March hare experiments can be fatal

In the short history of our nuclear age, another page was recently scrawled when (India’s Prime Minister) Dr Manmohan Singh and French President Nicolas Sarkozy sealed a pact of atomic collaboration.

Editor’s Note: The French President, accompanied by his wife Carla Bruni and an official delegation was on a four-day state visit to India from December 4, 2010.

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 splendour of the mighty one.”

The Gita Connection

Oppenheimer, fluent in Sanskrit and proud to admit that 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 what he believed was 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 World War II.

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. Twenty-eight years after Oppenheimer’s blast at the New Mexico desert site that he named ‘Trinity’ (after a central Christian belief), the eight-kiloton ‘Smiling Buddha’ was detonated at Pokaran (in the Jaisalmer District, State of Rajasthan) 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.

A blast of lies

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar 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 programme is highly classified. However, the Atomic Energy Department is obliged to report shutdowns of plants to the International Atomic Energy Agency where they become public records.

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 any way fireproofed.

Without electricity to power the pumps to circulate coolant around the fast overheating core, staff were lotto lucky to manually shut down the plant.

Another accident

The second accident that occurred in 2003 at the Kalpakkam Atomic Processing Plant, bares naked the undeniable fact that antiquated bureaucratic organisations like the AED cannot be within a mushroom cloud of a nuclear plant of any size.

A valve failure allowed highly radioactive material to enter a tank of lower radioactive material. There were no sensors to detect either the valve failure or the now lethal amounts of radiation in which the Plant’s workers unknowingly bathe. The leak was only discovered after a criminally long time when a fuel sample was 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 Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (the Plant’s Governing Body), after this organisation had disregarded a committee’s strong recommendation that the Plant be immediately shut down after evidence of continued wildly excessive radiation leakage.

The letter demanded, amongst other safety recommendations, a full time safety officer. BARC’s constructive critique was to blame the workers for not wearing their thermal badges (these are designed to detect long time and not sudden, catastrophic exposures) and for entering the room (that was part of their duty).

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: “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 not to repeat its foolhardiness.

The Wayward West

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 administered by India’s world-beating managerial talent, not by 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 Openheimer recalled another verse from the Bhavagad Gita. ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’.

Roy Lange is a New Zealander. His family has been involved with the community for more than 45 years. He met his Bollywood Producer-Wife Mitu Bhowmick during his ten year-stay India. He will write a regular column in Indian Newslink. We welcome reader response either as an online comment

(www.indiannewslink.co.nz) or by email to editor@indiannewslink.co.nz

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