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End Piece

Issue 304

Nuclear fantasy
Not everyone in India is enthralled by the 'Hindu Bomb'.
Bittu Sahgal reminds us what is at stake.

Bittu Sahgal World Environment Day rolls along every June and many of us whose lives are focused on defending the earth find ourselves contemplating our purpose. At lead-up meetings across India this year a variety of issues featured in animated discussions, from the fate of the almost defunct Narmada Project to that of the tiger.

But a sort of quiet descended whenever the subject of the tests came up. Everyone agreed that the hypocrisy of the US and Britain on the issue was to be condemned. Nevertheless, social activists, environmentalists, teachers, students and even many in business seemed stunned by two key developments. First, the tests themselves and how they were used to garner political advantage; then, the chauvinistic response of the most unlikely sections of society.

It’s time to explore the track record of the global nuclear industry, which seems to have been forgotten. Here’s a small reminder:

‘A bright light filled the plane,’ wrote Lt Col Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb. ‘We turned back to look at Hiroshima. The City was hidden by that awful cloud... boiling up, mushrooming.’ For a moment, no-one spoke. Then everyone was talking. ‘Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!’ exclaimed the co-pilot, Robert Lewis, pounding on Tibbets’ shoulder. Lewis said he could taste atomic fission; it tasted like lead. Then he turned away to write in his journal. ‘My God,’ he asked himself, ‘what have we done?’ (Newsweek special report, 6 August 1945).

What indeed? More than 200,000 people are known to have died because of the nuclear attack on Japan. No-one knows how many more died unrecorded and unmourned (visit the internet site < > put up by Mitsuru Ohba and John Benson from Hiroshima for more details).

Remember Chernobyl? It is now common knowledge that the former Soviet Union turned out to be the world’s most negligent nuclear power. As India’s nuclear program has leaned so heavily on the former Soviet Union, it is reasonable to presume that our safety standards are equally abysmal.

Dhirendra Sharma, who used to teach Science Technology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, informs us that ‘in India an estimated 300 incidents of a serious nature have occurred, causing radiation leaks and damage to workers. These have so far remained official secrets... A major mishap in Tarapur in 1979 resulted in thousands of litres of irradiated water gushing out from the reactor. But the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission reluctantly acknowledged only a “pinhole” leak.’

In another serious incident a reprocessing plant at Tarapur was closed down due to contamination. It is reported that at least three persons died in the ‘inert’ chamber inside and more than 3,000 workers have been exposed to non-permissible doses of radiation. The Madras Atomic Power Station Unit-1 at Kalpakkam was reported to have suffered an explosion soon after it was commissioned in July 1984. The Rajasthan Atomic Power Station Unit-1 had to be shut down. More than 2,000 workers were exposed to excess radiation and 300 had to be hospitalized.

Make no mistake, we are creeping towards a self-inflicted nuclear Armageddon. Alarmingly, attempts are now being made to brand anti-nuclear groups in India as anti-national. An emerging brand of fascism even prompted death threats against protesters in New Delhi this May.

We might therefore do well to pause and consider the myth of cheap atomic power, the handmaiden of nuclear weapons. Our Government presses on, ostrich-like, pretending that nuclear plants can free India from chronic power shortages. But the fact is that our nuclear industry is sick and dying.

Surendra Gadekar, leading light of Anumukti, a Gandhian nuclear resistance group, points out that the nuclear dream is really a nightmare. ‘The scientists and bureaucrats in charge of our nuclear program are above accountability,’ he laments. He and his doctor wife Sangamitra investigated the condition of villagers at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan, where they discovered gross radiation-related deformities.

This is a story told to Surendra Gadekar. One day in Narora a worker with a geiger counter went to take tea in the canteen. His geiger counter suddenly went crazy. On investigating he found that the radioactivity was coming from the fire used for preparing the tea. Further investigation led to the discovery that the wood being burnt had originally been used for scaffolding inside the plant, and had got contaminated and hence should have been stored as low-level waste. Instead it had been sold to a contractor, who had fortunately sold it back to the canteen: hence this sordid practice of how the establishment deals with its waste was detected.

The birth and death of the nuclear fantasy, which once promised that electricity would be too cheap to meter, has taken place within one human lifetime. But the problems will not go away even if we stop building reactors, because wastes will stay hot for thousands of years.

If the centralized bureaucracy of Maurya Kings two thousand years ago had discovered nuclear power, we in India and Pakistan would probably still be spending half our current national budget storing and caring for or repairing the damage done by atomic wastes.

Now that really is something to think about on World Environment Day.

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Magazine, Mumbai, India, e-mail: [email protected]

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