Muddled responses

Fear of nuclear plants

The agitation over the Kudankulam nuclear power station in southern Tamil Nadu is understandable but irrational. An accident could prove devastating for the local population and must arouse the liveliest fears after Fukushima, which survived a quake but was swamped by a tsunami such as the one that hit the Tirunelveli coast some years ago.

The damage caused by the more recent Sikkim earthquake has also aggravated fears of natural calamities. Protestors have been on fast for days and only called off their agitation after Jayalalitha got the Assembly to pass a resolution calling for suspension of further work until popular concerns are answered and followed up with a letter to the prime minister in this regard. 

Kudankulam envisages a battery of six 1000 MW Russian power reactors, of which the first of two, in respect of which an agreement was signed some 10 years ago,is due to be commissioned in December. The project has seen local cooperation from the start but a recent mandatory safety drill appears to have unleashed fears that something must be or could go amiss. With local body elections due, one view is that undue alarm has been triggered by competitive politics. But, as is sometimes known to happen, ideological opponents, competitors and those pushing rival technologies are not above stirring the pot for collateral reasons. 

The fact is that the Kudankulam reactors are products of a newer and far superior technology than Fukushima and have built-in safety and redundancy measures to meet unforeseen eventualities. Moreover the plant, like the proposed Jaitapur nuclear station being negotiated with Areva of France, is sited way above the maximum tsunami flood level observed at Fukushima.

A post-Fukushima safety evaluation of all existing and proposed nuclear plants in India has also suggested additional safeguards that have been implemented and all plants have been certified as safe in relation to these more stringent standards. No more land is to be acquired at Kudankulam and coolant discharge into the ocean will not unduly raise sea temperatures or otherwise affect fishing or the fish catch.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India needs to revisit Kudankulam and all other existing and proposed nuclear power sites to allay doubts and fears, simultaneously taking the general public into confidence and not just leaving it for people to look up the NPCIL web site. That said, the media and political parties too have a responsible role to play beyond crying wolf and scoring brownie points.

Old debates
Hopefully, the Sikkim earthquake will not reopen old debates about dam safety, especially in the Himalayan belt and the Northeast which are highly tectonic. Some buildings, roads and civil works under construction as part of two Teesta 1200 MW projects in Upper Sikkim were damaged but the dams and headrace tunnels were unaffected according to a Teesta Urja Ltd spokesman. The same was true of the Maneri Bhali and Tehri Dams when they were shaken by the Uttarkashi earthquake some years ago. The moral again is to insist on regular dam safety inspections, invest in stronger defensive measures and upgrade disaster management procedures.

Meanwhile, it is good that a group of ministers has got the ministry of environment and forests to release 150 no-go area coal projects for mining so that the quantum and pace of power augmentation is not affected. The country simply has to get on with developing infrastructure, manufacturing and related services so as to maintain and even step up growth in order to roll back poverty and the environmental degradation that goes with it. There is too much circular argumentation that goes on.

The United States too has long been locked in several powerful muddles in the simplistic belief that muscle and aidcan trump anything. It has now stated that the Haqqani terror network in AfPak is a limb of Pakistan’s ISI which it is using  as an instrument of state policy and as a potential partner in Afghanistan after the US and Nato militarily withdraw. And it has warned that it will act unilaterally against Pakistan and cut military and civil aid to it unless in fights to dismantle the Haqquani network The Pakistan Army’s cynical double dealing (using the ISI as a front) has been known for years but was wilfully condoned.

The Pressler Act and Kerry-Lugar Acts were used by the US as PR gimmicks that allowed Pakistan literally to get away with murder, causing ‘collateral damage’ to others.  
Therefore, none will take the latest US warning seriously until there is positive proof of its implementation. Past presidential certification of good conduct has proved to be no more than window dressing. And, after Iraq, solemn US affirmations carry very low credibility.

Having spoken out strongly against Pakistan last week, Washington has again said it needs and wants Islamabad’s cooperation.  Pakistan has bluntly retorted that the US needs it as much as it needs the US and that if Washington acts unilaterally against it, it will do so at its peril. 

Pakistan’s bluff can be called as its economy is on drip and its military cannot long sustain itself without US aid. Nor can China be an immediate or effective substitute. A sensible regional solution in Afghanistan offers the best hope. That is the road to explore.
The US is trapped in another muddle over Palestine and Israel. But that is an unfolding story.

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