Old configuration, new context

The military origin and context of nuclear technology, with its reduced emphasis on safety and transparency, are a recipe for disaster in the civilian sector.

April 11, 2011 01:33 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:43 pm IST

In this March 15, 2011 photo, smoke billows from the Unit 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Fukushima forces us to question our beliefs about nuclear energy. How have we come to hold naive beliefs about its risks? Are we deluded about its safety?

In this March 15, 2011 photo, smoke billows from the Unit 3 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Fukushima forces us to question our beliefs about nuclear energy. How have we come to hold naive beliefs about its risks? Are we deluded about its safety?

It has been many decades since the pioneers of India's nuclear programme, administrators and government started discussing the need for electrical power, the vast potential of nuclear energy and the country's plans for the peaceful use of nuclear resources. They argued that it was an extremely safe option and projected it as the answer to the nation's energy security needs. Many sceptics were converted. Then, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl happened, shattering the complacency. Nevertheless, post-mortems of these disasters dismissed concerns, blamed people and procedures and downplayed risks. No one imagined that the unlikely combination of natural and man-made disasters would occur together — a massive earthquake, a towering tsunami and the failure of the so-called foolproof safety and containment strategies. Fukushima forces us to question our beliefs about nuclear energy. How have we come to hold naive beliefs about its risks? Are we deluded about its safety? Alternatively, do those who champion its cause as an easy and attractive option deceive us?

Nuclear context: Nuclear technology developed in the context of World War II. This new expertise and its unimaginable horror and destructive potential were demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cold War encouraged nuclear innovation. Overground tests were banned as their adverse environmental impact was clear. The development and innovation related to nuclear energy were closely bound to the military context. However, nuclear expertise was co-opted and gradually moved to the civilian sector for the production of energy. Its growth and promotion for use in war meant environmental and human impacts were considered unimportant in the context of its ability to annihilate the enemy. Consequently, potential hazards and risks did not receive necessary attention required when it was moved into the civilian sector. While the hazards were obvious, its quick and dirty transfer for power generation necessitated the suppression of such implications. Re-designing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes would require going back to the drawing board, a complete reassessment of risks, research on safety concerns and strategies. It would mandate enormous money, time, effort, political and administrative will. However, such costs would make it an unattractive and unviable economic option. Consequently, its historical and social links were rendered invisible and the ‘technology,' stripped of its original military context, was transferred to civilian use. Nevertheless, secrecy surrounding the nuclear expertise, with its military implications, remained standard.

Japanese transformation: How did the Japanese, with their history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their pacifist post-World War II constitution, their non-nuclear principles of not manufacturing, possessing and deploying nuclear weapons, slowly accept the U.S. nuclear umbrella? How did the country gradually adopt nuclear power as a reliable and routine civilian option? How did its enormous economic wealth, technologically advanced society, safety consciousness and traditional meticulous attention to detail prevent it from foreseeing the Fukushima disaster? What was the probability of a sequence of an earthquake, tsunami, failure of the backup generators, malfunction of battery power, damage to switch gear, limited water to cool the reactors and the absence of nitrogen containment systems? How did such a series of unlikely probabilities come together?

The country's stoicism, in the face of recent devastation and the possibility of massive radiation exposure, was remarkable. However, it also raised questions about how nuclear energy came to be accepted as the norm. Why is Japan not reacting to radiation in the air, water and in the food chain? Did the Japanese have naive beliefs or were they deluded or deceived into accepting the nuclear option? After the initial denials of all possible danger, we now see a slow and managed trickle of information gradually reporting radiation and environmental contamination data, albeit along with scientific reassurance about its non-lethal implications. The cloud of secrecy about nuclear energy continues.

Indian issues: India and its parliament debated the nuclear options in 2008. The United Progressive Alliance-I risked its majority and the Prime Minister staked his reputation on the Nuclear Safety Bill. The government, under pressure from Uncle Sam, refused to significantly increase nuclear liability for western manufacturers of the nuclear power plants. Their legal responsibility and accountability were limited. Financial liability for accidents, considering the magnitude of the potential for disaster, was capped at a paltry sum. Images of Bhopal did little to achieve agreements for substantial compensation in case of nuclear accidents. New political alliances were forged, the Bill was passed and the government survived. The government went on to sign agreements with western nations for the supply of nuclear equipment. It is now clearing land for building nuclear reactors. Opposition to these plans are dismissed. Conflicts with the local people who will be displaced (e.g. Jaitapur) are being effectively managed.

The lack of national consensus, the hurriedly crafted deals and the absence of transparency leave much to be desired. The non-competitive bidding process for acquiring nuclear equipment and the blurring of lines between suppliers, operators, regulators and buyers are serious causes for concern. Acquisition of untested designs adds to the uncertainty. Consequently, the limitation of liability of suppliers and operators, in case of accidents and disasters, makes one sceptical and wonder if issues related to safety received the necessary attention.

Nuclear problems: Nuclear energy, despite growing opposition, is considered an attractive alternative in the West with its hunger for unlimited energy and its unwillingness to alter its preferred lifestyles. The Obama administration's plan to increase nuclear power glossed over its problems and emphasised its economical and environmental advantages, while dismissing genuine concerns. Nevertheless, the nuclear industry faces numerous, multifaceted and complex problems, which are rarely highlighted. Old reactors, safety failures and shutdowns, deadly radioactive waste, untested new designs, colossal building outlay, phenomenal cost overruns, gigantic government loan guarantees, higher than anticipated price of generated power, tax subsidies for the industry, public bailouts for losses and reluctant private investors complicate issues of nuclear power and its generation. High cost of building multiple backup and foolproof safety mechanisms, optimistic estimates of risk, the downplaying of potential hazards, a lack of transparency and the use of nationalist and pseudo-scientific arguments to silence criticism add to complexity. Dwindling energy resources, threats of energy famines, high environmental and financial price of fossil fuels coupled with the slick packaging of nuclear energy make for attractive advertising, increasing consumer confidence and demand for nuclear alternatives.

Transfer troubles: The basis of problems faced by the nuclear industry can be traced back to its history and origins. While nuclear power is born out of science, the nuclear industry is subject to a variety of non-scientific forces. Political, economic, military, nationalist and social factors modulate its efficacy. Iatrogenic problems, errors of judgment, irreversible species-level changes and alteration to the environment complicate the civilian context. Nuclear power operating at ecological/society level can result in a crisis, as exemplified by Chernobyl. While scientific arguments are employed to champion nuclear energy and to defend nuclear safety, it will necessarily be economic issues that will determine the growth of nuclear power. The military origins and nature of much of the technology forces the state to curb transparency, which is mandatory in the civilian sector.

India's and the world's need to power their economic growth seems to be forcing a blind acceptance of nuclear energy as safe. The magnitude of the energy requirements to meet needs of ever-increasing populations and expanding industrial needs dulls our intelligence, reduces our safety consciousness and blunts our safety concerns. Have the general population, scientists, administrators, politicians and government been brainwashed by the world view of the nuclear lobby, making it culturally acceptable to embrace the technology born out of international conflicts and wars? Can we not see the dangers of using old ideas and configurations, which are inappropriate in the new civilian context? On the other hand, could it be that the industry is clearly attempting to deceive, to increase its profits?

Many questions require answers. Should we revisit the science in the context of civilian use? Should we review the probability of accidents and disasters, now that supposedly rare circumstances produced the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters? Should we re-evaluate the so-called foolproof strategies on safety? Should we demand greater transparency and lift the veil of secrecy, which belongs to a different era and a distinct context? Should the actual and true costs of safe nuclear power be re-estimated? Should there be completely new cost, benefit and risk analysis and comparisons with renewable energy? We need clarifications.

The question is, will the Indian state, national governments and the nuclear-military establishment provide answers?

( Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore. The views expressed are personal .)

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