AN AGEING, lead-lined machine was taken last year from the rooms of a retired professor at Delhi University and sold as scrap. The device was actually a gamma irradiation machine, used in experiments by chemistry students, and contained radioactive Cobalt-60.
Pulled apart by a scrap metal dealer, it unleashed a massive and deadly dose of radiation, killing one person and sending another six to hospital.
The accident was deeply embarrassing for the Indian government – experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency described it (pre-Fukushima) as the ”most serious global instance of radiation exposure since 2006”.
But the incident was thoroughly investigated by India’s top nuclear safety authority, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which oversaw the clean-up and search for other radioactive material inadvertently sold.
The university was issued a show-cause notice and ordered to suspend its work with radioactive materials. At least in the response to this accident, regulation worked.
But a year on, the Indian government is seeking to dismantle the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, proposing to abandon the long-standing independent regulator in favour of a new body directly controlled by the central government.
Critics have condemned the move, arguing the new regulator will be captive to government and unable to properly pursue safety concerns.
Although the law is expected to pass the national Parliament without significant alteration, a former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Dr A Gopalakrishnan, has labelled the proposed replacement body as a sham.
”Nuclear safety, suppliers’ liability in case of major accidents, and the potential for environmental degradation from haphazard import decisions all take a back seat, while a handful of persons and organizations rush to maximize their individual gains from such imports,” he said.
India is basking in the emerging international acceptance of its nuclear industry but, beyond issues of regulation, there are other serious concerns over its direction.
For one thing, the country’s nuclear industry is growing at rapid pace. Presently, India has 20 operating nuclear power reactors, built, owned and run by the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation. They provide about 3 per cent of the country’s energy.
Only half of India’s established plants run under international safeguards, and are therefore eligible to use imported uranium. But 44 more reactors are either slated for construction or already being built, and India is keen to attract foreign investment.
Part of India’s energy plan – this is a country where 400 million people still live without access to electricity – is the creation of five massive ”Nuclear Energy Parks”, each capable of producing 10,000 megawatts of electricity, three times the power used by India’s biggest city, Mumbai.
India plans to treble its nuclear output by the end of the decade, and to get a quarter of its energy from nuclear sources by 2050. But, almost as quickly as plants are being approved, new concerns about the burgeoning industry are raised.
The ”Nuclear Parks”, which will see farmlands and villages seized in five states in the south, east and west of India, have attracted the most widespread criticism. Landholders have staged sit-ins, hunger strikes and launched violent protests at the sites already under construction.
The fiercest opposition has been reserved for the plant under way at Jaitapur, on India’s west coast, which is being built on a cliff top on a Seismic Zone 3 (Zone 5 being the most earthquake-prone).
In the two decades between 1985 and 2005, there were 92 earthquakes in the area, the largest being a 6.3 magnitude quake in 1993.
A research paper by Roger Bilham, professor of geological sciences, University of Colorado, last month found: ”If stress in the region is sufficiently mature to have brought an existing subsurface fault close to failure, an earthquake may be imminent.”
Bilham, along with Professor Vinod Gaur from the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation in Bangalore, wrote that a quake measuring above six on the Richter scale could occur directly beneath the power plant.
”The probability of this earthquake occurring is low but it is nevertheless possible, and is an important consideration in the analysis of power plant safety.”
While farmers and villagers protested against the creation of nuclear parks, which they argue will displace them and rob their livelihoods, India’s political class are angered by the government’s decision to limit the liability of nuclear plant operators and suppliers to just 15 billion rupees ($A270 million).
The total maximum liability has been set at $A450 million, low by international standards: many countries have no cap, the US’s is above $A10 billion.
Compensation for Japan’s Fukushima disaster will be between $A39 billion and $A52 billion, a government panel says.
India’s low liability cap was seen as a capitulation by the government to the interests of US nuclear suppliers, who were refusing to enter the Indian market without assurances their damages liability would be minimised, should there be a nuclear accident.
Critics of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh say he has caved under pressure from US President Barack Obama, and passed legislation ”not in the people’s interests … [but] to appease the US and American companies”.
The move will leave the victims of any potential nuclear accident with narrow avenues of legal recourse for damages, says Prabir Purkayastha from the Delhi Science Forum.
”Effectively the people’s right to access legal damages is reduced,” he says.
”In reality, no government can walk away from a nuclear accident, it will become a matter of political pressure that is placed on the government of the day to give compensation to the people affected by an accident, rather than the companies being strictly liable.”
Purkayastha says compensation then becomes ”an act of charity, a matter of government largesse”, rather than that of legal entitlement.
Meanwhile, a group of eminent Indian citizens are challenging the new legislation in the Supreme Court, arguing a diminished and capped liability ”puts to grave and imminent risk the right to safety, health, environment and life of the people of India”.
On another front, the law is also controversial over discriminatory compensation to be awarded to the poor or female victims of any nuclear disaster.
As currently written, it allows the government’s claims committee to withhold compensation payments from women, the disabled, the illiterate, the low-caste and the ”fiscal backword” and give their money instead to relatives, quarantine it in bank accounts, or to pay it out in instalments.
The government control is ”in the larger interest of the claimant”, the legislation states. Purkayastha complains the approach is paternalistic.
”It assumes that people are unable to make decisions for themselves. No government should ever do that.”
Negotiations over the sale of Australian uranium to India are expected to begin next year.
The Australian Uranium Association has projected that, based on Australia’s uranium exports and India’s projected nuclear growth, Australia could be selling 2500 tonnes of uranium annually to India by 2030.
India’s nuclear industry trails only China as the fastest-growing in the world. But it clearly remain a work in progress.
December 23, 2011