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Public Perception On Nuclear Power And Associated Technologies – OpEd

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Many members of public have skewed perception on advanced technologies including nuclear technology. Once they develop prejudices against a technology, it is likely to linger longer. They may seldom get a chance to allay their apprehensions and concerns. Impressions need not necessarily be based on science or technology.

Some sections of the media vie with each other to spread misinformation and disinformation! There is a paucity of specialists with the right domain knowledge who can offer authentic information at short notice. Those who knew are often poor communicators!

Scientists and technologists must leave their own safe comfort zones     and promptly and proactively provide accurate information to dispel wrong notions. Otherwise, different stakeholders may receive information more often from unreliable sources. This is very crucial as the stakeholders may include decision makers.  It is already late. 

Let us see how public got concerned about nuclear power and related technologies. The methods to be used for public communication are the same for all technologies. However, the content will be different

History of radiation safety

During the early years, the cause of concern was the poorly designed, unsafe medical x-ray units, which killed several hundred- radiation workers including radiologists worldwide.

Many young, female workers who handled radio-luminous paint containing radium carelessly during the early years of the 20th century died prematurely or suffered grievous injuries.

Nuclear scientists and technologists have developed methods and techniques to handle tons of highly radioactive materials safely; they enforced very conservative radiation protection standards to ensure radiation safety.

Fear of Nuclear power- and its “baggage of woes”

Generally, public associate nuclear power with nuclear weapons. A-bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did incalculable damage (1945). This is a typical instance in which many survivors envied the dead. Careful epidemiological studies on them over several decades provided very useful data to arrive at radiation protection standards. Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), a cooperative Japan -Us Research Organization is continuing such studies

Nuclear fallout from virtually unbridled nuclear tests in the atmosphere caused fear of genetic effects, cancer, deformed babies and leukemic children

Nuclear accidents at the Three Mile Island (TMI) in USA in 1979 and at Chernobyl (1986) had considerable adverse impact on the public. Accident at Fukushima (2011) fanned the fire.

IAEA woke up late

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) woke up very late and  realized the need for providing information  and published a booklet titled “Nuclear Power: Communicating for Confidence” in Sept 1990, 11 years after the TMI nuclear accident. IAEA discussed the topic during the General Conference.

Since 1990, IAEA took dedicated steps to strengthen the resources for public communication. In 2002, with the support of scientists and technologists, IAEA published Safety Reports Series No. 24 called “Communication Planning by the Nuclear Regulatory Body”. 

While serving the IAEA committees to draft and review this report with representatives from other Member Countries, we realized that there are many common issues to be addressed.

Public protest against Kaiga Generating Station (KGS)

Public agitation against KGS was well focused. A venerable public leader contested an election on the issue and lost. In the case of Kudankulam Nuclear Power plant, an antinuclear activist lost his deposit in another election.  Pro nuclear advocates must note that large sections of the public have concerns. 

Events and developments that influenced public perception in India

These include: the myth that NGOs cannot own GM counters in India; Radioactive wastes stored in glass vessels!; Cancer deaths in Institutions under the Department of Atomic Energy; Abnormal radiation levels in places; Cattle deaths Near Tarapur; Irish butter case; AERB/ INAE opinion survey; Opinion poll among researchers in Atmospheric Sciences at ICTP,  Triesta, Italy; Queries onSafe levels of radiation; Some truths about Nuclear power: 

Can NGOs own GM counters in India?

On April 1, 2002, my colleague then working in the USA wanted to know whether Geiger Mueller counters (a very simple form of radiation detectors) are banned in India.  He got the patently wrong information from reports of a lecture by a retired Admiral of the Indian Navy who claimed that Government of India banned the counters because it was trying to hide the fact that Indian nuclear power plants leak radioactive material.  I corrected the myth by sending a list of companies selling Geiger counters in India! 

R-waste stored in glass vessels!

In 1986, a famous Indian author claimed that some nuclear scientists told him that nuclear waste could be stored safely in “glass vessels”. They assured him that the glass vessels would not “break” for 100 or 1000 years! He published it in a popular weekly. 

 I suspect that they were not nuclear scientists with the right domain knowledge, as they did not know vitrification technology – the process in which nuclear waste is added as ingredients to glass – thereby making it virtually non-leachable.  The great author believed in the myth. Nobody could correct him.

An eminent retired Supreme Court judge repeated the same myth about storing nuclear waste in glass vessels at a meeting held in Mumbai.  I tried in vain to correct him. He did not believe me as the “vessel idea“appeared to be simple, realistic and believable! 

He did not want India to have nuclear reactors. I told him that we need reactors to produce life-saving radioisotopes such as cobalt-60 and iodine-131.  He agreed reluctantly. He was the founder of a cancer hospital, which was operating a cobalt-60 unit for radiotherapy. It was a modest victory for me! 

Abnormal radiation levels 

In 1994, an “environmentalist” measured high radiation levels at the MLAs’ hostel and other locations in Luck now, the capital of UP.  At some points, the levels were “higher than those at Chernobyl”, he claimed.

The news got wide publicity. I led a team of scientists to investigate the claim. We found that he used a faulty instrument. Light leakage was causing the excess reading!

 Similarly, some activists claimed that the Madras Atomic Power Station might be emitting “pico-particles from uranium fission floating and flying in the air! They claimed that they also measured high radiation levels in many places

If their instrument was defect- free, they were measuring radiation from thorium rich soil!  Some areas in India are rich in monazite, an ore of thorium 

Cattle deaths in Tarapur

A small amount of effluent containing caesium-137 leaked out of a waste immobilization plant located near Tarapur Atomic Power Station and contaminated about 40-sq.metre area. There were some cattle deaths in the villages. The Times of India published the skeletal remains of cows along with story on the leak. Villagers brought a dead calf. Post mortem showed that it died of choking by eating plastic bags (It causes 90% cattle deaths in India) Veterinary doctors claimed recoveries of plastic as high as 71.6 kg in one case

The radioactivity in the water was so dilute that a person would have to drink 50 litres of storm water every day for an entire year to exceed the dose limit to public!

Cattle deaths story gets international coverage

In 2002, Professor Robert Crease, Chair, Department of Philosophy, Stony Brook University, New York, and a reputed science writer asked me whether there is any reportable interesting event from India. On receiving my brief, he published cattle -death story in Physics World (February 2002) as aa ”Horror story that grew legs”

The New Scientist (Oct 2004) published my story titled “Bags of Trouble”. When they reported the story, the reporters of The Times of India knew that thousands of cattle die in India by swallowing plastic.

Seventy percent  of deaths in India’s Atomic Energy hubs due to cancer 

The Times of India (Sept 7, 2014) reported that 70 % of deaths in India’s Atomic Energy hubs are due to cancer. They claimed that their report was based on an RTI response by DAE. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) protested and clarified the factual position. Cancer rates in DAE are no more or no less. Suicides are also not high as the TOI reported

I convinced ASIANET TV of the grave error. They withdrew their YOU TUBE CAPSULE 

Irish butter case 

India imported 7500 cartons (200 MT) Irish butter oil   to reconstitute into milk as a part of “Operation flood”- a national dairy project. There was some concern that this butter was contaminated with fallout from the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. 

Actually, very few samples contained detectable activity, far below the permissible limits. Bombay High court and later Supreme Court dismissed a petition, which demanded a ban against distributing the butter oil. The courts based their decision on an expert committee report

In 2020 in a documentary film titled “The Chernobyl Saga the Irish Butter Case of India”,   I explained the role of AERB and how the court dismissed the case. 

Genetic effects: misunderstanding

In 1991, a British documentary alleged that children in the villages near Rajasthan Atomic Power Station suffered birth defects. Mr. Karan Thapar, a popular TV journalist, who interviewed me on that topic, asked 40 questions in 10 min!

In the ensuing controversy, he dismissed my factual statement that researchers found no genetic effects among the thousands of children born to the atomic bomb survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “inexplicable”. I do not blame him.

In an opinion survey held by AERB, 762 Participants (scientists, engineers, students}  from  IITs at Bombay and Kanpur, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Roorkee University, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bombay) responded.

 Over 80%believed that genetic effect is the major health effect seen in the children of survivors of atomic bombings contrary to the fact.

An opinion poll I did among eighty specialists attending an advanced training programme at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy revealed that nearly 30% of the scientists believed in the myth that double-headed monsters were born to the survivors of atomic bombings.

Nuclear power: some truths

The myths on nuclear power survive. Many do not know the realities. There is no need to be afraid of a nuclear power station.

Germany postponed to April 2023, its plan to shut down the three reactors it operates now. Real or exaggerated risk perception does not come in the way of choosing more nuclear power in many countries 

Nuclear communicator’s competence

Nuclear communicators must broadly know all nuclear- related subjects. They have to earn the trust of the public. They must know the basis of radiation safety standards. He must realize that human perception depends on non-scientific attributes. He must know the needs of his audience, readers, and media.

Promoters of nuclear power must respond to media stories. I may even suggest that government must make it a legal obligation.

Nuclear communicators must study the Nieman report   (December 15,2002) titled  ” Understanding Factors of Risk Perception” by David Ropeik.

[This article is based on a  Key Note Address by the writer at the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS-2022)on 11 November 2022]

Dr. K S Parthasarathy

Dr. K S Parthasarathy is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Strategic Planning Group, Department of Atomic Energy, Mumbai. Dr. K S Parthasarathy may be contacted at [email protected]

One thought on “Public Perception On Nuclear Power And Associated Technologies – OpEd

  • November 19, 2022 at 4:37 pm
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    Excellent article debunking several myths. I also suggest that India’s nuclear power sector can play a more significant role by providing energy security (esp. baseload power) and zero-carbon power if DAE-controlled entities regularly publish (on their website), the EC compliance reports that they submit to the State/Central Pollution Control Boards and MoEFCC. Since the environmental record of Indian NPPs is excellent, these reports will be an eyeopener and help to build support for expediting nuclear power expansion in India.

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