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Can corrupt India handle nuclear safety?

March 18, 2011 19:46 IST
From the resurrected cash-for-votes scandal to a rigged process favouring four foreign vendors -- and from new safety concerns to the special legislation that caps the foreign suppliers' accident liability by burdening the Indian taxpayer -- the nuclear deal's future looks more troubled than ever, says Brahma Chellaney.

The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan actually bears a US imprint: All six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were designed by General Electric. The prototype of this reactor model -- known as the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) Mark I -- was supplied to India by GE, which built the twin-reactor Tarapur station in the 1960s on a turnkey basis.

Tarapur, one of the world's oldest operating nuclear plants, has some of the same risk factors that played a role at Fukushima.

Since the Fukushima crisis erupted, several countries have announced steps to scale back or review nuclear power, with Germany temporarily shutting down seven of its pre-1980 plants and Switzerland suspending plans to build and replace nuclear reactors.

Even China, known for its lack of respect for safety issues, has announced that it is suspending new plant approvals until it could strengthen safety standards.

In contrast, New Delhi's response has been to launch a public relations campaign to say Indian nuclear plants are safe and secure. The very persons who blurred the line between fact and fiction in the debate over the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal are again engaging in casuistry.

A smarter, wiser and more-credible course for authorities would be to acknowledge that, given the gravity of the Fukushima crisis, India must review its nuclear power policy and systems to ensure that long-term risks of nuclear accidents are contained.

To be sure, India -- given its low per capita energy consumption -- needs to generate far more electricity to economically advance. So it must tap all sources of power, including safe and cost-competitive nuclear power.

The consequences of a nuclear accident in a large, densely populated country like India are going to be greater than in an island nation like Japan. In part because of its geography and the prevailing wind patterns, Japan has been lucky thus far that the radioactive particles from Fukushima have largely dispersed over the Pacific Ocean.

The economics of reactor imports is also a key issue in India because the taxpayer must not be burdened with more subsidies.

Yet those who pushed the nuclear deal through without building a national consensus are now too invested in that deal to be able to take an objective view of cost competitiveness and long-term safety. One indication of that has been the brazen manner in which a nuclear park has been exclusively reserved, without inviting bids, for each of the four chosen foreign vendors.

The Wikileaks disclosures over the cash-for-votes scandal only confirm what has been well known -- the role of big money in lubricating the nuclear deal. Now big money is influencing the opaque contract making.

Nevertheless India's nuclear safety -- and the wisdom of a massive import-based expansion of the nuclear power programme -- will now come under closer scrutiny. In fact, given the way India handled the Bhopal gas catastrophe that killed at least 22,000, Fukushima holds important implications. Although the exact sequence of events at Fukushima is still not clear, consider some obvious nuclear dangers in India:

The chain of incidents engulfing all six Fukushima reactors was triggered by their close proximity to each other. With a flare-up at one reactor affecting systems at another, Japan has ended up with serial blasts, fires, spent-fuel exposures and other radiation leaks at the Fukushima complex.

The lesson: A string of events can quickly overwhelm emergency preparedness and safety redundancies built into reactor systems.

This seriously calls into question India's decision to approve construction of six to 12 large reactors at each new nuclear park.

The Fukushima spent-fuel fire and other problems shine a spotlight on the spent-fuel challenges at the sister plant in Tarapur, where the discharged fuel has been accumulating for over four decades because the US has refused to either take it or allow India to reprocess it. At the so-called Spent Fuel Storage Facility, the Tarapur spent-fuel bundles are kept under water in specially engineered bays.

This mounting, highly radioactive spent fuel poses major space problems and safety and environmental hazards that are greater than at any other plant in the world. In fact, the spent-fuel rods -- unlike the reactor -- have no containment structure. Yet New Delhi has shied away from exerting pressure on Washington to resolve an issue that threatens environmental and public safety in India's commercial heartland.

The operating license of the aging Tarapur BWRs has been periodically extended by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Despite safety and equipment upgrades at Tarapur, the fact is that first-generation reactors have generally some dangerous weaknesses. In fact, much before the Fukushima incidents, several US experts had warned that this BWR model was susceptible to explosion and containment failure.

The power shortages in the Mumbai area have influenced the decision to keep the two BWRs in operation up to 2030. But in the US, the utility running a BWR plant of the same vintage as in Tarapur -- at Oyster Creek in New Jersey -- recently decided to close it in 2019. And the Vermont state senate last year voted to stop the less-old Vermont Yankee BWR plant from operating past next year.

From the resurrected cash-for-votes scandal to a rigged process favouring four foreign vendors -- and from new safety concerns to the special legislation that caps the foreign suppliers' accident liability by burdening the Indian taxpayer -- the nuclear deal's future looks more troubled than ever.

The plan to build energy 'security' by importing foreign fuel-dependent reactors is nothing but a money-spending boondoggle that is likely to leave India insecure and buffeted by outside pressures.

The big question haunting the country is whether it has become too corrupt and institutionally corroded to be able to effectively uphold nuclear safety in the long run.

Brahma Chellaney