The Filter Coffee

Foreign policy, strategic affairs, defense and governance

The Kaiga Incident

What happened in Kaiga shouldn’t stay in Kaiga

More than 90 workers of the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka were poisoned as a result of their water cooler being contaminated with radioactive tritium.  Nuclear Power Corporation’s investigators suspect foul play, which was also corroborated by AEC chairman, Anil Kakodkar.

As with all forms of exposure to radiation, the effects of tritium exposure include mutation of cells, loss of brain weight and genetic abnormalities in future generations.  It is unclear how often the workers are checked for traces of radiation, but the presence of tritium in the 90 Kaiga APS employees was identified on November 24.

Since 99% of tritium is eliminated from the body within 10 days of ingestion, the actual incident could have occurred any time between mid-November and Nov 24.

As word of the incident got out, Manmohan Singh attempted to allay fears by saying, “I’ve been briefed about it, it is a small matter of contamination and is not linked to any leak”. Yes, a small matter of radioactive heavy water contaminating our drinking water.  That Manmohan Singh acted to appeal for calm is one thing, but to do so in such a  bizarre, over enthusiastically dismissive manner sends a poor message to citizens and to domestic and international observers.

As if on key, the media bailed on covering the incident, leaving us at the mercy of the inane, often contradictory explanations being given by the DAE and the AEC, if and when the AEC felt disposed to provide any information at all.

There is little that we know about the incident — the identities of those exposed, the date of exposure, the amount of radiation recorded, or indeed, if all those exposed to tritium as a result of drinking water from the cooler have been accounted for.

The Deccan Herald ran an article which indicated that APS employed over a 1,000 workers and  5,000 contractors, all of whom had access to both the area that stored the tritium as well as the dispenser.  Sadly, this is the kind of flippancy that has typified our approach to nuclear safety.

This isn’t the first radioactive leek or safety breech at an APS in India, nor will it be the last if this sort of trivialization of the safety of workers and those in the immediate neighborhood persists.  In the Kalpakkam APS alone, there were three major instances of heavy water leeks in 2003, 1999, 1988.

If the Prime Minister is really serious about delivering on his promise of “good governance” after the victory in the general election this past May, he should constitute a review not only of the Kaiga incident but also all aspects of APS operation and management, including safety and handling procedures, physical security, isolation and access control, recruitment and background checks.

The usual dismissive, dubious attestations of the DAE simply won’t do anymore.

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Filed under: Congress I, Energy, India, Nuclear Energy, World, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Non-proliferation Doubletalk

The recent statement at the G-8 summit in L’aquila calling all non-signatories to “immediately” sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and banning the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technologies to non-NPT signatories, was perhaps unexpected, but not altogether shocking.  The statement comes prior to the visit of Secretary Clinton to India in August, who, like her husband before her, is a strong proponent of the regime, and of the necessity of bringing the pariahs — India, Israel and Pakistan — into the fold of the mainstream.

The symbolism should not be lost on India.  The country is quite self-sufficient in ENR technology, and for every member that refuses to play ball, there are others that are more than willing.  The statement doesn’t affect India’s quest for cost effective no-ENR-strings-attached nuclear deals with suppliers much — as Indrani Bagchi points out in her blog — but it does point to the unraveling of the non-proliferation agenda being prepared by the Obama Administration to be thrust down our throats.

India, therefore, should fully expect mounting international and US pressure to sign the NPT prior to the 2010 NPT RevCon.  Secretary Clinton will no doubt take the opportunity to raise the issue during bilateral discussions next month.  The Japanese, as notorious on the issue as they always were, have made repeated calls this year for India to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state.

Rajiv Gandhi in a speech at the Third Special Session of the UN in 1988 elucidated India’s stance on the issue:

We cannot accept the logic that a few nations have the right to pursue their security by threatening the survival of mankind…nor is it acceptable that those who possess nuclear weapons are freed of all controls while those without nuclear weapons are policed against their production.

This UPA administration has shown a remarkable ability to undo relationships and depart from the country’s long held positions with stealth and great haste.  This blogger hopes that the NPT issue will not fall prey to uninformed meddling.  India needs to make it very clear to Secretary Clinton and others like her championing the NPT cause, that the nation continues to harbor significant reservations on the structure and spirit of the regime that effectively prevent it from being a signatory.

It has long been India’s official position that India cannot and will not participate in a discriminatory regime that would seek to legitimize the possession of nuclear weapons by some nations, while denying similar rights to others. It has also been India’s stated commitment to universal global nuclear disarmament.  Signining the NPT would give credence to nuclear aparthied and provide currency to the notion that some countries have a greater right to self defence than others.

Filed under: Energy, India, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Proliferation, nuclear weapons, Politics, World, , , , , , , , , , , ,

India and Kazakhstan: Impetus Needed in Relationship

Nursultan Nazarbayev greets Vajpayee in Almaty (2002)

Nursultan Nazarbayev greets Vajpayee in Almaty (2002)

On January 26, New Delhi will host Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the Republic Day celebrations. India and Kazakhstan first established diplomatic relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nazarbayev made his first official visit to India in 1992, and in 2002, following his second visit to New Delhi, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee attended the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Almaty. At that time, Nazarbayev’s efforts in defusing India-Pakistan tension (emanating from the 2001 Parliament attack) were roundly praised. After the defeat of the NDA in the 2004 general elections, contacts between India and Kazakhstan, at the head of state level, have tapered off, until now.

India’s strategy towards Central Asian countries has been no different than its strategy towards African nations, and can be only summarized as “playing catch-up with the Chinese”. In this new “Great Game” of the century, India is consistently assuming the role of “Johnny-come-lately” to China in Central Asia. Indeed, China already has a fairly robust multi-dimensional relationship with Kazakhstan, as it does with other CIS states, on account of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) membership. Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia and shares borders with Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. President Nazarbayev is a Soviet-era leader who maintains fairly rigid control of the state, despite it being a democracy, by letter of law. Weary of China and Russia’s undue influence in the SCO, Kazakhstan has pitched for a full Indian membership in the council. India’s trade with this bludgeoning economy stands at a paltry $128 million (2007), contrasted against China’s $6 billion (2005) economic engagement with this Central Asian republic. This idle wasting of time is a shame, considering Kazakhstan’s phenomenal economic growth since the 2000s, which includes a staggering average GDP (absolute) growth of 9.5% from 2004-2007.

Kazakhstan’s strategic location along the Caspian Sea is hard to overemphasize. The Caspian Sea has the world’s third largest oil reserves, by some estimates, containing 200 billion barrels of oil, and 236 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. Cognizant of the desperate energy situation in India, Oil and Natural Gas Limited (ONGC) is seeking a 40% share in Kazakhstan’s Satpayev oil exploration sector (with Russia’s blessing) in the Caspian, after getting outbid by China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) for the acquisition of the oil company PetroKazakhstan.

However, Nazarbayev’s chief mission in New Delhi will be to ink a deal to export uranium, in the wake of the end of “nuclear apartheid” against India. India’s own uranium reserves stand at about 115,000 tons, most of which is low grade. Kazakhstan is currently the second largest producer of uranium, producing about 12,000 tons (2008); the country is likely to overtake Australia as the single largest producer of uranium by 2011. For India, inking the nuclear deal is a consummation devoutly to be wished. While nuclear energy constitutes only 3% of our total energy production, this figure will likely increase to 25% by 2050, as India seeks to reduce its reliance on “dirty” coal. India has already inked similar deals with Canada and France.

India should also continue to boost cooperation with Kazakhstan on the regional security front. The Kazakhs have expressed a desire to establish a naval fleet to guard its interests in the Caspian. They have looked to India for assistance and we have been happy to oblige, much to the chagrin of Russia. As I will point out in a later article, India’s engagement with Central Asia is going to ruffle feathers in Moscow and put us at odds with Russia; as a country with growing economic and political clout, India must at once expect this to happen, and at the same time not be hindered in our quest to establish new alliances despite the grievances/protests of our old allies.

Yet another important dimension of engagement on security should be partnering on intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism issues. Uyghur warriors, many of whom come from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have been fighting Chinese rule in Xianjing province. Although present on a smaller scale, there is a growing component of Uyghur and Uzbek fighters in Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) terror umbrella; that many of these fighters have seen action against Pakistani forces in South Waziristan should be a matter of interest to India.

India’s growing population and economy need sustainable sources of energy — the problem of inadequate power supply is already acute, and will likely get worse if remedial measures aren’t taken and alternative sources aren’t identified posthaste. In doing so however, both India and Kazakhstan need to not neglect other equally important areas of mutual interest. In this regard, our very one-sided, military dominated relationship with Russia should serve a reminder on how not to go about forging new partnerships.

Filed under: Central Asia, China, Energy, Kazakhstan, Nuclear Energy, Politics, Russia, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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