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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mock Outrage

The Opposition staged walkouts — twice in three days — over the Indo-Pak joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh, and the End-Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) or the so-called “Blue Lantern” program, for high technology defense purchases with the United States.  Too often this “walkout” culture is misinterpreted as a reflection of a vibrant democratic process in India. The irony is this that it is anything but.  The farcical walkouts staged by the Opposition undermine their own role in the democratic due process of the country.

Challenging a government on decisions it takes requires actual work. And really, when have our babus ever been fans of work?  Why waste time gathering information, formulating a view and challenging  those opposed to it, when you can just shout someone down in Parliament and summarily extricate yourself from the proceedings in mock outrage?

EUMAs are required as part of satisfying the “eligibility” requirements of the United States’ Arms Export Control Act. At least one source from the Defense Cooperation Security Agency (DSCA) confirms that India has previously signed similar EUMAs with the United States as part of the sale of the C-130J “Super Hercules” transport aircraft and USS Trenton (INS Jalashwa).  However those were transaction specific EUMAs, which both India and the US hope to do away with via a general master products and services agreement (which is essentially what this latest “agreement” is), as defense trade between the countries increases.

But the UPA and the Obama Administration have delivered mixed messages on the scope of the EUMA — is it restricted to defense related high technology purchases only, or does it include all high technology  transfers, which would scope in the Indo-US deal?  If it is the latter, as Brahma Challaney suggests, Manmohan Singh has some explaining to do with his representation to the Rajya Sabha that the Indo-US nuke deal was governed only by the 123 Agreement, the Separation Plan and the safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

The brouhaha around the much denounced “physical inspections” clause per se is unfounded.  First, while the US retains the right to physically inspect equipment, India gets to decide on where and when this inspection can occur. Second, regardless of the scope of high technology transfers, India is under no obligation to purchase anything from the US if it doesn’t want to, if push comes to shove, not even nuclear fuel or ENR technology. Third, since when has a piece of paper come to mean anything in the world today?  In a worst case scenario, what are the US’s options if India refuses to allow physical inspectors or reneges on earlier promises? Censure? Embargo? Been there, done that. Move on.

The implications of an agreement to physical inspections is less of a concern.  What is concerning however is the complete absence of a democratic exercise that examines and challenges the government on important strategic ventures it enters into (or plans to enter into) during its tenure.  A level of involved discourse of the ’60s and ’70s has given way to rowdyism.  Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav took the cake as they marched out the LS in protest; lest it be forgotten, it was only last week that the latter had to be corrected that the issue he was addressing the House with unswerving confidence was in fact “Global Warming”, and not “Global Farming”.

Where are the checks and balances?  What if it turns out that the UPA has misrepresented a large extent of the obligations with regard to high technology transfers, including the nuclear deal that it has entered into on behalf of the nation? The only qualification necessary to storm out in fits of rage is to be equipped with a pair of legs.  Who holds the government’s feet to the fire, if not the Opposition?

Filed under: 123 Agreement, America, India, Nuclear Energy, Obama, Politics in India, Technology, 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, , , , , , , , , , , ,

By-two Kaapi (Twitter)