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Friday, June 15, 2012
OP-ED

Praful Bidwai Column

Demonising anti-nuclear protests

So monumen-tally arrogant is India's nuclear establishment that it brazenly brands its critics insane and in need of psychiatric treatment. It has asked the state-run National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) to "counsel" the tens of thousands protesting against the Koodankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu that it's perfectly safe.

This marks a new offensive to impose nuclear power upon people who have resisted Koodankulam's Russian-made reactors since 1988. After Fukushima, the presumption that fears about nuclear hazards are irrational betrays delusional insensitivity.

The police have filed 107 First Information Reports against an incredible 55,795 people in Koodankulam, charging 6,800 of them with "sedition" and "waging war." This sets a new record in harassment of popular protests anywhere. Leave alone sedition, there hasn't been one violent incident during the seven-months-long Koodankulam protests.

NIMHANS psychiatrists, to their shame, are striving to help people "understand the importance of the nuclear power plant." They treat opposition to nuclear power as a disorder like schizophrenia, paranoia, or craving for victimhood.

By their criteria, more than 80% of the population of Japan, Germany, France and Russia, which opposes new nuclear plants, must be considered insane. As an academic research institution, NIMHANS shouldn't act as a nuclear propaganda agency.

NIMHANS seems to have taken its cue from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who attributed the protests to the "foreign hand." But the real "foreign hand" is Singh himself, who is hitching India's energy trajectory to imported reactors, including French reactors at Jaitapur (Maharashtra), and American reactors at Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) and Kovvada (Andhra).

After Fukushima, nuclear safety can no longer be analysed from the usual "expert" probabilistic perspective. As the official German Ethics Commission on safe energy says, Fukushima has decisively changed nuclear risk perceptions: "More people have come to realise…that major accidents can indeed occur." As physicist Alvin Weinberg said: "A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere."

Fukushima occurred in an industrially advanced country, still hasn't been brought under control, and exposes flaws in the global nuclear industry's technological risk-assessment methods. Says the Ethics Commission: Fukushima "has shaken people's confidence … [They] are no longer prepared to leave it to … experts to decide how to deal with… the possibility of an uncontrollable… accident."

This applies to India too. Its Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has a poor safety culture and record. DAE parrots clichés about the Russian reactors' safety. But it doesn"t even have full access to their design.

It's the DAE and Nuclear Power Corporation, not the protesters, who are delusion-prone. When the Fukushima crisis decisively turned for the worse with hydrogen explosions, DAE secretary Sreekumar Banerjee said these were "purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency …."

Of course, the explosions were chemical reactions. But the hydrogen indicated severe nuclear fuel damage. The explosions ruptured plant structures, aggravating the nuclear emergency with three reactor-core meltdowns.

Last September, the government suspended work on Koodankulam until people's safety concerns are fully allayed by a 15-member "expert group." This failed to convince anyone or furnish any documents, including the Environmental Impact Assessment report. It refused even to meet the independent scientists nominated by the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE).

Koodankulam raises two sets of safety issues: specific to the reactors and site, and generic to nuclear power. The reactors haven't been certified safe by an independent international or Indian agency. A recent report by nuclear safety experts on Russian reactors shockingly reveals that they are grievously under-prepared for natural or man-made disasters.

Russian reactors are marked by 31 "serious flaws," including: absence of regulations to deal with contingencies; inadequate protective shelters; lack of records of previous accidents, which would enable learning from past mistakes; and poor attention to safety-significant systems.

The report questions the reactors' ability to remain safe long enough if cooling systems fail. These systems are vulnerable to metal fatigue and welding flaws. Worse, the earthquake hazard isn't considered in designing Russian reactors. Many lack earthquake-triggered automatic shutdown mechanisms.

There are serious site-specific issues too, including impact on people and fisheries, and inadequacy of safety systems and waste storage. The site could be vulnerable to tsunamis caused by "slumps" (massive agglomerations of loosely-bound seabed sediments), small-volume volcanic eruptions, and geological and hydrological instability.

Koodankulam is probably the world's sole nuclear plant without independent freshwater supply. The desalination plant, on which it will fully depend, could fail.

These issues were highlighted in an impressive 84-page report by PMANE. The official committee hasn't answered them.

NPC is now bypassing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board safety procedures. It's rushing into starting the first reactor, which gathered rust for five months. Prior to nuclear-fuel loading, it should be put through another "hot run," similar to last year's, says former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan.

In this operation, the core is loaded with dummy fuel and hot water is circulated through it at the same temperature as its operating level to check its vessels, piping, valves, etc. The AERB also mandates an emergency evacuation drill in the Emergency Planning Zone covering a 16-km radius, before fuel loading. Nothing suggests this will happen.

Koodankulam violates the stipulation that there must be zero population within a 1.5-km radius, and only a sparse population within a 5-km radius. Several thousands live in the 1.5-km radius. At least 40,000 people live within a 5-km radius, and 100,000 in the EPZ.

The generic hazards of nuclear power include radiation at each stage, from uranium mining, fuel fabrication, reactor operation and maintenance, to waste storage. Cancer-causing radiation is harmful in all doses. Routine emissions from reactors also pose grave hazards.

Even graver is the problem of nuclear wastes, which remain hazardous for thousands of years. Science knows no safe way of storing, let alone neutralising, them.

Nuclear power is the only form of energy production with a potential for catastrophic accidents like Fukushima. These problems make nuclear power uniquely, irredeemably, hazardous.

Koodankulam concentrates these hazards, dangerously. It must be scrapped.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.

E-mail: bidwai@bol.net.in

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