For a congregation of technical and academic specialists, the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference here this week was anything but dull.
Along with panellists looking at everything from disarmament to the nuclear fuel cycle, the conference also became a forum for suggestive questions on alleged clandestine nuclear activities by India. Unexpectedly revelations of cracks in the U.S.’ nuclear infrastructure also emerged.
Speaking at the event, India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao declined to enter into what she called a “slugfest” between India and Pakistan, particularly after Pakistani audience members asked whether India had clandestinely obtained nuclear technology for its 1974 nuclear test and whether sub-continental peace depended more on India resolving the Kashmir issue than on nuclear deterrence.
On nuclear proliferation, Ms. Rao said: “There is absolutely no popular or perceived wisdom about India being in the category of countries that indulges in activities of a clandestine nature...” She however added that it would be “no-no” for India to ever consider joining the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-weapons state.
While she noted that she was not privy to specifics on certain Indian scientists, who were alleged to have indulged in such clandestine activities, she clarified that for anyone, “If it is found that they have worked against the law and have violated the regulations on such issues the Indian government itself goes after them... There is a zero tolerance about this.”
In the subcontinent
Pressed on the question of India’s role in continuing sub-continental tensions, the Ambassador said, “I don’t want to go into issues about India and Pakistan. India is a huge country, India is three times larger than Pakistan, three times in terms of its economy and its potential, we are in a different category.” Ms. Rao added that this should, however, not be considered a “hegemonic call to greatness”, but “let’s look at the way the cookie crumbles”.
Meanwhile, controversy also spilled over into another corner of the Carnegie Endowment-sponsored conference, when Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, warned that “All 104 nuclear power reactors now in operation in the U.S. have a safety problem that cannot be fixed and they should be replaced with newer technology.”
According to reports, Dr. Jaczko said a number of these U.S. reactors had obtained permission from the NRC to “operate for 20 years beyond their initial 40-year licenses” and they probably would not last that long. Specifically, he pointed to a “well-known characteristic of nuclear reactor fuel to continue to generate copious amounts of heat after a chain reaction is shut down”.
Such “decay heat” is what led to the Fukushima meltdowns, experts said, and Dr. Jaczko warned that unless smaller reactors were commissioned, “Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.”
However, TheNew York Times quoted Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute trade association, disputing Dr. Jaczko’s assessment, saying, “U.S. nuclear energy facilities are operating safely... It was the case during his tenure as NRC Chairman, as acknowledged by the NRC’s special Fukushima response task force and evidenced by a multitude of safety and performance indicators. It is still the case today.”