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Japan's Nuclear Crisis Stokes Fears In India

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has stoked fears in India, which is about to embark on a nuclear reactor building binge that could increase the country's nuclear power generating capacity six-fold.

Top nuclear officials in India say the country's existing reactors are safe and that the next generation of power plants will be even safer.

But some Indian nuclear experts say the country's nuclear establishment is so secretive that it's impossible to say how safe the program may be.

Close Calls

Concerns about nuclear safety in India aren't just theoretical.

After all, India is an extremely densely populated country. The number of people that will be affected if something like Japan happens — in India, it would be huge. So who will be liable if something like that happens? Will government bail out companies? Will companies pay us?

The country already has had some close calls, including an accident at the Narora atomic power plant not far from New Delhi in 1993.

"In our Narora station there was a major fire, which got that reactor pretty close to meltdown, frankly," says A. Gopalakrishnan. He was head of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board at the time.

Gopalakrishnan says the early-morning blaze knocked out all electric power to the plant, leaving the reactor temperature to soar out of control.

The reactor was being run by a group of young engineers who — in those pre-cellphone days — were cut off from contact with the outside world.

"So these seven or eight people in that control room in pitch darkness had to take the decision on their own, without any supervisory advice," he says.

They grabbed flashlights, climbed up inside the reactor structure and, luckily, took the right steps to get the situation under control.

"It was quite clear that this action which these engineers took, really saved a meltdown," Gopalakrishnan says. "Otherwise we had two major cities nearby, Meerut and Aligarh — those places would completely have had to be evacuated."

Learning Lessons

At the time, the cities of Meerut and Aligarh had a combined population of nearly 7 million people.

That, say many nuclear experts, is why India should be learning lessons from Japan's nuclear crisis. India may be less likely to face earthquakes as severe as those that hit Japan, but any accident could have a much greater human cost.

G. Balachandran is a nuclear policy consultant at India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis.

A strong advocate of nuclear power, he says data from Fukushima show that there was a failure on the part of Japanese regulators to force the company to comply with tsunami-protection measures.

"That is the primary lesson to be learned," he says, "that regulations must be fully enforced, and absolutely enforced without any delay whatsoever."

Balachandran says that, like in Japan, India's regulatory bodies have a too-cozy relationship with the nuclear plant operators.

He points out that the chairman of the department that promotes nuclear power also sits on the board that is supposed to regulate it. He says the two authorities should be completely separate and independent.

Call For Transparency

Critics also complain that India's nuclear establishment needs to be much more transparent.

"Our nuclear establishment is directly related to our defense establishment," says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Center for Science and Environment. "In the name of national security, lots of information about our nuclear establishment was not put out in the public domain."

That information, says Bhushan, includes environmental impact assessments dealing with issues such as safety and potential radiation hazards.

Bhushan says the issue is particularly urgent because India is preparing for a six-fold increase in its nuclear generating capacity by adding new reactors from the United States, France and other countries, many of which will be located near populous areas.

"After all, India is an extremely densely populated country," he says. "The number of people that will be affected if something like Japan happens — in India, it would be huge. So who will be liable if something like that happens? Will government bail out companies? Will companies pay us?"

The current head of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Srikumar Banerjee, wasn't available for an interview.

He recently told the Indian Expressnewspaper that Fukushima raised concerns for India's nuclear establishment, including the need to constantly assess its nuclear safety.

But Banerjee also told the paper: "You should worry less for nuclear energy than walking on the streets or driving in Delhi."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Flintoff is a correspondent with the Foreign Desk. His career has taken him to more than 45 countries.Since 2005, Flintoff has been part of the NPR team covering the Iraq War. He has embedded with U.S. military units fighting insurgents and hunting roadside bombs. His stories from Iraq have dealt with sectarian killings, government corruption, the Christian refugee crisis, and the destruction of Iraq's southern marshes.