Are We Equipped to Handle the Nuclear Program?

Glory and Joy! India’s journey towards a civil nuclear program seems all set to start rolling. Amidst all this celebration, I wish to ask a simple question: is India equipped to handle the operations?
In December 2006, uranium tailings spread into the river Subarnarekha, forcing local villagers to hold a blockade against the spill. On February 21, 2008, a new uranium tailings pipeline burst near Jaduguda, causing a spill that reached the homes of workers working in these mines. This is just one of the series of accidents, and very few of us even know of them. Even though we have been producing electricity from uranium for sometime now, Department of Atomic Energy is yet to find a permanent site for storage of the nuclear waste that is currently being generated. There are reports that currently, the waste keeps getting shifted from one place to another, thus exposing the workers to radioactive material. As we all know, our nation survives on jugaad – we create temporary things permanently – and I shudder to think what we will do with all the waste that will be generated through increased activity. Also, our tendency to resort to cost cutting or effort cutting might just lead us to one big highway to hell. Building and maintenance of nuclear plants is a difficult job, requiring expert help and careful attention to details. Neglect of even something small can lead to something serious like leakage of radioactive material into the environment. Look at the state of our Delhi roads and consider the recent dam accident in Bihar. Any accident at the site of the nuclear plant due to our carelessness can lead to serious consequences. Have we even considered that?
At this juncture, let me narrate an incident which took place in 1986. A reactor exploded in the Ukrainian SSR, sending a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere over an extensive geographical area. The fallout released was four hundred times more than what was released when Hiroshima was bombed. 4, 000 cancer deaths were reported – and these are official figures. The blame was placed solely on the power plant operators. The operators violated plant procedures and were ignorant of the safety requirements. This was partly due to lack of knowledge of the reactor’s design as well as lack of experience and training. This was the Chernobyl disaster – one that still sends shockwaves across the globe. Consider a similar situation happening in India…a country which could pat itself on its back for being the worst in crisis management.

Nuclear waste is not something which can be disposed off easily. This stems from the fact that the used uranium remains radioactive for centuries after. Therefore, it becomes utmost important to store it carefully so that it does not leech the soil or soil the air. Many nations, including US, follow the dangerous practice of storing them in the deepest pockets of the oceans. This is called seabed disposal. If storage is not done properly, the radioactive waste could contaminate the entire ocean floor. India must also find solutions for the waste that it generates. R.K. Bajpai and P.K. Narayan of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai have come out with one such solution of using natural thermal springs in North Eastern India for safe disposal of nuclear waste. More such places must be identified and a safe, permanent procedure must be charted out before we start on our civilian program. Exposure to radioactive material can lead to serious consequences. Ionizing radiation can cause important changes in our cells by breaking the electron bonds that hold molecules together. For example, radiation can damage our genetic material (DNA). An acute radiation dose (a large dose delivered during a short period of time) may result in effects which are observable within a period of hours to weeks. The delayed somatic effects have a potential for the development of cancer and cataracts. Acute somatic effects of radiation include skin burns, vomiting, hair loss, temporary sterility or subfertility in men, and blood changes. Chronic somatic effects include the development of eye cataracts and cancers. The second class of effects, namely genetic or heritable effects appears in the future generations of the exposed person as a result of radiation damage to the reproductive cells, but risks from genetic effects in humans are seen to be considerably smaller than the risks for somatic effects.

Currently, secrecy and non-accountability shield the nuclear affairs. The Department of Atomic Energy is free from scrutiny from the public and the parliament. The Atomic Energy Commission is under the direct charge of the Prime Minister and this makes it difficult for anyone to challenge nuclear policies or practices. Moreover, the Department has the right to not divulge any knowledge regarding its programs and procedures. Hence, they could be indulging in any activity which could seriously threaten our lives and we have no right to know about it. Furthermore (as of now) there is no constitutional protection for any informer or whistle blower who would dare to report a nuclear power accident. Currently, all our Life Insurance Policies carry a special clause which excludes any radiation damage. We all must be given adequate cover against any accident or radiation damage. The veil of secrecy must be removed and the public must be informed of all the procedures that are undertaken as regards to the generation of nuclear energy and disposal of nuclear waste.

Accountability will also ensure that there is no breach of security, for that could mean procurement of uranium by anti-social elements. And that is the last thing we want.

Like Dr. Dhirendra Sharma said, “The Atoms for Peace and the Atoms for War are the Siamese twins that cannot be separated.”

I think we must learn from western countries like Germany, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands Denmark, Greece, Ireland and Italy which have either abandoned nuclear power or simply never established programmes. It has been proven that nuclear energy can never overtake energy from coal. Something that promises so much danger and such little benefit – I think we all need to rethink.

Shravya Jain

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