After Japan: Could India Also Face a Nuclear Crisis?

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Who’s worried about nuclear power?

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that China has no plans to alter its nuclear program in the wake of Japan’s catastrophe:

“There is a higher standard in China than the world’s average” for building nuclear power plants, Xu Mi, an official at China National Nuclear Corp., said.”

Not to be outdone, India made similar reassurances about its commitment to nuclear power, in a perceptive article in the New York Times.  It notes that India’s civil nuclear deal with the United States includes “an unusual liability clause that makes nuclear power plant suppliers, not just operators, liable if accidents occur.” That provision was widely criticized, but it’s now getting new attention: if an earthquake-tsunami close to the magnitude of Japan’s were to hit India’s much larger population, who would bear responsibility?

But it’s not just a question of liability. As Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and the Environment points out, the existing nuclear power industry in India is often defensive and secretive when it comes to answering questions, particularly after the long, hard fight by this government to push to expand nuclear power.  She writes:

We know very little about our internal capacity to deal with a crisis or about the safety provisions of our existing infrastructure because the nuclear science establishment refuses to enter any discussion.

She raises an important point. But India ought to be worried not just about whether its future nuclear power plants are located in seismic zones, or whether it’s wise to locate power plants along India’s 7,000 km of tsunami-vulnerable coastline, but about how well equipped its public health and safety agencies are to deal with any natural disaster. Without basic public health and safety preparedness — most Indian cities, never mind villages, lack functioning ambulance and fire services — India will find it difficult to handle any natural disaster, whether it involves a potential nuclear disaster or not.

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