Nuclear Perceptions and the Game of Risk

The news today of two PhD students found charred to death in one of India’s main nuclear research facilities does not fill with confidence, but the initial perception is that this was an accident without wider implications for safety or security at the plant. Unfortunately, perceptions are what the nuclear game is all about.

As this excellent article from Down to Earth points out, the nuclear renaissance is the result of changes in the broader energy environment (i.e. the fear of global warming and the search for reduced carbon emissions) rather than some miraculous improvement in the safety and cost of nuclear technology. The reality is that India faces a huge uphill struggle in meeting its hopes for nuclear power:

For any foreign company to set up shop in India it will take a couple of years for regulation clearances and approvals. Add another minimum 10 years for a reactor to be ready. Only Russians, who have been working with India and have their designs approved, are likely to set up reactors within four-five years.

…Worldwide, fast breeder reactors have been abandoned. The Superphénix reactor in France was shut down in 1997 after a sodium leak and a roof cave-in. Russia began constructing one in 1987 but did not finish it. Japan shut down its Monju reactor after a fire caused by a sodium leak. The US and Germany pursued large breeder programmes for several decades before abandoning them. Amusing? Consider this: Germany sold its US $5 billion worth fast breeder reactor to a Dutch entrepreneur who converted it into an amusement park.

Then there’s the complicated question of who foots the bill if something goes drastically wrong. In the past, the onus has been on the private operating company to meet the huge costs of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe. But the operators of nuclear technology and the governments that support them are trying to shift this liability on to the purchaser – i.e. the Indian government.

A Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill is currently working its way through the Indian parliament that would cap the operator’s compensation costs at just 3 billion rupees ($64 million). That leaves alot for the Indian government to deal with – Chernobyl ended up costing an estimated $250 billion to clean up and the Belarussian government still spends 10 per cent of its GDP mitigating its effects.

The technology and time factors end up exacerbating the safety risks. In its eagerness to get its civil nuclear programme rolling, the Indian government doesn’t want to think about the risks of an accident, preferring to play down any security or safety fears. Although today’s deaths may well be an isolated incident, they should act as a wake-up call to those who choose to ignore the risks. Sadly, the Indian government prefers to sweep such warnings under the carpet. As the Down to Earth article reports:

In 2007, physicist V Pugazhendhi of the Doctors for Safer Environment released a study on the incidence of auto-immune thyroid disease among women in and around Kalpakkam, where the prototype fast reactor is under construction. It showed the disease affected 24 per cent women within a radius of 5 km from the plant. It reduced to 6 per cent within a 40 km radius and to 0.8 per cent in 400 km.

…A UN report in 1993 found occupational hazard in nuclear plants in India was six to eight times the world average. A public interest petition demanding the disclosure of an Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s report on the safety of nuclear power plants was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2004 under government pressure.

 

It is clear why India has fallen in love with nuclear power. In many ways it appears to offer the perfect balance between meeting its obsession with rapid economic growth (also known as the desire to beat China), and meeting its obligations to a world obsessed with climate change. However, nuclear power only does this if everything goes just right, and history suggests this is unlikely, especially if your eagerness compromises your attention to the risks.

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