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6

As I write and tweet about the ongoing happenings at Fukushima, many take me to be an anti-nuclear activist. With this logic, if I write and tweet about India, I'm probably anti-national too.

The bullshit here is that any questioning is opposition. We have lost touch with a key factor of growth - questioning to refine.

There is a dangerous tendency to obfuscate facts about nuclear power and promote convenient fictions designed to direct minds toward accepting nuclear power. When a country like Japan with its famed efficiency is reeling from the magnitude of cover ups and false approvals, it is natural to be worried about that possibility in India in the middle of a two year scam season. And very rightly, this concerns people.

Many have questioned my approval of the protests against nuclear plants at Koodankulam and Jaitapur. They think that those protests are against national interest and that we need nuclear power and the protests raise the same questions over and over even if they have been answered.

Funny that the problems in two different places are quite similar. Yet, the villagers are wrong and the government is right, because nuclear power is a matter of prestige. And rural people are the very opposite of prestige. Never mind that similar attitudes by the government about issues impacting urban people are soundly condemned.

The way I see it, if I didn't have information I felt reassured about, I wouldn't want a nuclear plant in my backyard either. The question isn't so much about the validity of the questions raised by the protest as it is about the government's inability to be convincing about its attention to the safety of those at potential risk.

The way I see it, these are valid concerns. Up and down the country, there are lives being lost to government disregard for the well being of those without a voice to large industry. Be it children working in coal mines, tribals getting the very earth stolen from under them or people unwittingly exposed to radiation dangers from nuclear reactors. The government has not shown any initiative to prevent harm or fix concerns. Why would people believe that their lives and livelihoods aren't going to be destroyed?

Would you be okay with a new government initiative in your locality that could potentially kill you, but the government tells you it is safe?

It isn't about whether questions have been answered. It is about if the questioners have felt heard. It is about if they feel that there are people monitoring and protecting against risks to their well being. This is not a subject they can defend themselves against on their own initiative, and unless this reassurance happens, how can they trust?

For all the "progressive minds" describe all doubts being cleared, this is a convenient fiction.

Also, it is astonishing how our standards change. People who make strong calls for transparency, accountability and engagement with citizen's concerns are apparently fine with the same violations with someone else's rights when they get in the way of a milestone they would like to see happening.

Manmohan Singh's blunt statement about the investment made in the plant making it impossible to not put the plant to use is a shining example of this callous disregard. Well, these locals protested while the money was being invested too! Who told you to invest without clearing objections? Even if the investment makes it important that the project continue, it is important to see here what is being conveyed to people.

The people are being told that their concerns about their safety and livelihoods are not important and will not make any impact on decisions about what is happening in their neighborhood. These decisions are made and what they say doesn't matter. Attempts to change people's minds are about jingles on radio rather than engagement.

They say no negotiation happens when there is a refusal to listen or revise anything. Be it nuclear reactors or borders with China. The government's highhandedness is disenfranchising the people, and the people who would normally defend such things, couldn't care less when it comes to people they don't feel a connection with about an objective they have decided is a good thing.

What would the same people say if the fish they buy in the market gave them cancer? It isn't like our government does much monitoring, and radiation leaks have happened in India. It is not impossible.

I am not saying that will happen, but these are real fears, whether logical or not. Being straight with facts, educating people on enough basics for them to understand the calculated risk, providing detailed safety and contingency information, providing locals with tools to monitor for themselves and call for inspections, and such initiatives will do more to end or at least minimize resistance than blunt bottom lines dismissing the very people needing convinced.

The same people opposing could be converted into zealous and determined safeguards and first alarms in case of problems if the government chose to engage with them rather than overpower them.

It is missing the point to see the protests as deliberate sabotage of progress. Locals are protesting everything from pipelines to dams; troop postings to censorship and mining to nuclear reactors, because these things threaten their interests, and decision makers don't care.

The problem isn't protests. The problem is a government incapable of listening to citizens without them, and often dismiss even with protests. The problem is a government that doesn't respect citizens.

2

Whither Nuclear Power is an important question doing the rounds around the world, and more importantly for us, in India. Nuclear Power in India has been a matter of great pride. A milestone in our growth as a country, a symbol of power. A monument to the scientific potential of our country. It is no small matter to say that the nuclear capabilities of India - power generation as well as bombs have changed perceptions about our country on a national and international scale.

Events unfolding in Japan however are a big, big matter of concern. Japan is a country known for its technological prowress, efficiency and disaster-readiness. While admittedly the tsunami and earthquake were extraordinary threats to the nuclear facilities, even the threat of a nuclear disaster has made the catastrophic news of thousands dead pale. Quite obviously, technology can fail in an advanced nation like Japan. What hope does India have?

I see a couple of trains of thought to this:

  • Reactors 3 and 4 at FukushimaNeed for power: India needs power. Increasing amounts. We aren't able to provide electricity to the entire country yet, let alone move demand from some non-renewable sources to renewable electricity. It is beyond euphemistic to say India needs power desperately for progress or even basic development. AND industry is growing.
  • Threat to environment: If things go as advertised, nuclear power barely makes any imprint on the environment. On the other hand, fuel sources from coal to petroleum all have one distinct disadvantage - pollution. Options like dams are destroying many livelihoods and lives.
  • How much will be enough? On the other hand, its not like having a certain amount of electricity generation capacity is going to be enough. We are going to expand exponentially before we can afford to stop for a bit and say, okay, thats quite a bit done.
  • Myth of renewable sources. While solar or wind energy is an option, it doesn't have the capacity to meet our needs. We may, one day get there, but its unlikely that its going to happen any time in the immediate future. Till then, my advice would be to write and read such information in the absence of electricity to get an understanding of its implications.
  • Comparative dangers: Here is an article about waste from coal run thermal power plants being more radioactive from that from a nuclear plant. People's livelihoods are being destroyed in dams and oil refineries have their own set of hazards like fires, slicks, etc. This is the reality of the energy alternatives to nuclear power.  On the other hand, nuclear power has delivered well in India with few accidents.
  • There are many massive threats to life, including things like the Bhopal tragedy. Massive destruction, or utter unusability of land is not an exclusive feature of nuclear power.
  • On the other hand, beginning repairs of any other disaster can begin immediately, unlike a nuclear disaster. Nuclear disasters are likely to outlive us all as a species. Forget individuals, groups, or even countries. That puts a very high price on disaster, because it literally results in the planet becoming smaller and smaller for human use.
  • To be fair, the likelihood of such massive threat to the integrity of a plant is very small. Now that we know it is possible, it can still be planned for. There is already newer technology in use that was not present in these plants that provides even more foolproof cooling. Risks can be minimized through learning from these mistakes.
  • India in general seems to have far less quakes and stuff. It could be possible to choose sites that hold relatively less inherent risk.
  • Indian reactors have functioned without incident through a few natural threats. Notably the earthquake in Gujarat when the reactor functioned efficiently and was a vital source of much needed power in the aftermath. On the other hand, we do have minor accidents which can only be attributed to negligence, which has led to unhealthy risks for employees and immediate vicinities, even though the power plants themselves cannot be faulted. Human error will always be a factor to be working on, and in a country where a "chalta hai" attitude is very common, this cannot be excluded as a significant risk to the world itself, rather than localized as it would be with other methods of power generation.
  • Not having nuclear power is not necessarily safer. To be fair, as long as countries pursue nuclear power, it doesn't matter which country the reactor is based in. Radiation doesn't stand in visa queues. We could give up on nuclear power in the name of safety and find ourself irradiated because of a failed part in another country.
  • The key thing to remember here is standards. It isn't so much about countries pursuing nuclear power, but about the risk of nuclear catastrophe worldwide coming down. I think toward this end, it can be useful to put aside this debate and first reassess all known reactors in the WORLD for security. This process could give us the confidence we need to have a first hand informed knowledge that can guide our choices on the fate of nuclear power itself in our world.
  • I think the private sector should be banned from this market. More than public or private, transparency should be scrupulous.  Really impeccable transparency that empowers further wise choice.
  • Location and scope: A country not using nuclear power is no guarantee that it will not suffer nuclear hazards. An accident in a neighbouring country can be as bad or worse. Ask Belorussia, who suffered as much, if not more, the consequences of Chernobyl in Ukraine.

The IAEA needs to lead worldwide debate around this.

However, this is a decision that can never be weighed adequately. The extent of the factors, both for and against is pretty much beyond our ability to compute and at the end of the day, it is going to come down to the desire of the people and the risks they consider acceptable as a price of convenience and development or comfort or luxury.

As this debate grows, there seem to be the two predictable camps forming. I see this as the easy take. Yes, no. Rigid. Neither works. You can't have nuclear power plants mushrooming with the state of things as it is. You can't afford to not have them. Yet, there are very few engagements about the nuances, implications to the country's ambitions, needs....

I think the more valuable trend of thought is where we figure out how to make it possible in an acceptable manner. While a Chernobyl (and I do hope that Fukushima doesn't replace that metaphor) is not what we want, there is little acknowledgment that a Chernobyl is not what the pro-nuclear energy camp wants either. It would be far more relevant to our country's reality to engage in a dialogue around what possibilities exist - alternative, safety, etc. How can we as a country make a choice that we can "afford".

For example, it is no longer accurate to even judge this situation and base our futures on the results of a reactor that is already outdated. Technology has improved, as have the experiences of others to learn from. If we must judge fairly, it is our duty to apprise ourselves of all the human knowledge available.