By Shayoni Sarkar
Japan’s crisis has prompted global nuclear fears and India is worried. In what many believe has set India back several years in its immediate progress to address energy needs through nuclear power, there has been mounting pressure on the government to reconsider conventional resources of coal, water and hydrocarbons that are less dangerous.
The nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant that heightened fears of a possible nuclear meltdown has stirred the Indian nuclear debate again. Concerns are that impact may be stronger in the subcontinent, with Indian nuclear aims rising rapidly from 4,780 megawatts to 63,000 megawatts in the last two decades. India’s seven nuclear plants with 20 reactors are located along the coastline of the country.
However, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced on Tuesday the possibility of additional safeguards on its nuclear projects: “I know Nuclear Power Corp. (of India Ltd, or NPCIL) is reviewing safety systems and designs. This is appropriately a subject to be dealt with by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and based on the technical review that NPCIL does, we will certainly be in touch with them and if additional safeguards are required as part of environmental clearance, we will look at it.”
A review of all nuclear reactors in the country has been ordered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a bid to check the levels to which these are equipped to deal with natural disasters. However, the controversial Jaitapur nuclear plant, a 10,000 megawatt plant that has been given an environmental clearance in Maharashtra is to carry on, it has been revealed. Recent reports suggest that Mr Ramesh has assured that seismic aspects have been taken care of but said that he was not sure whether tsunami factors have been considered. 35 conditions have been imposed on the clearance that was passed on November 28 last year.
It has been debated that, unlike Japan, most of Indian nuclear plants are located in less earthquake prone zones (Zone 3 compared to Fukushima’s Zone 5). Only one plant, the Narora plant, is located in Zone 4. It should also be taken into account that Indian nuclear plant structures and equipment are designed to withstand the maximum possible earthquakes at their location, according to Shashikant Dharne at the Nuclear Power Cooperation (NPC). The Narora plant has not been affected in its 21 years of operation and has withstood several earthquakes, including one of magnitude 6.3.
However, these explanations are not enough to convince experts who believe it is unwise to believe that Indian plants are safer. Leena Srivastava, executive director at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, said: “I don’t think we should reduce the entire problems to earthquakes only. It could be terrorist attacks”.
Whether India will reassess its nuclear programme is one that can only be told with time. At the moment though, rising concerns need to be addressed, and as an emerging superpower, the Indian government needs to be accountable for its actions. Learning by example might be best.