Monday, 20 December 2010

Nuclear Power India's Salvation?

In the short history of our nuclear age another page was recently scrawled when Manmohan Singh and President Sarkozy sealed a pact of atomic collaboration. The genesis of this optimism was 65 years ago when the father of the nuclear bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, awed by the blinding power he unleashed, recalled the Bhagavad-Gita “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”

Oppenheimer, fluent in Sanskrit and proud to admit the Bhagavad-Gita was strongly influential in forming his character, was intrigued by the epics of salvation and damnation in the holy Hindu scriptures. His initial euphoria at seeing a manifestation of the Lord was because he believed, with conviction, that this was their vehicle to salvation, a deliverance from the horror and sins of the Second World War. Should India see this fire of the Gods as an enlightenment to solve her famine of electricity? Or another damnation?

It is astounding how many strong religious references have been made in the nuclear scramble. 28 years after Oppenheimer’s blast at the New Mexico desert site, that he named Trinity, after a central Christian belief, the 8 kiloton ‘Smiling Buddha’ was denoted at Pokaran on Buddha Jayanti. Were these placating gestures? Remorse for letting infant politicians steal from God’s gun safe?

For no one with an IQ higher than the room temperature would argue that nuclear power sits comfortably in the hands of mere mortals. Ajit Pawar the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra is resigned to proving this beyond ambiguity by forcefully arguing for the construction of the two French nuclear plants in Jaitapur, with blatant lies.

The real fresh one from Mr. Pawar was “There has not been even a single case of an accident in India’s 18 nuclear reactors.”

India’s atomic energy program is highly classified however the Atomic Energy Department is obliged to report shutdowns of plants to the International Atomic Energy Agency where they are made a matter of public record. Here we depressingly find the first of two accidents that stand out amongst a crowd of others.

In 1993, the Narora nuclear plant in Uttar Pradesh was saved from a cataclysmic event only by a forgiving God. Ignoring warnings of catastrophic turbine failure by the manufacturers, the plant management pushed the system sufficiently enough for the turbine blades to explode. These cut a hydrogen carrying pipe that exploded on cue, in turn igniting a sizeable oil leak that had been neglected. The oil fire incinerated the power cables rendering all systems, including safety systems off-line. There was of course a reserve set of power cables but they were bewilderingly placed within close proximity to the primary cables and were not in anyway fireproofed. Without electricity to power the pumps to circulate coolant around the fast overheating core, staff were lotto lucky to manage to manually shut down the plant.

The second accident bares naked the undeniable fact that antiquated bureaucratic organizations like the AED cannot be within a mushroom cloud of a nuclear plant of any size. Kalpakkam Atomic Processing Plant, 2003. A valve failure allows highly radioactive material to enter a tank of lower radioactive material. No sensors to detect either the valve failure or the now lethal amounts of radiation that the plant’s workers unknowingly bathe in. The leak was only discovered, after a criminally long time, when a fuel sample is examined in another section of the plant.

This incident, little known as it is, would have not have seen any light had the worker’s union at the plant not become proactive. They presented a letter to the plants governing body, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, after this organistion had disregarded a committee’s strong recommendation that the plant be immediately shut down after evidence of continued wildly excessive radiation leakage. The letter amongst other safety recommendations demanded a full time safety officer. BARC’s constructive critique was to blame the workers for not wearing their thermal badges (That are designed to detect long term exposure not sudden catastrophic exposure) and for entering the room (that was part of the duties demanded of them). The workers went on strike until their leaders fell victim to the time honoured babu weapon of choice; they were transferred. BARC got the last scientific word in “If the place was not safe they would not have joined back.”

The only consolation for trailing behind the West in development is the precious opportunity to not repeat it’s foolhardiness. India must stop equating wealth with intelligence and blindly duplicating the West’s sometimes mad as a March hare technological experiments. But if it must, then these all powerful nuclear reactors, with the radiation of a thousand Hiroshimas, must be administrated by India’s world beating managerial talent not bitter old men.

On that day of the world’s first nuclear blast, even before the gates of hell had fully closed, many of the greatest minds of the age openly wept and Oppenheimer recalled another verse from the Bhavagad Gita. ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’.

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