In an atmosphere of mistrust of the government, only an independent safety regulatory mechanism can counter the scaremongering against civilian nuclear power
I work at an institution funded by the Department of Atomic Energy (which, however, does no nuclear research: the DAE funds a wide variety of institutions and areas in science). About a year ago, I had an e-mail from a journalist who wondered why scientists (including colleagues at my institution), who were so outspoken in their opposition to nuclear weapons, were silent about nuclear power. I suggested that perhaps most scientists are not opposed to civilian nuclear power. India’s scientific academies may prefer to be silent on most issues of importance, but individual Indian scientists are an outspoken lot — they have contributed to the public debate on a variety of issues, ranging from nuclear weapons in the late 1990s to genetically modified crops more recently. If there were a genuine debate to be had on the safety or desirability of nuclear power, I would expect Indian scientists to actively participate in it.
Concrete, not abstract
And in fact there is a genuine debate to be had, but it is not an abstract debate about the safety or desirability of nuclear power. It is a concrete debate about the mechanisms for ensuring safety and transparency. Unfortunately, in all the noise about Kudankulam, this issue has received comparatively little attention in the media.
Since the Fukushima earthquake, worries about nuclear power have been widespread around the world. One person whose mind was changed was the environmental activist George Monbiot: writing in the British newspaper The Guardian on March 21, 2011, he declared: “As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.” His reason was that despite the magnitude of the disaster, the age of the plant, and the inadequate safety features, which led to a meltdown, nobody, as far as we know, had yet received a lethal dose of radiation. This convinced him that well-maintained plants built to modern safety standards pose little threat to the public. Meanwhile, we are facing unprecedented demands for energy, and global warming, driven by accelerating use of fossil fuels and resulting in rising sea levels and extreme weather, presents the biggest environmental threat to the world — especially, one should note, to poor coastal fishing communities such as the one at Kudankulam.
A little before Monbiot’s article, Randall Munroe, creator of the XKCD web comic, published a comparison of various forms of ionising radiation, measured in microsieverts, drawn from public sources (see http://xkcd.com/radiation). This widely circulated chart (also cited by Monbiot) suggested that the annual radiation exposure from living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant is about the same as that from eating a single banana (each being 0.1 microsieverts); the extra dose that Tokyo residents received following Fukushima (about 40 microsieverts) was about a tenth of the yearly dose from natural radioactive potassium in the body (about 390 microsieverts); and the maximum external dose from the Three Mile Island accident (about 1,000 microsieverts) is about a quarter of the normal yearly background dose (4,000 microsieverts, of which about 85 per cent is from natural sources and most of the rest from medical scans).
This is not to minimise the effects of disasters when they do occur. The radiation dose from spending one hour in Chernobyl, in 2010, is much more than the normal yearly “background” dose, and more than the maximum monthly dose permitted for radiation workers in the United States. We need to prevent a Chernobyl-type disaster from ever happening again, anywhere in the world. To quote Monbiot again: “I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.”
When an activist asked me last year whether I would feel safe living near a nuclear plant, I responded that I would consider living in Kalpakkam or Kudankulam much safer and healthier than living in Chennai (or any other Indian metro). She was taken aback, but responded that, nevertheless, the villagers do not feel that way, and we city people should not speak for the villagers.
Unfortunately, this has been the quality of the public debate on Kudankulam so far (and on other contentious nuclear projects like Jaitapur). Perceptions on safety matter more than facts. This is not totally a bad thing: public worry over nuclear power, especially since Chernobyl, has probably contributed to its extraordinary safety – just as the perceived dangers of air travel have made it by far the safest form of travel.
India, and Tamil Nadu in particular, faces a severe shortfall of energy. The environmental and societal damage from hydroelectric power is now well-known. Power plants running on fossil fuels, especially coal (the dominant fuel in India), cause incalculably more damage — including in ionising radiation — than nuclear power. Wind power is promising but, when implemented on a large scale, has its own environmental concerns, particularly to migratory birds. Solar panels are expensive, inefficient, and depend on rare earth elements, the mining of which, again, causes environmental damage. Monbiot’s decision to support nuclear energy is not surprising. What is surprising is the reluctance of other environmentalists to do the same.
To support civilian nuclear power with safeguards, in the abstract, is not the same as to support a particular power project. There may be valid safety or environmental concerns about a particular power project. There may be concerns about resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced people. The DAE needs to work out how to address these concerns in order to prevent similar problems with upcoming power projects. But it cannot do that on its own. We need independent oversight.
Civilian and military use
Unfortunately, for most of its history in India, civilian nuclear power has been deeply intertwined with the nuclear weapons project. As a result, the atomic energy establishment and the government have opposed any kind of external scrutiny of their projects. That has been changing in recent years. In 2005, India undertook, in an agreement with the U.S., to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and to place the former under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The safeguards agreement was signed with the IAEA in 2009. However, these safeguards are mainly concerned with proliferation of nuclear materials, not with the safety of the plant itself.
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is the main organisation concerned with nuclear safety in India. The AERB was severely criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General in August this year on numerous grounds, including not preparing a nuclear safety policy despite having had a mandate to do so since 1983; failing to prepare 27 of 168 safety documents; not having a detailed inventory of all radiation sources; and failure to adopt international practices. Currently a bill is pending to replace the AERB with a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA). In December 5, 2011, in an article in DNA (Mumbai), former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan argued forcefully for an independent regulatory mechanism along the lines of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) in France, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the U.S., and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). All these organisations, though appointed by the government, are independent, free of political and corporate influence, transparent, and communicate regularly with the public. Dr. Gopalakrishnan fears that the NSRA, as proposed, will be subject to government pressure and manipulation.
Intertwined with distrust of the DAE is a larger distrust of the Indian government. Given our inability to maintain the railways, highways, postal department, and other necessary infrastructure in good working order, why should our government be trusted to maintain nuclear plants? It is a good question and deserves a good answer. The DAE may be an excellent organisation, but it must be seen to be excellent, and only openness and external scrutiny will provide that. The NSRA bill deserves much greater media attention and debate than it has received so far.
Unfortunately, this much-needed debate does not appear to be occurring: the activists, with their maximalist demand for stopping all nuclear power projects, not only discredit themselves, but let the government off the hook. The Indian public is aware of the power crisis and is not inclined to oppose nuclear power. The largest political parties in Tamil Nadu, too, have proven reluctant to back the anti-nuclear protests. The media have largely failed to ask the right questions. As a result, there is no pressure on the government, or on the DAE, to ensure transparency or to institute a genuinely independent regulatory body along the lines of proven international examples.
Meanwhile, the protesting locals at Kudankulam, who have now reportedly been persuaded to enter the sea in a “jal satyagraha,” seem to be victims only of unfounded scaremongering. All sympathies to them; but my sympathies, at least, don’t extend to the educated purveyors of motivated misinformation who, in a world of real and imminent global threats, are asking the villagers to act against their own best interests.
(Rahul Siddharthan is with the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The arguments expressed here are his personal opinions and not those of his institution.)