Thursday, March 17, 2011

Governments, Nuclear Secrecy and People's Safety

Governments don't pay much attention to what their people want. Nor is it easy for citizens, however concerned, to really know what their governments are up to. This lack of transparency is particularly dangerous in today's nuclear climate. Apparently, the Japanese government was warned two years ago, that their plants weren't capable of withstanding earthquake shock. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had found way back in December 2008 that Japan's safety rules were out of date and that strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear power stations. In response, the government pledged to upgrade safety at all of its nuclear plants. Today we hear similar assurances from the Indian government that all our plants are safe. But it's a little hard to believe that safety is priority for governments, when Jaitapur is being built in a seismic zone, and a nuclear facility planned by Jordan at the Red Sea port of Aqaba is on a major faultline.

One would've thought that the radiation disaster in Japan would prompt a rethink. But no such luck. India plans to continue operating its 20 reactors, and plans to spend an estimated $150 billion to add a few score more, beginning with the Jaitapur facility, billed to be the world’s largest nuclear energy complex. Meanwhile, China is pushing nuclear power with 11 reactors operating and plans to start constructing as many 10 per year over the next 10 years.  In fact, Zhang Lijun, Chinese deputy minister of environment, has said recently that Japan’s difficulties would not deter China's nuclear rollout. What's more, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt are all also studying nuclear energy, and even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is considering a nuclear-powered city.

With India and China steering the nuclear renaissance, and with other nations in Eastern Europe, South Asia and West Asia also embracing nuclear power, the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, says the World Nuclear Association. When governments are being driven by the nuclear industry, do citizens have a choice? India’s nuclear energy establishment has faced stiff opposition to its ambitious plans from environmentalists and villagers at plant sites. But analysts said the Japan crisis was unlikely to stir up significantly more public protest against nuclear plants here, given the pressing demand for more electricity.

Talking to the Deccan Herald, G Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a policy research organisation in New Delhi, says Japan won't make a difference. “If one per cent of the population was against nuclear power, you might now get two per cent,” he said. “I am really not concerned about the opposition that may develop around this.”

Lina Krishnan

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