russia and France were ... made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them ....” Such collaboration is so embarrassing that many former DAE officials oppose it.

This gutter-level anti-protest campaign will only further discredit the DAE. The DAE has never completed a major project on time or without a 300 percent-plus cost overrun. Its safety performance is appalling, with numerous accidents and exposure of workers to radiation well in excess of the officially stipulated limits. Over 350 of these were documented from the Tarapur power station alone.

The accidents include a fire in the turbine room (Narora 1993), collapse during construction of a containment dome – a concrete-shell “safety” structure – (Kaiga 1994), pipeline leaks (BARC 1991), heavy water spills (Rajasthan 1999; Kalpakkam 1999), and massive leaks of radioactive substances exposing workers (Kalpakkam 2003), and contamination of drinking water with highly toxic tritium (Kaiga, 2009).

According to former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman A Gopalakrishnan, these accidents were never properly investigated, and nobody was punished for them.

The DAE lacks a commitment to transparency, truthfulness, accountability and safety. Its knee-jerk response is to deny that nuclear reactors pose a safety problem. When the truth becomes starkly undeniable, it trivialises the problem.

Thus, it was no aberration that Banerjee and Jain denied the gravity of the March 12-14 hydrogen explosions during the world’s worst nuclear disaster, at Fukushima. Banerjee said the blasts – which indicated severe core damage and aggravated it, leading to three meltdowns – were “a purely chemical reaction, not a nuclear emergency”! Jain said it was a “planned emergency preparedness programme...”

That such delusion-prone men should be entrusted with ultra-hazardous nuclear power in India is an abiding disgrace.

Popular fears about Koodankulam’s nuclear hazards are well-founded. Reactor designers and operators have concluded that all reactors types currently operating worldwide can undergo a loss-of-coolant or other accidents, leading to catastrophic releases of radioactivity.

Radioactivity poisons air, water, and plant and animal life, damaging body-cell DNA, causing cell death, genetic damage and cancers.

Nuclear power is bound up with radiation from cradle to grave – from uranium mining to fuel fabrication, and from reactor operation to spent-fuel reprocessing and storage. Contrary to Kalam’s claim, reprocessing 99 percent of spent fuel at Koodankulam cannot eliminate radiation; reprocessing will produce yet more radioactivity and nuclear waste.

Waste generated in nuclear reactors remains hazardous for thousands of years. Half the plutonium-239 will be present even after 24,000 years, and half the uranium-235 for 710 million years. Science knows no way of safely storing such substances, leave alone disposing them of. Besides, even routine emissions and effluents from nuclear plants are dangerous.

Nuclear power is also far costlier than electricity from conventional fuels, and increasingly, from renewable sources such as wind, biomass and solar, whose costs are falling amazingly rapidly. Nuclear’s greenhouse emissions are also higher per unit of power than those from most renewables. It cannot “decarbonise” the energy economy cost-effectively or rapidly enough.

The nuclear industry was always promoted through deception and huge public subsidies. No bank would finance it. It has been called “the greatest failure of any enterprise in ... industrial history”, which has lost more than $1 trillion in subsidies, cash losses, abandoned projects and damage to the public. It’s high time we stopped the juggernaut of destruction.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi.