As work continues on a ‘‘feasibility study’’ for construction of two Russian VVER 1000 light water reactors at Koodankulum, Indians would do well to review Russians’ sad experience with the atom. Many things are still unknown about the Soviet nuclear programme. Debates continue among experts as to the number of tons of plutonium (and therefore also the volume of reprocessing wastes) that have been produced. Little is known about early waste dumping practices. Information on the health of workers and neighbors of nuclear plants is even more difficult to obtain and evaluate. Yet, the overall picture is clear. From nuclear submarines decaying in northern and eastern ports, to the Semipalatinsk test site in the south, in present-day Kazakstan the race to produce nuclear weapons has resulted in environmental contamination on an enormous scale, with site-by-site contamination measured in millions and billions of curies. In addition, even a full decade before Chernobyl, the Soviet people had already experienced a reactor accident that must rank among the world’s most serious.
The Soviet nuclear establishment acted little differently from that of any other country in terms of their disregard for the human consequences of their activities. But the scale of their production, combined with the complete lack of public oversight, put the resulting damage in a class of its own.
Russia provides a cautionary example to Indians for another reason as well. If nuclear energy is dangerous in wealthy country, it can be disastrous in a poor one. As former
nuclear regulator Vladimir Kuznetsov reminds us, when money is tight, safety and environment provisions are the first to go.
There have been widespread movements in Russia to bring an end to nuclear production, and to draw attention to the suffering brought about by the carelessness of the nuclear establishment, from referenda blocking new reactor construction, to independent monitoring efforts. The task of these activists is getting increasingly difficult and dangerous, as environmental concerns take a backseat to the desire for quick profit. Nowhere is this callous equation clearer than in the Ministry of Atomic Energy’s (Minatom) invitations to foreign countries to export their nuclear waste in Russia, with the resulting revenue to be used for new reactors (with the subsequent production of even more waste). With the drying up of its traditional government sources of funding, Minatom has turned its gaze abroad. A project to convert surplus weapons plutonium into reactor fuel (with financial support from the US and the G-8 countries), and export of reactors and other technology are two additional potential funding sources for Minatom’s ambitious construction plans. Unfortunately, Minatom’s willingness to clean up existing sites does not match its zeal for new projects.
Thus Indians have an additional, neighborly reason to oppose the reactors at Koodankulum. They will not only be safeguarding their own future, but by denying funds to an irresponsible Russian nuclear establishement, will also be lending a hand to the many Russians who are trying to put an end to their country’s nuclear nightmare.
[ Courtesy : Anumukti ]