Mainstream, VOL LII No 5, January 25, 2014 - Republic Day Special
Tuesday 28 January 2014, by
India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh inaugurated a nuclear power plant (NPP) at Gorakhpur in Haryana on January 13, 2014. This NPP is an invitation to disaster since it relies on canal water for cooling, and canals can, and do, run dry. Besides, routine radioactive discharges into the cooling water will reach downstream canal users. Also, in the event of a serious nuclear accident, even full-flow water in the canal will be woefully insufficient to handle the crisis. At another level, it draws water which was meant for agriculture, thereby denying the Haryana farmers their rightful due of water for 100,000 acres of extremely fertile four-crops-a-year land.
Rather than using methods of democratic governance to address the four-year-long peaceful protest demonstrations of land- and livelihood-losers of this project, the government has resorted to standard machinations of steam-rolling dissent and sidelining or suppressing agitations. The motivation for this is the need to execute commercial agreements between members of the exclusive nuclear brotherhood.
This article shows how the nuclear brother-hood has downplayed nuclear disasters and effectively suppressed dissent, and how this is playing out in the Indian context.
The combination of esoteric science, extreme secrecy, economic influence and political power is peculiar to the nuclear industry in all countries that have nuclear power or nuclear weapons. The nuclear industry is the interface between ethically questionable science, anti-democratic politics and barren economics. There is a nexus between the nuclear industries in various countries to encourage nuclear power in the interest of keeping the nuclear industry alive. Yet, the politics of nuclear power cause every country to guard its nuclear secrets (technology, inventory of fissile material, costs, releases of radioactivity, safety conditions, etc.) under extreme security.
Led by the USA, the international nuclear lobby of the 1950s began by stating that electric power generated from nuclear fission would be “too cheap to meter” but, coming to terms with contemporary reality, the nuclear lobby changed its tack to selling the idea that nuclear power is “safe-clean-cheap” and later, climate-friendly. Present advertisements by India’s Department of Atomic Energy go a poetic step further by calling nuclear energy “clean, green and benign”.
The nuclear lobby suffered credibility crises due to disastrous nuclear accidents (Three Mile Island, USA, 1971; Chernobyl, former USSR, 1986; and Fukushima, Japan, 2011) which could not be concealed. However, the respective countries have played down the on-occurrence physical and radiological damage, and continue to withhold full information on downstream risks and costs.
The reluctance of the nuclear establishment of one country to comment on the shortcomings of another country’s nuclear establishment reveals the intrinsic vulnerability of each country’s own nuclear system, and the need to collude across political or ideological barriers to conceal lesser disasters. Apart from nuclear radiation and nuclear wastes, what comes out of high-security, anti-democratic, national nuclear establishments is only what they wish to release as propaganda to promote nuclear power, or politically-doctored and ethically-and-techno-logically questionable information about what it is unable to conceal.
The nuclear establishment of every country is controlled by the highest of the political, bureaucratic and sci-tech personages, and this nexus claims exclusive and superior knowledge, and derives power and authority from draconian laws.
Oldest Nuclear establishment
The US Federal Government created Hanford (Washington) in the 1940s as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, seventy-plus years later, it spends about $ 2 billion annually, roughly one-third of its entire national budget for nuclear clean-up, on the 586-square-mile Hanford site to prevent its polluting the neighbouring Columbia River and the ground water, something at which its effectiveness remains doubtful. The fact that $ 2 billion are annually recurring costs is significant, but more significant is the fact that most of this cost is to supply fuel and electrical power for the installation and safety devices to maintain the installation. While the effectiveness of “clean-up” is disputable even if it is transparent (which it is not), these costs should be (but are not) included in the real-time costs of nuclear power that the nuclear establishment downplays.
Today, after spending $ 13 billion in 24 years, the clean-up is nowhere near complete. On-site technical problems appear to have multiplied, particularly regarding how to handle the remainder of 56 million gallons of dangerous plutonium sludge that has not yet leaked out of the decades-old, corroded steel tanks. It has been possible to withhold information regarding the ongoing leakage of plutonium into ground water and the Columbia river, simply because of the inability of ordinary human senses to detect radioactivity and the extreme secrecy allowed to the nuclear establishment.
Uncontrollable leakages of plutonium from storage tanks into the ground over decades in Hanford Nuclear Reservation, have recently led Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to declare that “...there’s no available technology to plug the leaks”, and “The Energy Department has expressed concern that contamination from the single-shell tanks may be making its way toward the Columbia River, which supplies drinking water and agricultural irrigation.” [Ref. 1] Also, “The Federal Government spends billions of dollars to clean up the 586-square-mile site neighbouring the Columbia River.” [Ref. 2]
But remaining unstated is the ongoing environmental/ecological disaster of the plutonium leaks and the essential non-safety of the nuclear industry. The fact is that the USA, the acknowledged technological leader in matters nuclear, does not know how to handle its nuclear waste despite spending astronomical sums of dollars that any other country would not be able to afford. It is pertinent to note that the nuclear powers, namely, the USA, UK, France, the former USSR and present Russia, and China, were earlier admittedly dumping radioactive waste packed in steel drums and even entire nuclear reactors into the ocean. It is not clear whether this practice continues in secret to cut the financial costs of nuclear waste disposal.
The disposal of high-level nuclear wastes by “advanced technology” of vitrification and deep geological burial (the prohibitive costs of which should rightly be added to the cost of nuclear-generated electric power, but are not) are no less unethical than dumping them into the oceans. Nuclear technology and materials are being recognised by an increasingly aware worldwide community as lacking legitimacy, being anti-life, anti-environment, anti-ecology and anti-democratic.
The radioactive leaks from the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor and spent-fuel pool remain out of control. TEPCO proposes to build an “ice wall” in the ground by freezing water to stop the ongoing flow of radionuclides into the Pacific Ocean, even as it struggles to empty the spent fuel pools and, at the same time, keep the operations and its risks and costs under wraps. The electric power necessary to create and maintain this ice wall frozen for decades, if not centuries, will call for more electric energy than the Daiichi reactors could ever have produced. Also, decomissioning the Fukushima installation is conservatively expected to take decades, adding to the already incurred enormous costs of attempting to contain the damage. And the Japanese Government plans to borrow $ 30 billion more to continue the damage control, thereby adding to the huge financial liability to contain the radiological liability....
The human and environmental/ecological costs of nuclear accident related to health and life on the planet, if incorporated into an economic-energy balance-sheet, would show that nuclear power is economically and environmentally unsustainable. Yet, political compulsions caused the Japanese Government to collude with TEPCO to underwrite the losses, conceal full facts from the domestic and inter-national public, and secretly continue the planetwide environmental/ecological devastation.
This irresponsibility is not condemned by the other national governments which are under the thrall of self-professed and self-certifying scientists within their own establishments. Not condemning the Japanese irresponsibility is itself irresponsible of the nuclear establishment of every elected government on the globe. But the various national nuclear lobbies that fiercely compete for nuclear business, directly or through multinational business corporations, have a common stake in secrecy and duplicity, characteristic of the nuclear industry.
Besides causing untold damage to marine life in the Pacific Ocean and in other oceans through ocean currents, radioactive materials from Fukushima have crossed the Pacific Ocean, reaching the US west coast for several months now, silently affecting human life. That the US Administration has not informed its own public of the radiation risks or proposed public health measures, shows that official stances concerning nuclear matters have little to do with ground realities or genuine international or national public interest. This official reticence is possible only because radioactivity is not detectable by human senses, and because the nuclear industry in every country is unaccountable to the public under the protection of draconian laws.
The innumerable smaller routine, operational or accidental radionucleide releases in nuclear facilities around the world are successfully hidden from public view because detection of nuclear radiation is the sole preserve of the secretive nuclear industry, and declaration of an “event” is at its sole discretion. Nuclear regulators within countries are essentially under political-technocratic control and not answerable to the public or their legislators, and draconian laws protecting the nuclear industry precludes the public from measuring radioactivity which they cannot sense otherwise. The nuclear industry questions the scientific credibility and even the patriotism of persons who object to its self-certification of safety and costs.
It cannot be overemphasised that nuclear industries in all nations are self-certifying with respect to accident safety, declaration of accident, public health, radiation exposure and risks of the nuclear industry employees, standards of “acceptable” exposure to radiation, storage of nuclear wastes and its risks and costs, or real-time cost of the electrical power generated. Briefly, they are a law unto themselves, with almost complete freedom and close to zero accountability and transparency. For these reasons, if not for several others like corrupt deals concerning substandard materials or design/safety short-cuts, there is worldwide questioning of the credibility of the nuclear industry’s “safe-clean-cheap” mantra.
With respect to the “safe-clean-cheap” slogan, the nuclear industry routinely comes out with disinformation, misinformation and absurdities concerning risk and safety (disaster probabilities), environment-friendliness (routine radio-active discharges, carbon emissions, etc.) and cost (showing its competitiveness with other modes of power generation). The three components of the slogan are closely connected and clearly affect each other. Competent dissenting scientists and engineers have amply demonstrated that operation by a compromise between them is unsafe, or environmentally damaging or economically unsustainable.
Apart from the routine high-, medium- and low-level wastes created in routinely operating nuclear installations, the decommissioned nuclear installation itself is an immovable, highly radioactive, enormous concrete-and-metal mass that occupies land which will be dangerous to life for more millenia into the future than humankind imagines about its own past.
Leaving aside the ethical and moral bankruptcy and questionable technological capability of the nuclear lobby regarding decommissioning its installations, its economics are also flawed. The financial expenditures of decommissioning and waste handling, treatment and disposal are not accounted in the cost of the power generated.
Relatively Unknown Nuclear Disaster
Concerning nuclear accidents, most writers refer to only three: Three Mile Island (USA, 1979), Chernobyl (USSR, now Russia, 1986), and Fukushima (Japan, 2011). Radiological decommissioning of the Three Mile Island reactor is still in hand 34 years down the road and is likely to cost $ 918 million against the $ 578 million available. Work on the Chernobyl reactors is still on with mounting costs estimated at $ 1.4 billion for a steel casing over emergency structures already constructed at huge cost, and the land around uninhabitable for at least several more centuries. Volumes have been written about these accidents, but somehow, Windscale (UK, 1957) is rarely if ever mentioned.
On October 10, 1957, the nuclear core of one of the two Windscale reactors caught fire. This dire emergency was courageously and success-fully handled by the ground staff at enormous personal risk and cost, in spite of which there was substantial release of radionucleides into the environment. [Ref. 3] The accident, ranked 5 on the 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale, was downplayed in the media to overcome public fears that the name “Windscale” evoked, and the area came to be known as Sellafield where the Calder Hall reactor was also cons-tructed later. The Windscale reactors, constructed in the early “learning phase” of nuclear power, were designed to generate plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme.
Even though the Windscale reactors were built in the early years of nuclear expertise (1950 and 1951), and problems could be expected, the nuclear industry had apparently not appreciated the inherent risks in the technology itself. This is evidenced from the report that “[b]etween 1950 and 2000 there were 21 serious incidents or accidents involving some off-site radiological releases that warranted a rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale, one at level 5, five at level 4 and fifteen at level 3. Additionally during the 1950s and 1960s there were protracted periods of known, deliberate, discharges to the atmosphere of plutonium and irradiated uranium oxide particulates. These frequent incidents, together with the large 2005 Thorpe plant leak which was not detected for nine months, have led some to doubt the effectiveness of the managerial processes and safety culture on the site over the years”. [Ref. 4]
It is pertinent to question the reason for this nuclear accident being relatively unknown. Some would have it that the British Government’s nuclear establishment deliberately kept the accident out of the news, and continues to downplay the ongoing risks and costs of the Windscale decommissioning as well as the operation and plutonium inventory of the adjacent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, and the protests of neighbourhood people.
Films that Never Made It
The power of the nuclear industry to suppress information to the general public is demonstrated by two Hollywood feature films starring top-notch actors. The first is Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep, released in 1983. It is a story based on a real-life person named Karen Silkwood, who discovered wrong-doing—falsifying safety reports, etc.—in a nuclear installation. The film ends with her untimely and mysterious death in a car accident, and the disappearance from her car of important documentary evidence of nuclear leaks, which she was on her way to deliver to a reporter of New York Times. This film, inconvenient to the nuclear establishment because of its bald representation of facts, never made it beyond niche viewing.
The second film is the award-winning The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas. The story line is about safety cover-ups in a nuclear power plant that was brought to the brink of a meltdown. The film was released on March 16, 1979, and was met with immediate backlash from the nuclear power industry, which claimed that it was “sheer fiction” and “character assassination of an entire industry”, while a film reviewer wrote that it raises the most unsettling questions about how safe nuclear power plants really are, and exposed the dangers of money and corruption. [Ref. 5] A mere twelve days later, the Three Mile Island accident happened. Reportedly, showing of the film was actively discouraged by the nuclear establishment since it closely anticipated what went wrong at Three Mile Island.
A number of 1980s films exposing the realities and dangers of nuclear power include Testament, Threads, Special Bulletin, The Day After, When the Wind Blows, Letters from a Dead Man, and Memoirs of a Survivor. Most people may not have even heard of these films (some are documentaries), let alone view them. The obscurity of these films has been attributed to active opposition from the nuclear establishment.
A film on Fukushima is reportedly under production, but it is not clear whether it is a documentary or a feature film, and it remains to be seen how it fares in public viewing both within Japan and abroad.
The Indian Context
The managerial processes of nuclear power installations consist of operational compromises at the control room consoles between the conflicting demands of producing maximum power (to achieve a high Plant Load Factor to keep down the cost of energy generated) and not compromising safety against accident nor permitting unplanned releases of radionuclides. A wrong operating action or decision can have very serious radiological consequences. These actions and decisions are dependent upon the training, experience and integrity of the operating staff and higher management. It is useless to pretend that the Indian staff and managers are superior to their Japanese or American counterparts in training, experience or integrity.
The nuclear establishment, run by technocrats whose technical and financial integrity is being increasingly questioned, claims that the technology is safe, and Indian standards of safety and operational efficiency are not only adequate but are being enforced strictly. However, a US based think-tank has ranked India low in nuclear safety due to weak regulations, lack of independence of its nuclear regulatory structure, and, most worryingly for Indians, “high levels of corruption”. [Ref. 6]
The Indian nuclear industry is government-owned and government-operated. It claims to have made large strides in self-sufficiency of nuclear technology and engineering (the science is not esoteric) during the period India was in the nuclear doghouse, following Pokharan I in 1974, for nuclear technology and materials. However, self-sufficiency claims are belied by its present reliance on Russia, the USA and France to provide nuclear hardware, technology and materials, and its approaching Australian and Canadian nuclear suppliers. The argument offered by the nuclear establishment is that since expansion of nuclear power generation is the only way India can provide itself adequate electric power for growth of the power sector (an assertion that is being cogently questioned and consistently stonewalled), it is imperative to negotiate with the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
When these claims are questioned by persons of high scientific and technological standing, the nuclear establishment resorts to stonewalling, making misleading statements or outrightly condemning critics. It is also suspected of getting dissenters and critics persecuted by ensuring that false police cases are foisted against them.
The fears of serious nuclear accidents in Indian nuclear installations have been magnified following Fukushima. But the Indian nuclear establishment continues to be in a state of denial, perhaps in the false belief that the Indian scientific and technical managers and staff are superior to the Japanese personnel in professional integrity and operational efficiency. Its reluctance to take cognisance of the ongoing shadow-play around Fukushima, as the Japanese Government and TEPCO struggle to keep the worsening serious situation under wraps, is based upon professional and political collusion for commercial ends. This is perhaps borne out by the fact that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to be the Chief Guest for India’s 2014 Republic Day. But continual incoming news of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable situation of the Daiichi reactors at Fukushima only causes the fears to grow.
India’s nuclear establishment does not have the financial or technical resources to handle disasters like Hanford, Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima, nor indeed the knowhow for the routine decommissioning of reactors. However, it does have the power of secrecy which the Indian Atomic Energy Act bestows on it to successfully deflect, even suppress, all criticism. But circumstances are changing and the politico-sci-tech nuclear establishment is increasingly under pressure from a groundswell of people’s resistance and objections to nuclear power and its installations, on cogently argued economic, technical and legal premises.
Even discounting the long-term health and social costs, the horrendous financial costs
being incurred by the UK, USA and Japan to decommission reactors are clearly unaffordable for India, accident or no accident. Linked with professional and financial integrity issues within the nuclear establishment, there is no place for complacency among India’s decision-makers in the nuclear context.
The nuclear establishment would be fully aware that if the real-time socio-enviro-ecological costs and economic liabilities of nuclear power due to nuclear radiation, nuclear waste-handling, decommissioning reactors, and accidents, are honestly taken into account, the “clean-green-benign” mantra would be laid naked in its hollowness.
Therefore, along with the untruths and half-truths put into the public domain at public cost, intransparency is a part of their standard operating procedure, to hide behind a facade of sci-tech and impenetrable legal walls of secrecy concerning commercial and strategic deals. This is possible only because of the collusion of the nuclear establishments of countries around the world.
People alive today and future generations will bear the brunt of continuing nuclear folly of some combination of egoistic ignorance, irrational desire for money or fame, and socio-environmental myopia among the politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and technologists running nuclear establishments around the world. The inauguration of the Gorakhpur NPP by India’s Prime Minister is only the latest example of this folly.
1. ”Governor: Nuclear waste leaking at an estimated 1,000 gallons a year—‘No available technology to plug the leaks’ at Hanford”; <http://enenews.com/governor-nuclear...> ; Energy News, February 27, 2013.
2. “Board warns key US Senator of explosion risk at nation’s most contaminated nuclear site”; Associated Press report; April 3, 2013.
3. Paul Dwyer, “Windscale—A Nuclear Disaster”; <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7030281.stm> ; October 5, 2007. Accessed 31.12.2013.
4. G.A.M. Webb (March 2006), “Classification of events with an off-site radiological impact at the Sellafield site between 1950 and 2000, using the International Nuclear Event Scale”, Journal of Radiological Protection, 26 (1): 33—49. Bibcode:2006JRP....26...33W. doi:10.1088/0952-4746/26/1/002. PMID 16522943. Ref. 49 from Wikipedia <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sellafield#> ; Accessed 31.12.2013.
5. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_China_Syndrome; Accessed 09.01.2014.
6. “India ranks below Pakistan in n-safety index”; <http://www.thehindu.com/news/nation...> ; The Hindu, January 9, 2014.
Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG’s Branch. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, in international studies. With over 370 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his current area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.