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PUCL Bulletin, November 2006

Dangers from nuclear power projects

-- By M A Rane

The craze for Nuclear Power Projects (NPPs) for generating electricity in India is the motive behind the controversial Indo-US Agreement of July l8, 2005 between our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and US President Bush. Indian Government's attitude towards such NPPs since the days of Pandit Nehru has always been a matter of double-speak. We took a moral stand and criticized the nuclear powers like USA, Soviet Russia, UK, France and China for manufacturing nuclear war-heads or bombs while denying the same to other countries like India. The enormous destruction and killing of people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August l945 ostensibly to end the World War II enraged the conscience of sensitive people all over the world including Albert Einstein. We in India, the land of Buddha and Gandhi were outraged by the same.

In spite of this in the fifties our first PM Pandit Nehru was responsible for founding an Atomic Energy Department with the help of Nuclear Scientists like Bhabha and the same policy was continued by all subsequent PMs and Governments of India. We made a distinction between civil NPPs starting with Trombay and Tarapore NPPs for producing electricity as against for manufacturing nuclear war-heads. But we ignored the inherent dangers in the civil NPPs. Our Parliament passed an Atomic Energy Act, 1962 to provide for the development, control, and use of atomic energy for the welfare of the people of India and for other peaceful purposes. Under section l8 of the said Act the Central Government was empowered to put restrictions on disclosure of certain information about the NPPs.

Since then we have spent millions in establishing more than ten NPPs, apart from those for military purposes and for carrying out the so called Research and Development of nuclear energy. All such NPPs, whether civil or for defence, incidentally generate weapon worthy plutonium from which nuclear war- heads or bombs can be manufactured. In spite of expenditure of millions from the treasury of a poor people, the contribution of NPPs for generating electricity is negligible not exceeding 3 per cent of the total electricity generated by other sources run with power from coal, hydraulic power etc.

In an edit page article in The Times of India of 24.3.2006 Arvind Kala, a veteran and knowledgeable senior journalist writes that "America itself gets 50 per cent of its electricity from coal -fired plants. In India's case, 71 per cent of our power is thermal, 26 per cent is hydro-electric, and only 3 per cent is nuclear. This is understandable because with huge coal reserves, coal driven electricity plants make economic sense in India (though it results in high pollution). Yet DAE has set itself a goal of producing 20,000 MW of nuclear generated electricity by 2020. This is around seven times our current electricity supply from nuclear power".

Some of the NPPs such as at Narora in UP were involved in serious accidents, the full information of which was withheld from the people under the secrecy provisions of the Atomic Energy Act. When two RCC domes for containing nuclear radiation from the NPPs were being constructed at Kaiga near the Kali river in the Karwar Taluka adjoining Goa against the background of the Sahayadri mountains with rich rain forests, one of the domes of the two NPPs collapsed for no reasons whatsoever disclosed to the people. If at the time the NPPs had gone critical, destruction of the people and nature in the region including Goa would have occurred as it happened in Chernobyl in the then Soviet Russia. Still our Nuclear Scientists and successive Governments in New Delhi have a vested interest in raising as many NPPs in India as possible, when for development of plants of non-conventional and renewable sources for generating electricity such as solar power, wind power, gobar gas, etc. for the purposes of which a separate and independent department under the exclusive control of a Minister of State is created by the Central Government.

Under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) of the Central Government, several organizations for production and control of nuclear energy are created. One such body is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) created as a watch-dog body to examine the working of the NPPs, to find out whether there are any serious defects in the NPPs that endanger the safety of the NPPs and to protect the people from the dangers of accidents in NPPs due to excessive radiation.

In the middle of the year l996 there were reports in the news papers that the AERB has detected l30 defects in the various NPPs in India that might result in serious accidents as at Chernobyl. At that time one Dr A Gopalkrishnan a nuclear scientist was the Chairman of the AERB. To effectively discharge its duties as a watch-dog body the AERB should have been an independent establishment, but is under the control of the Department of Atomic Energy of the Government of India, which also controls NPPs.

The AERB was entitled to direct the concerned NPP to remove the defects pointed out by the AERB. However, the said report of the AERB was not made available to the public. From the very inception of development of nuclear bombs and particularly since the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on 6th & 9th August l945, the Gandhians and the Radical Humanists were protesting against the use of nuclear bombs. Since August l945 the Gandhians the Radical Humanists in cooperation with like minded NGOs were holding joint protests on the two days in August 6th & 9th every year against the development of nuclear war heads and the development of nuclear power. In Mumbai the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal representing the Gandhians and the Radical Humanists Association were holding protests every year. When the CFD, PUCL and PUDR were formed before or during the Emergency, they also joined in the public protests along with several Human Rights Organizations (HROs).

In the Bombay High Court the PUCL through its veteran member Yogesh Kamdar filed a PIL writ petition with a prayer amongst others for disclosure of the adverse report of the AERB, for a direction to Union Government to make the AERB an independent body and not as a wing of the DAE and for a declaration that section l8 of the Atomic Energy Act was unconstitutional, as it confers on the Central Government untrammeled powers for withholding from the public information about the working of the NPPs. The Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal through the highly respected Gandhian late Dr Usha Mehta also filed a companion PIL for similar reliefs. The two PILs were heard at length at the stage of admission by a Bench presided over by the then Chief Justice M B Shah (later elevated to the Supreme Court) and Justice Rebello. I, with the assistance of Shyam Divan and Madhav Jamdar appeared for the PUCL. B K Subbarao himself a Veteran Nuclear Scientist turned an advocate as he was harassed by his department and arrested for alleged offences under the provisions of The Official Secrets Act, while he was about to leave to USA for reading his paper at a Conference of Nuclear Scientists, first argued the PIL of the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal along with Madhav Jamdar, as he was conversant with the technical and scientific points involved in the two PILs. The Chief Justice threw the papers down almost with contempt and declared it was summarily dismissed for reasons to be delivered later.

Then I requested the court to permit me to argue the petition of the PUCL as companion to the petition of the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal. I argued the points of law involved in the petitions particularly the Fundamental Right of the public to Information as held by a larger Bench presided over by Justice Bhagwati in S P Gupta's case (AIR l982 SC l497) that the right to know flowed from freedom of speech guaranteed under Art l9(l) of the Constitution and therefore directed the Central Government to disclose the correspondence between the Government and the then Chief Justice of India in respect of demotion of a temporary Judge of the Delhi High Court to his previous office as a District Judge as he was not yet confirmed to find out whether the act of demotion was mala fide since the Judge was a party for release of detenues under the MISA at the initial stage of the Emergency.

When I was pointing the various potential dangers from NPPs, the learned Chief Justice was pleased to observe that so far no accident had taken place. On hearing the remark I lost my temper raised my voice and asked "Whether the Chief Justice is waiting for an accident to take place from an NPP?" It was indiscrete on my part to have raised my voice and given the reply as I did. It was also unprofessional.

My arguments remained part heard and the hearing was adjourned to the next day. As soon as the court assembled I tendered my apologies to the court for raising my voice on the previous evening. I then proceeded to argue the law points. It was clear to us that the court was not with us. It was declared that both the petitions were dismissed summarily for reasons to be delivered at a later stage.

On January 30, l997 Justice Rebello declared a detailed judgment for the Bench dismissing both the PILs, holding inter alia that Section 18 of the Atomic Energy Act was not unconstitutional. In the course of the judgment Justice Rebello observed that "learned counsel for the petitioners advanced arguments before us which were both persuasive and on occasions passionate". That is true.

Against the said decision both the Bombay PUCL and the Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal filed appeals to the Supreme Court through Karanjawala and Co as advocates on record. While entrusting the matters to Karanjawala and Co I requested Rajan Karanjawala that the out of pocket expenses for filing and conducting both the appeals should be borne by his firm, as both the petitioners had no funds to bear the same. Rajan Karanjawala faithfully acceded to my request.

All the matters of PUCL were ordinarily conducted by Senior Advocate V M Tarkunde. As he had retired from legal practice due to old age, I requested Rajan to engage the services of Senior Advocates Rajindar Sachar and Prashant Bhushan as they conducted matters of the PUCL without charging any professional fees. When both appeals came up for final hearing before the then Chief Justice of India and Justice S B Sinha, Shri Rajindar Sachar was not available. Therefore Prashant Bhushan argued both the appeals. By an elaborate judgment delivered by Justice S B Sinha on behalf of the Bench on January 6, 2004, both the appeals were dismissed with detailed reasoning. On going through the judgment I found that Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan, in the absence of Rajindar Sachar argued them very efficiently raising very plausible submissions. It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court did not allow the appeals. At that time the Right to Information Act was not passed. Still the S.C. had already held that the Right to Information arises both from Art 19 (1) and Art 21 of our Constitution.

Though I am a layman and not a Scientist much less a nuclear Scientist, for arguing in the High Court I had studied the question of serious dangers from NPPs in depth. One of the dangers apart from possibility of an accident was that the NPPs during their functioning produce nuclear waste that remains radioactive for more than 10,000 years, endangering the lives of human beings as well as all life on the earth. I also learnt that the normal life of an NPP is 30 years, when it should be decommissioned and the plant dismantled. The nuclear waste left behind after the demolition is tremendous that remains radioactive for not less than 10,000 years. One way of disposing of the nuclear waste safely, as I learnt from my study was to store it in huge stainless steel canisters and bury them deep into the earth, a possible permanent danger to human and other life, if it results in leakages. Though the normal life of NPPs whether civil or defence, is 30 years, our Nuclear Establishment in India and their patrons in Government take the grave risk for working them for even more than 40 years. It is not within my knowledge that any NPP in India is dismantled so far.

The conclusions that I arrived at after my study in depth before arguing the PIL is confirmed by The Economist of August 5th-l2th, 2006 in a small piece in its section on Britain (at page 52) under the title "Nuclear Waste - The Long View". As The Economist writes in a compact manner it is not possible for me to summarise the same but to quote it fully.

The journal says "Britain has been splitting atoms for over half a century. Yet in all that time, it has never decided what to do with the radio-active byproducts of its nuclear power industry, although successive governments have tried. About 80,000 cubic meters of the stuff are stored at various sites around the country, and with most civil reactors soon to be decommissioned ,the problem is about to get bigger. Once all the reactors have been closed, the waste will total 478,000 cubic meters, much of which will be dangerous for thousands of years.

New Labour's efforts to solve the problem began with a paper in 2001 that led to the setting up of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM) in 2003 to study the problem. On Judy 3lst the committee published its final report.

The committee's technical conclusions will surprise no one. Like most other countries that have given thought to the matter it plumps for "deep geological disposal". It suggests burying the waste in a vast bunker up to a mile underground, in an area of stable rock where any leaks are unlikely to contaminate the water table, with interim storage in a dedicated facility while the cavern is being dug out. But the committee argues that getting the science right is not enough. Technically sound attempts to dispose of nuclear waste have foundered on the rocks of public opinion before- most recently in l997, when a planning application by Nirex (an outfit that advises the government on Britain''s atomic leftovers) to test the rocks at Sell a field, the country's biggest nuclear site, was turned down. With that in mind, one of CORWM's tasks was to come up with a way to sell a waste dump to a skeptical public. It concluded that residents would accept a dump beneath their backyards only if they had volunteered for it. To persuade them to do so, it proposes that towns and villages bid to play host to the waste, in return for some undetermined "compensation" from a grateful government.

Yet the focus on politics has not been popular with everyone. Two of CORWMs members have left in the past year, alleging that the committee was focusing on public relations at the expense of hard science and wasting time on outlandish options such a firing waste into space. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said much the same.

Keith Baversock, a health expert and one of the CORWM members who left, criticizes the committee's report for lacking detail "If they'd sat down and concluded within six months that burial was the way forward, they could have come up with some specific proposals to take to the public", he says. Instead the report itself admits that by the time a detailed design has been sketched out and the bidding process finished, actual construction of the store may not start until at least 2035.

In the end, of course, worries over delays of mere decades seem petty and short-sighted next to the challenge of designing something to last for thousands of years or more. In Britain only a few ancient henges and barrows have endured for any thing like the amount of time that a nuclear waste dump will be expected to last - Stonehenge, the most famous is "only" 4,300 years old. How best, for example, to convey the concept of dangerous radiation to people who may be exploring the site ten thousand years from now? By that time English (or any other modern language) could be as dead as Parthion or Linear A, and the British government as dim memory as the pharaohs are today".

I cannot describe the problem better than what The Economist has put. What is true of Britain is also true of other countries producing electricity from NPPs like USA, Canada, France, Russia, Japan China and India among others. In USA each State was trying to burry its nuclear waste in it neighbouring State or deserts like Nevada .But there was tremendous opposition from the citizens of the State where the nuclear waste was sought to be buried. The result is no new NPP is being set up either in the private or public sector, both because of the danger of disposing of the nuclear waste as well as the high cost of generating electricity from NPPs. The last attempt to install a huge NPP in the Long Islands a part of New York mega city was bitterly opposed by residents of not only the Long Islands but also of the neighbouring Queens and Manhattan and other parts of the New York city. Therefore the US government had to dismantle and abandon the entire plant in deference to the views of its citizens.

That is perhaps the reason why the US President Bush was keen to enter into the agreement with our PM Dr Manmohan Singh of June 2005 so that the where-withals and materials for producing nuclear power can have a market like India. Let us not fall a pray to this deep laid plan and endanger the lives of generations of Indian people for years to come. September 3, 2006

People's Union for Civil Liberties, 81 Sahayoga Apartmrnts, Mayur Vihar I, Delhi 110091, India. Phone (91) 11 2275 0014