Nuclear establishment: Paying the price for years of secrecy

For years, they relied more on the protection given by the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 and invoked Homi Jehangir Bhabha’s name to get things done.

Barring stray programmes for school kids and routine non-interactive exhibitions, the department of atomic energy never really tried hard to inform people about the benefits of nuclear energy and taking the people along while setting up new nuclear power plants.

Unfortunately nuclear energy even today comes with the baggage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that provide the only examples of the destructive powers of an atom bomb. The two bombs killed between 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh people in the two Japanese cities introducing the horrors and powers of nuclear energy to the world.

But the bombing in a way was also the beginning of harnessing of nuclear energy as a source of electricity with physicists deciding to focus on new research to harness the power of atom for the benefits of the mankind. While an atom bomb quickly releases very large amounts of energy over a small space, energy release is sustained over a long period in nuclear power plants. But not only the common man, even the educated ones are not aware of the distinction to a large extent.

Before March, 2011, the two known nuclear accidents were Three Mile Islands in the USA and Chernobyl in Russia. Both happened before satellite and cable television invaded the drawing rooms. Fukushima rekindled the fear psychosis among the common man, which was compounded by limited availability of information from the department of atomic energy. Over the years, the nuclear establishment preferred to remain in the cocoon and restrict flow of information, which did not help at all when the crisis erupted. 

Nuclear scientists, outside the Indian department, by and large are in favour of regular public debate on nuclear energy. “Vocabulary of nuclear physics can mislead public. For example connotation of ‘uncertainty’ in common language is different from a physicist’s language. Normal language of a physicist often gets misrepresented in public domain,” says Swadesh Mahajan, a nuclear scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.

Engage more
The solution does not lie in silence. Rather the nuclear science community has to communicate more to the common public and engage more and more in outreach activities at all levels. “We need to find out how to communicate properly to people as there is a definitive change in public opinion post-Fukushima,” said Sujit Samaddar, head of the international seismic safety centre at the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

The department of atomic energy faced several setbacks in the last 10 years which includes failure to start commercial uranium mining in West Khasi Hill district in Meghalaya, inability to begin pre-project activity in Jaitapur in coastal Maharashtra and finally stalling of the first 1000 mw Russian-origin nuclear plant at Kudankulam in coastal Tamil Nadu. But the department opened its doors for the first time when prime minister Manmohan Singh promised in Parliament more transparency and public outreach in DAE in the wake of the Japanese accident.

Kudankulam provides many examples of the communication gap. The trigger was apparently provided by a safety drill about which prior information was not shared with the locals though the administration was kept in the loop. Fukushima and tsunami images fresh in mind, the locals got scared. Another myth was that the KKNPP reactors did not have an environmental clearance. In fact, the Nuclear Power Corporation obtained EIA approval in 2003 as it was legally required to do so.

However, many agitators at Kudankulam believed there was no EIA. This happened because in 2003 conducting a public hearing before EIA approval was not mandated. In the absence of public hearing, the misconception persists and till recently NPCIL did precise little to dispel the myth.

Faced with troubles at Kudankulam and Jaitapur, NPCIL has finally opened its doors to the public asking individuals as well as institutions to visit nuclear power plants to see for themselves (NPCIL claims it will organise those visits) and pose questions on nuclear issues, which would be answered by the experts. But the move may not have any immediate pay-off as the establishment has to overcome years of mistrust.

“We failed in getting the people along. That’s why we are stuck at Kudankulam,” said S A Bhardwaj, director, technical at NPCIL, which has lowered its target of 20,000 mw installed capacity by 2020 by close to 50 per cent.

Meanwhile, there have been efforts to improve nuclear technologies following the two major accidents. All accidents – major and minor – were a great learning experience and led to the eventual safety paradigm known as ‘defence in depth’ in which redundancies are brought in a plant’s operation to reduce the risks to the minimum. Also nuclear industry does not consider accidents as isolated cases happening to only one power plant. In case of nuclear accidents, the response is worldwide.

But an accident like Fukushima has a huge psychological impact. The images of explosion (it was hydrogen explosion and not a nuclear one) coupled with the legacy of secrecy of the nuclear sector was a trigger to switch off the acceptability quotient even in educated minds.

It is now upto the nuclear establishment to take it upon itself to inform and educate people about the nuclear sector and go that extra mile to do away with their apprehensions, many of which, as the former president A P J Abdul Kalam has put, are straight out of the comic books.          

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