The world has watched, at once fascinated and horrified, videos of unprecedented natural fury as first an earthquake and then a tsunami hit the coastal towns of north-eastern Japan. This has been followed by the unthinkable—a potential nuclear disaster which compares only with the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986. Day after day scary news of explosions in nuclear reactors and the spread of radiation has been beamed on our television sets; our worst nightmares seem to be coming true.
Japan is a long way from India but that hasn’t stopped Indians from worrying about what could happen here if such multiple disasters hit us one after another. The very first thought was—how would we handle the aftermath of an earthquake and a tsunami within an hour of each other. Given our population density, our poor construction quality and adherence to laws and the lack of systems and processes in dealing with crises, one can well imagine the impact of such a double-whammy on an Indian coastal town. It is not merely the death toll; it is the aftermath that is worrying. Would our authorities be able to handle the situation as swiftly as it is being done in Japan? We have read stories of the Japanese ethic—stoicism and a determination to think of the group rather than of the individual – and how it has played a big role in managing the post-tsunami crisis. How would it be here? The answer is known to all of us.
Speculation aside, this is also the time to think of the nuclear issue. The scenes of explosions in Japanese reactors and stories of radiation hazards have triggered panic here. Fake messages and emails are being sent out about a radiation breeze moving in the direction of India; I got one advising me what to do to avoid being radiated. In Chennai a rumour spread rapidly that the rains would bring radioactive showers that could cause severe damage to the skin.
While we can laugh away at these absurd rumours, the concerns raised by the villagers of Jaitapur are not so easily dismissed. A small coastal village in Ratnagiri, barely 160 kilometres away from Mumbai, the area is the site of a huge nuclear facility which will have six plants that will eventually generate almost 10000 MW of electricity. After various studies, including the safety aspect, the plant, to be built by the French firm Areva was given all the necessary permissions. There has been a low key resistance to the project from groups of local villagers as well as from activists who are against the very idea of nuclear energy. But given India’s desperate need for power and the advantages of nuclear energy – it is clean, for one thing -- the government has committed itself to building plants in different parts of the country.
Now suddenly the entire debate has acquired an extra dimension. Jaitapur is said to be on a sensitive seismic zone and has suffered from 90-odd low intensity shocks in the last 20 years. This is not as dangerous as it may sound, since many places do get tremors. But in the light of what has happened in Japan, it has created a fear psychosis among villagers and given a new impetus to the anti-nuclear groups. Meanwhile the government has ordered a safety audit of the existing nuclear plants in the country.
Reopening the debate and relooking at all safety norms is a good idea, irrespective of the situation in Japan. But when we consider nuclear energy, we should not be guided by knee jerk fear. All technologies have weaknesses; coal power plants ruin the environment in many ways and spread pollution and over-dependence on oil in an increasingly unstable world is not an option. Nuclear energy is not an ideal solution, but may be one of the most viable options for the country.
The plants in Japan are over 40 years old. Indian plants will have the best safety technologies. There will be many learnings from the Japanese experience. It will be a mistake to shut down our nuclear energy programme because of ill-informed worries after what has happened in Japan.
This may be a good time to once again re-examine all the safety aspects of our proposed plants. The government must take the people into confidence. The manner in which there was a move, some months ago, to dilute the nuclear liability bill to accommodate the concerns of foreign suppliers was an example of how not to do things. Now these same foreign companies will have to understand the needs of their customer. But at the same time, there is no need to get scared of nuclear energy. It will be a pity if irrational and emotional fear of an apocalypse were to drive our decisions on this crucial issue.
This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television.
You can write to Sidharth at firstname.lastname@example.org