Thursday, September 06, 2007

Atomic Energy: Health Safety and Environmental Security

There is a suggestion doing rounds that if this nuclear deal actually goes through, India could emerge as a major centre for nuclear material and technology production. A vision that is being paraded around is that of India playing the same role in nuclear trade that South Korea plays in the semiconductor trade. This is a pleasing vision, certainly one that is in line with the energy self-reliance goals set by generations of nationalist thinkers.

There is however a few key issues that must in my opinion recieve greater scrutiny.

Firstly, handling of nuclear materials, especially nuclear fuels poses a significant health risk to personnel at site. Currently the DAE has certain protocols that have evolved to deal with exposure of its workers. However, it is important to note that given the DAE's program was quite small. It is unclear if such procedures will necessarily be stable if there are hundreds of reactors at work. The problems facing us at this end are compounded by the fact that a number of the breeder reactors will require the development and handling of highly radioactive and chemically hazardous fuels and materials. This means that a safety regime that is currently working at the DAE will have to be heavily evolved to keep the workforce safe. Additionally, the AERB, DAE's surveillance arm will have be considerably beefed up if it is to be effective in managing hundreds of reactors, especially ones that may be run by private operators.

Secondly, the DAE has successfully managed waste from its programs. However due to the limited size of the program, this has been a relatively easy affair (relative that is ... to actually developing the technology). Most of the waste management technology is small scale, and it will require scaling up if long-term environmental costs are to be minimised. The DAE has shown considerable foresight by choosing a fuel cycle that greatly reduces the number of long-lived by-products, but storing the intermediaries and any highly radioactive substances produced in the fuel cycle requires a considerable expansion in the current waste management infrastructure.

A related goal in both contexts is surveillance over likely breaches in the health safety regime or detection of illegal dumping of wastes. Presently, due to the small size of the DAE's operations, maintaining such surveillance has been easy. Also as the DAE is a monolith and directly responsible to the PMO, people who break the law can be disciplined very strictly using laws related to the preservation of national security. Such a harsh regime internally has ensured a very strong deterrent to unsafe practices with hazardous materials. Any private companies that will participate in the generation of nuclear power, will not be bound by the DAE's harsh internal laws. In order to ensure that any private players entering the nuclear technology and power market in India play by the same high standards that the DAE has set - a series of extremely harsh laws will have to be put in place to deal with potential offenders. A relatively simple measure that could at least in theory ward off unsavory actors (and possibly prevent a repeat of the Bhopal tragedy) would be the requirement that the private party place a sizable "safety deposit" in the care of the RBI for "unanticipated environmental and safety costs". The size of the deposit could be adjusted to match the operators projected needs and quite possibly such deposits could in principle be matched by government contributions to create a super-fund to deal with environmental and health safety issues.

It is a known fact that radiation can cause cancer. As things stand today, over 80% of all cancer related research in India, is funded by the DAE. Also the DAE manages and funds almost 100% of radiation based cancer treatment activity in India. The DAE is directly responsible for the development of all radiation dosimetry technology currently in use in India. It is very much in the DAE's interest to do this as these issues affect its highly trained workforce. The attitude at the DAE on these issues has always reflected the sense of maturity originally conveyed in Dr. Bhabha's holistic vision of a nuclear India. In the nuclear powered future of India, cancer related surveillance and treatment options will have to expand to keep with the rise in the cumulative dose to radiation workers. In order to ensure that treatment options use resources efficiently, a larger regime of cancer related R&D will have be created. Come to think of it, I do not think that manufacturers of other products that cause cancer - like cigarettes or bidis - do anywhere near as much to cure it! Its time these guys pitch in some money and work with the DAE to create a safer and healthier future for India. I think India's pharma sector will certainly want to be a part of this too, so there is serious potential for economic growth here.

While all this pastes a somewhat cautiously optimistic picture, I note with considerable sadness however that a majority of environmental groups in India are ... well... what I politely call "provocations". Their sole purpose appears to be to generate bad-press about the DAE (India in general). Their hostile intentions are as plain as their sources of funding. Clearly they do not care about the health and safety of Indian people. In support of this argument, I point out to you the way in which the narmada andolan was deliberately hijacked and twisted to become a pulpit for some people. Every effort was made by so called environmental groups to frustrate a negotiated settlement between the Gujurat Government and various tribal groups. The NBA activists were happier to see the tribals get screwed by the dam, and they seemed to get off on the fact that the tribals were suicidally depressed. Rather then help the tribals negotiate a reasonable settlement with the government of Gujurat, the NBA chose to oppose the dam itself and then attempted to create a tribal army that if need be would carry out an armed struggle against the "Hindu Right Wing Facist Modi" government. This is the mockery that passes for environmental activism in India. It is time to get some new blood in there - people that actually care about India - not just about a blank check from from some foreign power. The GoI has carefully slanted the educational syllabus (through organisations like the NCERT) to increase awareness of environmental and health related issues. This initiative needs to be met by aware people taking to an informed sense of environmental activism at the private level. It is time that some more nationally responsible evironmental groups took centre stage in the struggle to protect India's interests.


At 8:23 AM, Blogger Ashutosh said...

Well-balanced and nice post. As you probably know, when the protocols are followed, nuclear energy is the safest and cleanest source of energy, not to mention one of the cheapest. Coal, road accidents, and chemicals are many fold more dangerous than nuclear energy, and kill tens of thousands of more people.
If you provide your email address, I will send you a highly readable and well-argued article on the need for nuclear energy by Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

At 4:49 AM, Blogger Rick T Hunter said...


Any comments on why the Sauds are accommodating Musharraf so?

At 2:18 PM, Blogger maverick said...

Hi Ashutosh,

I am afraid there is a definete polution risk in the pursuit of nuclear power. There is some unavoidable amount of *local* pollution, but there is a chance to seriously reduce global pollution.

This part needs to be emphasized in environmental activism in India.


I am working on the Tarbela matter right now. Musharraf has many friends in Saudia.


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