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India unprepared: what happens in case of a nuclear Bhopal?

Kumar Sundaram | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 11:50 IST

The inaction

  • Among the first things the Modi govt did was to disband the National Disaster Management Authority
  • It is yet to set up a replacement body to respond to calamities

Disaster awaits

  • India is unprepared to cope if there\'s a nuclear accident at one of its power plants
  • Five years after Fukushima and 30 years after Chernobyl, there doesn\'t seem to be much thought about it either

More in the story

  • How does one check if a country is prepared for a nuclear disaster?
  • How badly does India fare on these criteria?
It has been 31 years since the horrendous man-made tragedy in Bhopal. The victims/survivors continue to struggle for justice and reparation, for basic decontamination and cleaning, and expanding medical care beyond the arbitrarily-identified 'victims'. The genetic impact of the Union Carbide gas leak has been revealed in many scientific studies, but these haven't led to any serious efforts by the Central or state governments.

It has also been five years since the nuclear accident in Japan's Fukushima and 30 since the Chernobyl disaster in the erstwhile USSR. It's high time India stopped and thought - are we ready to deal with a serious nuclear accident?

Also read: 2 years on, Kudankulam isn't working. Where are its cheerleaders now?

Among the first things the Narendra Modi government did after coming to power was to scrap the National Disaster Management Authority. However, it is yet to come up with a better way to respond to calamities and their human consequences.

Preventing and responding to a nuclear accident goes far beyond setting up a new bureaucratic behemoth. Contrary to reassurances given by nuclear engineers and industry insiders, nuclear safety is about much more than just design safety.

Irreversible and wide-ranging consequences

When planning for the consequences of a nuclear accident, it must be remembered that the fallout is long-term, irreversible, genetic, and essentially, unrestrained in time and space.

Nuclear enthusiasts like to compare accident scenarios to car accidents or industrial accidents. But they forget that even though the immediate physical damage and number of casualties might be greater, reconstruction and relief can start immediately.

Also read: Nuclear power: can India keep its tall promises

But that's not true of a nuclear accident scenario. Even after three decades, the 30-kilometre zone around Chernobyl hosts ghost cities like Pripyat, which would remain uninhabitable for the coming centuries. Similarly, in the Fukushima zone, once-bustling cities like Namie and Futaba are now frozen in time. Radiation levels remain dangerously hight. Even in a technologically-advanced country like Japan, the accident has remained insurmountable.

The corporation operating the reactor - the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCo) - has been found making every effort to underplay the accident, minimising responsibility by under-counting the victims, and virtually blackmailing the authorities to let it off the hook by threatening to disrupt electricity in Tokyo. TEPCo is too big to fail, and the political system in Japan has rushed to save it at the tax-payers' expense.

More than 200,000 people continue to be displaced in Japan, leading to societal and psychological break-downs.

Safety checklist

So just what all does a country need to ensure nuclear safety? Here's a checklist:

  • Design safety of the power plant
  • Credible safety culture
  • Independent regulator

  • Responsive and reliable civic administration
  • People-centric liability mechanism to provide an adequate response

India is found wanting on all these counts, making a potential nuclear accident a clear and present nightmare.

Regulatory nightmare

The Indian nuclear industry is completely non-transparent and unaccountable. Operating directly under the Prime Minister's Office, it enjoys complete insulation from public and democratic scrutiny.

Serious RTI queries are routinely rejected by deploying the vintage 1962 Atomic Energy Act, evoking a 'national security' clause. This is despite the fact that the civilian sector was separated after the watershed moment, the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.

Also read: Indian history needs rewriting. But not how the RSS/BJP want: Suvrat Raju

In the course of the movement against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) refused to part with basic documents like the Site Selection Report and the Safety Assessment Report, which are put in public domain all over the world. The Chief Information Commissioner wrote a letter to the PM but even that didn't work.

Nuclear safety regulation is another Achilles heel. The nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, is supposed to monitor and supervise the Atomic Energy Commission. But it depends on the Commission for funds and human resources. Imagine how toothless and dependent that makes the regulator.

The last time the AERB chairman, Dr AK Gopalakrishnan, ordered a thorough safety audit of the entire sector, the report was shelved, with the Central government putting a 'top secret' stamp on it. Gopalakrishan has been a vocal advocate of a strong and independent regulator since then, and has proposed a moratorium on imported nuclear power plants till then.

Consider this: the government chose to set aside the post-Fukushima recommendtions of even this weak regulator in trying to get a green signal for Kudankulam in the Supreme Court. The AERB was forced to file an affidavit and call its own stipulations 'advisory' and not 'mandatory'.

Design and evacuation

Still not convinced that we're sitting on an apocalypse? Here's another tidbit for your consideration: India is setting up six European Pressurised Reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, with the help of the French. But the French regulator itself has raised serious objections on the design.

The government's reassurances of adequate evacuation and post-accident plans ring hollow because all Indian nuclear facilities are surrounded by dense populations, that have only grown and will continue to grow in time.

Also read: Modi's nuclear deal with Britain is hollow, but quite toxic

In most cases, the Department of Atomic Energy doesn't even reveal the emergency preparation arrangement. And when it does, it comes up with ridiculous plans like relocating 50,000 people to a school premises. The mandatory emergency drills before commissioning reactors have turned out to be cruel jokes, with absurd instances like local officials 'evacuating' a few hundred people in buses by taking them to nearby villages.

Liability and compensation

On the issue of liability and compensation, the government has shown scant regard to potential victims. Safeguarding the foreign suppliers from any liability has been a paramount concern.

Nothing could be more absurd and ironic than the fact that since the inception of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010, the government has been busy finding a way to address the concerns of the foreign suppliers, who want complete indemnification.

The clause 17(b), holding suppliers liable, albeit with severe limitations, was introduced under parliamentary and civil society pressure by a reluctant Manmohan Singh. But the Modi governmentt has dumped the earlier BJP position on nuclear liability, and tried to create an insurance pool to channel the liability back to the exchequer, thus undermining the law.

In the light of India's vulnerability on the above three counts, the 31st anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy should be a moment to recognise that, in general, our administrative and political system can only be relied on to be totally inefficient and unaccountable.

As with Bhopal, in the case of a nuclear accident, the government would be unable to provide any relief for victims, especially as the main victims would be adivasis and villagers far away from the public gaze.

Also read: Who will be liable for an Indian Fukushima. Nobody it seems

First published: 4 December 2015, 9:26 IST
Kumar Sundaram @pksundaram

The author is a researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.