With nuclear prospects badly shaken in Japan and Germany, and hardly any new construction under way in other advanced industrial countries, the industry's hopes naturally have centered on rapidly industrializing countries like China, India, Turkey, and even Iran. China's nuclear program has the most ambitious, followed closely by India—but with the important footnote that India's nuclear ambitions have chronically outpaced the country's actual performance, as physicist M.V. Ramana of Princeton University spelled out in a Spectrum feature some years ago. Consequently, the level of confidence that can be put in India's nuclear projects is an important variable in calculating its overall nuclear prospects.
During the last decade, one of the most important and highly contested reactor projects in India has been a complex at Kudankulam, at the southern tip of the country, where two 1000 MW reactors of Russian design have been under construction. With an additional four more reactors slated for the future, the total capacity of the facility could eventually be 6800 MW. The light-water reactors are much the better Russian type, the VVER, not the highly defective kind that blew up at Chernobyl, the RBMK. But—especially after Fukushima—the project is nonetheless highly contested; thousands of opponents have been demonstrating at Kudankulam regularly, with concern centering on the question of whether the million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant could be evacuated quickly in the event of a natural disaster like the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which did affect the coast of India.
At the beginning of May, India's Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the commissioning of the first reactor at Kudankulam, which had challenged the adequacy of the plant's safety oversight. The decision did not quiet the nuclear opponents, who denounced the verdict as "shocking" and "absurd," according to The Hindu newspaper. A lawyer representing them, Prashant Bhushan characterized the verdict as "an unfortunate and a terrible judgment which shows the establishmentarian mindset of the Supreme Court judges, accepting whatever the government presents, especially in the context of this mindless rush towards nuclear energy.”
In a commentary that appeared this week in Mint, an online business paper copublished by the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal, Spectrum contributor Ramana took India's Supreme Court to task for not exercising its proper judicial oversight where called for and yet stepping beyond its proper area of authority in endorsing the credibility of the government's overall nuclear program. Like Bhushan, Ramana was especially critical of the court for giving the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board a clean bill of health, despite what the two critics see as a long record on the part of the AERB of failing to enforce safety norms.
"Inexplicably," wrote Ramana, "the court’s decision makes no mention of a devastating report from last year by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the body mandated to 'promote accountability, transparency and good governance,' on the subordinate legal status of AERB and its multiple failings to ensure safety of nuclear installations in the country. CAG observed that AERB had no effective independence from the department of atomic energy."
The point is fundamental. In the United States, well before the Three Mile Island accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was separated from the old Atomic Energy Commission and established as an independent safety overseer. The same kind of reform is underway in today's Japan, post-Fukushima. If India wishes to address the concerns of the country's nuclear critics and build a foundation for any future public confidence in the atom, it too will need to radically reform its oversight structure.
Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters