Twenty six years ago, the Union Carbide plant of Bhopal leaked a cloud of 42 tons of toxic chemicals into the air of the densely populated city. The worst hit area was the slum next to the factory. Most of the victims were poor people from villages who had moved to the city in search of jobs. Many, including children and the elderly, died in their beds as the gas seeped into their homes. Others, including women clasping babies, fled only to collapse in the street. Many were later found, huddled, sick and dying in the city’s doorways. Herds of oxen lay dead and the bodies of goats and sheeps littered the roadsides where they used to roam!
Some days back, the nuclear liability bill of India cleared parliament. Are we heading for another Chernobyl? Another Bhopal?
Lets rewind - It was only a year ago when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to India with a deadly agenda. No one accepted, but the fact was clear - India was afraid of a blot in its relations with the U.S. under the new Obama government. A few days later, Hillary was reported saying, "We have just completed a civil nuclear deal. If it is done through proper channels and safeguarded, then it is appropriate. The two countries would proceed with agreements initiated by Bush on military issues and civilian nuclear deals." Hillary added, "The sites for two nuclear parks for U.S. companies have been approved by the government. These parks will advance the aims of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, facilitate billions of dollars in U.S. reactor exports, and create jobs in both counties, as well as generate much-needed energy for the Indian people."
Not many of us know that one of the two sites is in the region of Andhra Pradesh, a Moaoist stronghold. The second site is in Gujarat where the political party at the center lacks a stronghold. If a disaster occurs in any of these states, the center will have nothing to lose and lots of people to blame! Rings any bells?
Sovereign French institutions, Areva and Rusatom, were already in the race to supply nuclear plant equipment to India. In the event of a Bhopal-like disaster, it would be an issue between the governments of India and France. Private players from U.S. like General Electric and Westinghouse grunted that they will not invest until India ensures that the entire liability of any potential catastrophe is borne solely by Indians. We know what governments do. In 26 years, nothing has been done to address the liabilities of the Bhopal disaster, either by the U.S. or the Indian government. Most of us have even stopped expecting. Well, the bill has been passed on their terms and conditions, and the country seems to be more interested in Katrina Kaif's next film!
What are the possible hazards of Nuclear mines or plants in India? Well according to Frontline, the renowned US investigative documentary makers, there is a risk of exposure to ionizing radiation at each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to fuel fabrication, and from the operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors to the handling or reprocessing of spent fuel. Radiation is a unique and long-acting poison that causes chromosomal damage even in small doses, and ultimately cancer and genetic damage. Radiation cannot be neutralized or destroyed. And there is no threshold below which it is safe. Nuclear power generation, as well as the transportation and handling of nuclear materials, inevitably exposes occupational workers to radiation. It is also fraught with routine emissions and effluents that are hazardous to the public in the vicinity. It leaves behind wastes, which remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years despite an economic lifespan of only 30 or 40 years for a nuclear reactor!
The bill has cleared parliament. The politics behind it are clear. The potential disasters have been emphasised in black and white. No wonder the world is ending. The question is - can we save it?