In response to my recent article in The Hindu, The real questions from Kudankulam” (edit page, September 14, 2012), supporting nuclear power and arguing for an independent regulatory authority, I received much feedback, largely positive, some critical; some of which deserves a response. Many of these points have been made by others, repeatedly, but some are new to me.

1) Independent oversight: Two credible people said that I was too critical of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and particularly the current regulatory authority, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which they said has been doing its job “without fear or favour.” This may be true (indeed, India’s nuclear safety record is outstanding) but, if the Kudankulam mess teaches us anything, it is that perceptions matter as much as reality. A truly independent AERB successor, the proposed Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA), with transparency, significant powers and, ideally, international representation, would also serve the cause of safety in future. That the AERB has acted fairly and independently so far does not guarantee that it will always do so.

Another point is that the NSRA cannot draw on independent nuclear expertise in India because none exists outside the DAE (one reason for international representation). We should encourage investments by the private sector, subject to NSRA oversight, and encourage leading non-DAE institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, to develop programmes in nuclear engineering. Meanwhile, the NSRA will require civil engineers, seismologists, radiation safety specialists, and other experts besides nuclear scientists, who exist independently of the DAE.

2) Risks and reality: The probability of a nuclear catastrophe may be very low but is not zero. How can we expose people to such a risk? Indeed, statements from the DAE like “Kudankulam is 100% safe” are not credible and a proper risk assessment is required. But, based on experience, the risk of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear plant seems minuscule compared to a similar risk at unscrutinised chemical factories everywhere: despite Bhopal, which is yet to be cleaned up adequately, there is no demand for bans on such factories. Most nuclear accidents have had few or no fatalities and no leak of radiation. In the past 25 years (since Chernobyl), only Fukushima has resulted in significant radiation exposure to the public. Few industries can claim a better record of safety.

As for nuclear liability: all of us deserve answers on this. It is not consistent to assert safety while denying liability, as the government apparently seeks to do.

What of military or terrorist attacks? Israel attacked an Iraqi plant in 1981 and a putative Syrian plant in 2007, but neither plant was loaded with fuel. An attack on Iran could have graver results. To cause a meltdown, such an attack would have to destroy the cooling system but keep the nuclear fuel confined. This looks unlikely, but I’m not a nuclear scientist and the question should be addressed by the DAE. Terrorist threats on the ground look still less likely to succeed. As for a 9/11 type attack: according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations website, “no one knows” what would happen if a commercial airliner crashed into one of the older U.S. plants, though many of them are built to withstand impacts from light planes. However, experts rule out a nuclear explosion. A conventional explosion can still spread radiation, but not on the scale of Chernobyl. These are points that, I believe, the DAE should address.

3) Emergency preparedness and liability: In the event of a disaster at Kudankulam, it is impossible to evacuate such an area rapidly, and medical facilities are inadequate. But this is not unique to nuclear power. Cyclones, floods, industrial accidents all occur regularly and we have not learned our lessons. The DAE should take the lead in ensuring disaster preparedness near its installations, but cannot be blamed for our country’s larger failures.

4) Local consent and involvement: In such projects, to what extent is local people’s consent required? This is perhaps the trickiest point of all. The needs of the many can conflict with the needs (and rights) of the few. The state’s ability to seize land for public use (“eminent domain”) is asserted from communist China to capitalist U.S. (where it was upheld by a right-leaning Supreme Court). In a democracy like India, we cannot insist that no private land ever be acquired for any purpose, but we should insist on proper resettlement. And our record is terrible. However, Kudankulam is not a case of forcible dispossessment — even the opponents allege only “misleading” villagers. The land was acquired at fair rates over two decades ago. Perhaps some protesters are suffering seller’s remorse, but most come from at least a few kilometres away, and seem motivated by unscientific fears of the plant.

5) The future: Unwarranted scaremongering is a problem on all sides. First, genuine concerns are diluted when bundled with alarmist nonsense. S.P. Udayakumar claims in his “Thirteen Reasons Why We Do Not Want the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project” (Transcend Media, August 2011) that the radiation from a nuclear plant’s normal operation is dangerous (this was addressed in my previous article), that coolant waste will affect fish populations (studies show no observable effect), and that the VVER-1000 reactors are “untested” (the design was developed between 1975 and 1985 and is in use in several countries since 1980, and new safety features in Kudankulam are in addition to, not replacing, existing features). It may be tempting to use these claims to discredit the anti-nuclear activists, but the good points that they make should not be ignored, especially when going forward to new nuclear installations. Second, this makes it hard to conduct a rational dialogue, or to address genuine worries while dispelling unfounded ones.

In his article in The Hindu, “Why Kudankulam dissolved into fission and acrimony” (Op-Ed, September 25, 2012), Mohit Abraham suggests that the DAE’s new openness and engagement with the public has “backfired,” because this engagement was half-hearted: previous projects, shrouded in secrecy, saw no protest. One hopes that the lesson drawn for the future is wholehearted public engagement, not an attempted (and futile) return to the secrecy of earlier days.

(Rahul Siddharthan is with the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, an autonomous institute under the Department of Atomic Energy. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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