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‘Nuclear fears have to be addressed scientifically. The Indian government must be as transparent as possible’

The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta talks to Yukiya Amano,Director General,IAEA.

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
March 26, 2013 2:11:21 am

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta,Yukiya Amano,Director General,International Atomic Energy Agency,speaks about the Fukushima disaster,India’s nuclear programme and why “nuclear power is much safer than before”

My guest today is somebody who has a formidable job and a tough case. He has to speak for the future of nuclear energy in this very sceptical world and also in an increasingly sceptical country,India—Yukiya Amano,Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency. India is as tough a place as any to go to these days for you.

This is a very nice place.

We are having this conversation almost exactly on the second anniversary of Fukushima. There are doubts about nuclear energy all over the world. IAEA got the Nobel Prize for promoting the idea of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Do you still have a case or is the case lost?

Fukushima was a very huge accident and a very severe accident. It was a very difficult thing for me because it happened in my own country,Japan,and just after the accident,many people believed that this is the end of nuclear power. Two years have passed and the worst is already in the past. What is happening now,some countries like Germany or Italy or Belgium decided to phase out…

Italy is in very bad odour in my country these days,so I don’t think India is going to follow what they have done.

Some countries decided to phase out nuclear power or decided to change course. But many other countries continue to use nuclear power as an important option. According to the IAEA’s latest estimate,by 2030,there will be increase in 23 per cent minimum,or 100 per cent maximum. So nuclear power continues to be an important option for many countries.

Since Fukushima,the first new plant has begun to be constructed. It is in the UAE.

Yes.

But what do you tell your own Japanese countrymen who are so doubtful about nuclear energy?

I would say that,of course,the accident was caused by this huge tsunami and earthquake,but there were a lot of human errors and people got a little bit complacent,especially in the utilities. That was a huge wake-up call for safety. After the Fukushima accident,lots of improvements have been made to enhance the safety level. And I saw it in India.

Are you satisfied with the safety levels in India?

We are not inspectors on safety issues; we are helping countries improve the safety. The important thing is to learn lessons from Fukushima and think jointly how we can make it (nuclear power) safe.

You talked about human errors in Fukushima. That’s the worry. Human errors in driving a car may lead to one or two deaths. Human error in flying a plane,hundreds of deaths. But human error in running a nuclear plant…god knows what will happen. Then why take the risk? I am presenting the other case to you.

Yes. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Fukushima. For example,people thought that a blackout will not happen in Japan,but it did. So the emergency diesel generator should be properly installed.

That’s not a problem,because in India we are used to power outages.

Also,water is needed to cool down the plant. I visited Tarapur and I saw the outside hook-up has been installed and they have painted it red so one can see immediately—that in an emergency,we have to hook up water to this pipe and then the reactors can be cooled down. That is essential in case of an accident.

Was Fukushima an obsolete reactor? Would a newer reactor have survived this?

I don’t say old reactors are dangerous and new ones are safe,but it is obvious that new reactors can take lessons from past experience… All reactors can be also safe using retro-fitting,for example.

In many countries,even France,which still use nuclear energy and which are still setting up new plants,the basic psychology is,‘I don’t mind nuclear power but don’t set up a nuclear power plant close to where I live…’ Will you live next to a nuclear power plant?

Some distance perhaps. But with proper measures. We cannot say there is 100 per cent safety. But we can make a nuclear plant as safe as humanly possible and even if an accident takes place,we can mitigate the effects by taking various measures. Prevention and mitigation,these two are essential.

As the foremost spokesman for nuclear energy globally,did it get you angry the way Fukushima was handled?

On my part,I concentrated my efforts to help Japanese overcome this difficult phase. And then,I tried to pass the information to everyone in the world. Now we are at the post-Fukushima phase. So my priority number one is to implement the plan that everyone agreed to after Fukushima in order to make nuclear power safer.

You said you don’t mind living close to a nuclear power plant but at some distance. First of all,how much distance?

There is no particular distance. We cannot,of course,live inside the power plant. When an accident happens,we have to follow the instructions,the advice of the authorities. For example,in the case of Fukushima,hundreds of people were evacuated but no one was killed or injured. So orderly evacuation is needed in case of an accident but,of course,we had better prevent such an accident from happening.

So what will you say to the fishermen who live around the Koodankulam plant who are protesting and who are worried about what might happen to them?

Monitoring is very important,preventing the accident is important and if an accident happens,reduce the release of radioactivity into the environment to the minimum level possible. But in most of the cases,the release of radioactivity into the environment is very rare or very limited. Surprisingly,the nuclear industry has a good record of safety. The problem is that there are some accidents that are not likely to happen but when it happens,the impact is huge. This is the problem.

At Fukushima,estimates of whether radiation was escaping or how much was escaping varied a great deal. What was your assessment? How much leaked at Fukushima?

I don’t have the figure but it was the most serious accident after Chernobyl and there was complacency. But a good example is that another nuclear power plant 20 km south of Fukushima was not affected. With some proper precaution and measures,we can prevent the accident developing into such a serious one.

So have you followed the agitations taking place at Koodankulam? These are Russian reactors that are coming up in south India.

I’ve been following… In my view,the most important thing is to be transparent.

Those reactors are under your safeguards.

Yes. But safeguard is one thing and safety is another.

But you are going to be there?

Yes,the IAEA is working with the Indian government.

I know,people sometimes misunderstand IAEA safeguards to mean IAEA supervising safety. You are only supervising safety of non-leakage of fissile material and misuse.

Exactly. Safety is the responsibility of the government and our role is to help them.

For clarity,when you say IAEA safeguards,it is to safeguard non-proliferation interests.

Exactly. To prevent the nuclear material from being used for military purposes.

Say something to the fishermen of Koodankulam because its reactors will start producing power in a couple of weeks now.

I think people have to address this issue in a scientific manner and in the most transparent manner. Emotion does not solve the problem. And I recommend to the Indian government to be as transparent as possible. For the population too,it is much better to have a good discussion,good dialogue with other stakeholders.

The problem with nuclear plants is there is so much secrecy around them that people automatically become suspicious.

I would say not secrecy but people complicate an issue which is already complicated. Let’s be more simple,let’s focus on the basics. Nuclear power plants have the risk of accidents as is the case with many other industries,but we can prevent it. And even though accidents happen,we can reduce that possibility to the minimum level possible.

Now these new reactors India is looking at—the French EPR—have you studied them? Are they safe/unsafe,tested/untested?

I have visited the construction site of EPR in Finland. It is a huge nuclear power plant with lots of safety features. So it is a very well-studied reactor,but there are also other reactors.

That has been shortlisted for our Jaitapur project.

There are many types of reactors and every reactor has advantages and disadvantages. So it depends on the need of the country.

So what about the criticism that India is installing an untested reactor? Is it an untested reactor or is that a misnomer?

It is not yet in operation in the market,but it is based on tested technology. It’s not something that comes from heaven. Nuclear power operators have long experience in operating it and this is the result of the improvement.

What is your impression of the Indian nuclear establishment? You have been dealing with them for a long time.

They have some very capable people. You have a pool of human resources—this is very rare in many countries. Human capacity building is the biggest problem in many countries. But in your country,you have hundreds,thousands of people working in this field and they are very bright,responsible people. Now the market is open for cooperation with other countries. The IAEA is sending review missions. Your government accepted peer review for….

Rawatbhata…

Yes. What we call OSART (Operation Review Safety Team) mission to review the operation. I think this openness is very important.

From OSART,what comes next in the hierarchy of…

Not hierarchy,but there are many services and one very important area that we are focusing on is the regulatory body,review of the regulatory body.

The AERB,Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

The independence of the regulatory body is very important.

Because there are many doubts in India that it is not autonomous enough,that there is a lack of transparency.

That is not the problem only in India but we are recommending all the countries to establish a robust and independent regulatory body. One of the biggest lessons that we learnt from Fukushima is that the Japanese regulatory body was not robust enough,was not independent enough and as a consequence,oversight on the industry was weak.

So they were not asking the right questions?

They were not asking the right questions and they were not taking the right measures. Now it has changed.

Or they were not asking the right questions nor insisting on the answers? They were complacent.

Right.

In fact,that is the worry in India. For many of us who supported the Indo-US civil nuclear deal,this was one of the reasons—we thought greater transparency will make our nuclear energy programme safer because more will be available in the public domain. And peer review…

Your country invited the peer review mission and your country is seriously considering to reform the regulatory body and we are recommending it.

And you are convinced by that,that they mean it?

Every country has a way to do it but the important thing is that the regulatory body should be independent and robust. And the Indian government is working in that direction.

Since India signed the civil nuclear agreement,it’s been ratified by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. India has adhered to its schedule of separation of civil and military installations. In fact,in many of our campuses,two units are civil and,under your safeguards,two are not. What in principle can be the objection to India joining NPT as a nuclear weapons power?

It is for the sovereign states to decide. And we are not the state,we are an international organisation.

I’m seeking your scholarly view.

My personal view is that this world should be free from nuclear weapons. Lots of efforts should be done for that. For the time being,it’s the decision of each country whether to join or not to join the NPT.

If India were to join the NPT as a nuclear weapons power,it might just join,because then,it is not discriminatory to India.

Ah. I see. For that,the NPT should be amended. And in reality,it is extremely difficult.

To amend it?

I don’t think it is possible.

But do you think the time has come to modernise it so that it is more in tune with the changed times?

The NPT is a product of compromise. Changing it is extremely difficult. What is needed is to implement it,improve the implementation. That is the focus for now.

Just as changing it is difficult,defying it has become easier. Because you see Iran,Israel,North Korea happily defying it. And many countries defying it also in supplying technology to Pakistan?

The task that the IAEA is facing to ensure or encourage countries to fully implement is a huge challenge. But I don’t think only the IAEA can do it. We need support from the United Nations and from member states. All the stakeholders need to work together.

Many of us worry that if this could happen in Japan,which is known for a very tough work culture,discipline and punctuality,think of India. We have a chaotic way of working,discipline is all over the place,we believe in the concept of jugaad. Can we handle nuclear power?

I don’t think the accident at Fukushima was because of the lack of technology. It was because of severe natural hazards and also complacency. But now,people have learned that even a country,an industrialised country,like Japan,cannot get rid of this. So if countries learn lessons from Fukushima,I think nuclear safety would be much more enhanced.

How much more time before people begin to forget Fukushima and move on,before nuclear energy finds enthusiasm again? Because now it has also got competition from shale gas.

We should not forget because safety is most important. At the same time,we should not be dragged by the accident forever. There are other important elements. How can we ensure development without sufficient electricity? How can economy be competitive? How can we fight against climate change? These elements must be properly considered and in that consideration,nuclear power has a role to play.

And shale gas?

The role is different. Every source of energy has advantages and disadvantages. Like nuclear,shale gas has an advantage. But solar power,windmill,all of them have advantages. I don’t exclude any possibility but the key word is the best mix. And nothing should be excluded for now.

So 10 years from now,do we see more nuclear power plants operational or fewer?

Much more. According to our estimates,there will be 80 to 90 more or 100 more…

In the next 10 years?

By 2030. Now 66 nuclear power plants are under construction.

Nobody complains about what is under construction in China anyway. The first EPRs will also be rising in China.

Yes. Although the construction of nuclear power plants is in progress,the total percentage of electricity produced by nuclear power will reduce,decrease.

Because other power will come up…

Yes. Renewable,natural gas and coal will be used much more rapidly.

The Chinese build one coal-fired plant every week.

China’s economy is expanding rapidly and they need the electricity.

So is ours. That is why some of us who support the idea of nuclear power,we need more reassurance from people like you.

Safety should come first and this is the lesson that we have learned from Fukushima. But with more caution,with further measures,I am very confident that nuclear power is much safer than before.

Well,you are an optimist.

I have to be,otherwise I cannot do this job.

Stay so,because the problem with nuclear power is you have to resell the idea every two decades. It happened after the Three Mile Island episode,it happened after Chernobyl and it is happening now. But in this case,you will have to first sell it to your fellow Japanese because only when they warm up to nuclear power again,will the rest of the world lower its scepticism.

Already the change is taking place in Japan. Just after the Fukushima accident,they thought,‘Oh,nuclear power is bad. Let’s phase out nuclear power by 2030’. Then they started to think perhaps this is not the right answer. And the prime minister said they will not consider the phase-out by 2030. And now they have a very robust independent regulatory body and the prime minister said when safety is confirmed,the nuclear power plants will resume their operation. So already,we have changed.

Stay an optimist and so are we. And I do hope our government works similarly on its regulatory body,because then things will be more reassuring.

We will work together with your government.

Transcribed by Mehraj D Lone

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