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IAEA to assist India's nuclear safety reviews

March 27, 2012 09:35 IST

'Nuclear safety evaluations are being put in the public domain to enhance transparency and boost public confidence,' the prime minister told the second Nuclear Security Summit. Nikhil Lakshman reports from Seoul

The nexus between nuclear safety and security was the cornerstone of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech to the plenary session of the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on Tuesday.

The synergy of nuclear safety and security, Dr Singh highlighted, was "essential to restore public faith in nuclear energy, especially after the tragic events at Fukushima."

The prime minister's speech broadly reiterated the themes he had outlined in his speech to the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC in April 2010.

That 1,181-word speech was more of a mission statement briefing the 43 leaders who had gathered in America's capital city on India's atomic energy programme and how secure it is in comparison to the nuclear proliferators in the neighbourhood.

Tuesday's speech was more of an action taken report, but some points embedded in the 916 word address are revealing:

►In what must be a first for the country's nuclear programme, India has invited the International Atomic Energy Agency's Operational Safety Review teams to assist the Department of Atomic Energy as the DAE conducts "comprehensive reviews of nuclear safety measures at our nuclear facilities."

"Nuclear safety evaluations are being put in the public domain to enhance transparency and boost public confidence," the prime minister said.

The DAE has worked in a culture of near-zero transparency since its genesis, operating under the radar of the nuclear non proliferation regime for much of its existence. India hopes to generate nuclear energy to 62,000 MWs by 2032, and given the recent long-drawn out standoff on the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, greater transparency would clarify issues better and address growing public fears about nuclear energy.

India, Dr Singh added, is also "strengthening emergency preparedness and response to nuclear accidents."

►India will contribute $1 million this year to the IAEA's Nuclear Security Fund.

In observations made before the Seoul summit, Kenneth N Luongo, President of the Partnership for Global Security and one of the world's leading thinkers on nuclear safety, pointed out how the IAEA's Nuclear Security Fund, which has a current annual budget of $25 million, needs to double to enable the Agency to assist nations improve the security of nuclear and radiological material.

The United States, Luongo added, spends $1.5 billion annually on international nuclear material security, its efforts focused on Russia and the Ukraine alone. The US Congress, citing the state of the American economy, wants to cut this by $300 million. Luongo felt it is time for a Global Nuclear Security Fund with an annual budget of $3 billion, but till that idea becomes a reality, India's contribution to the IAEA's efforts is significant.

The prime minister was more strident about the linkages between nuclear security and responsible national behaviour in his Washington speech: ' The primary responsibility for ensuring nuclear security rests at the national level, but national responsibility must be accompanied by responsible behaviour by States. If not, it remains an empty sloganÂ… Clandestine proliferation networks have flourished and led to insecurity for all, including and especially for India.

On Tuesday, the prime minister highlighted that "Nuclear security is primarily a national responsibility," but was less forceful on the theme, merely pointing out that "there are benefits to be gained by supplementing responsible national actions through sustained and effective international cooperation. "

The old proposal of a nuclear-free world, first advanced by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in his action plan for global nuclear disarmament, was reiterated in Seoul as Dr Singh did in Washington two years ago. This is perhaps the most predictable part of an address by Dr Singh at such a forum; he refers to this idea often, as he does in his speeches to the UN General Assembly.

There is also a mystifying paragraph that hangs in without context in the Seoul speech, when the prime minister noted that, "India is expanding its technical assistance to developing countries, including by providing our indigenously developed Cobalt teletherapy machines -- Bhabhatrons -- for cancer treatment. "

One is not certain if these Bhabhatrons machines address the threat of radiological terrorism, which Kenneth Luongo felt posed a 'higher-probability event than a nuclear attack.'

Radiological devices, Luongo noted, would not result in nuclear explosions, but would spread toxic radioactive material. It would, he added, cause less damage than a nuclear attack, but could still impact the global economy depending on the location of the attack.

While there are high levels of security at most nuclear facilities, the security at radiological installations at most hospitals is non-existent, and very vulnerable to misuse.

That India is aware of this terrifying possibility is evident from the fact the one school at the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership, which India announced it would set up at the first Nuclear Security Summit, will deal with the application of Radioisotopes and Radiation Technology in the area of healthcare, agriculture and food.

Nikhil Lakshman In Seoul