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Melody Kemp is a long time contributing Webdiarist with a global perspective on Australia's human rights record based on her work and residence in Asia. Her bio is here. Her archive is here. Her previous piece for Webdiary was AK47: The Story of the People’s Gun.
“India has been planning its nuclear program even before independence period of the 1950’s, after some Indian graduates from Berkeley ordered critical parts to build a cyclotron before they could return home ” said Sreedhar Ramamurthi. And he should know. He was employed as a Scientific Officer with India’s Department of Atomic Energy.
We met in Hong Kong last week at a gathering of labour groups from the greater Asian region. Sreedhar, a handsome bearded man with an easy smile and direct gaze, was there sharing his not-very-flattering view of the international mining industry.
In 1948, India set up its own atomic energy commission to search for and extract uranium ore. The atomic energy commission then set up the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) later that year as a public sector enterprise.
A highly qualified earth scientist, Sreedhar was in charge of India’s uranium exploration efforts for couple of years until he resigned in protest at the lack of social responsibility.
“If you record surface levels of radiation, then it should be reported so that people can avoid those areas. You know how settlements expand. But I was sworn to secrecy.”
Under the administrative control of India's atomic energy commission, UCIL began its first uranium operations in 1968 at Jaduguda with ore mining and processing facilities, each with a 1,000 metric tones per day capacity. Under the scumble of tailings, the soil continues to radiate, and the minority people of the region have been exhibiting terrible illnesses and complaining of environmental contamination. A BBC journalist who went to investigate two years ago was devastated by the nature and extent of disability. It is just the sort of situation that caused Sreedhar to resign. The devastation to the health of the community coupled with the serial denial of UCIL’s officials, is knocking the heads off statues being erected to safeguards and the value of international inspections.
The Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) — has conducted tests which revealed that nearly one in five women living within one kilometre of the mines complex had recently suffered a miscarriage or given birth to a stillborn child.
Critics of the mine say it's the children who are the most damning evidence of the damage being done — children with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, swollen heads, missing eyes and ears, fused fingers, blood disorders, and brain damage.
Its not Chernobyl. Instead, critics argue, it's the result of constant exposure to very low but over time highly insidious and toxic levels of emission. Contamination is now virtually everywhere around Jaduguda.
These are the lands of the Adivasis. Two groups, the Ho and the Santhal, have lived in the surrounding hills for hundreds — possibly thousands — of years. Many had their lands requisitioned when the mines came. Instead of living off the land, they were forced to dig it. This should ring bells of comparability with the Australian Aboriginal peoples, whose land sits above uranium fields, and who have been bullied and coerced by both the governments and the mining companies to hand over rights to mine. It is into this India of low level sources, indignant denial, and fierce nationalism that Prime Minister Howard has decided to drop Australian uranium. The recent amendments to the 1975 Aboriginal Land Rights Act have enabled the Howard government to become the Fuller Brush men of a nuclear future.
Follow the Leader.
Howard, following US President George W. Bush, noted earlier that sales to India would depend on the implementation of a landmark civilian nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington. But as we know, shit happens.
More recently Howard struck a deal to sell uranium to New Delhi in a telephone conversation with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh.
"Australia has decided in principle to export uranium to India, subject to India agreeing to very stringent safeguards and conditions," Howard told reporters. Such as those in operation at Jaguduga one would suppose.
Howard went on.."Our officials will now enter into negotiations regarding the conditions. We want to be satisfied that the uranium will only be used for peaceful purposes." Such shallow depth of field.
“In those early days the government had big ideas.” Sreedhar continued. “But until now very little power has been generated. Of the 4000 megawatts originally proposed, only 400 have in fact been generated by India’s reactors.”
“Instead India has spent its uranium on nuclear deterrence.” After all, China and Pakistan make fractious neighbours. “You would know in India in 1968, we had an implosion,” he laughed. “Not an explosion.”
As early as 1917, Rabindranath Tagore the mystic poet and essayist wrote his doubt about the fortifying effects of military strength, If "in his eagerness for power," Tagore argued, a nation "multiplies his weapons at the cost of his soul, then it is he who is in much greater danger than his enemies." Indeed China was known to be alarmed at India’s nuclear promiscuity. But then Howard is talking up a deal with China, so escalation is inevitable. Nukes for the boys.
“The previous government initiated the deal with the US but of course the current prime minister Monmohan Singh, is a World Bank and IMF protégé, so has their interests as well as those of India at heart. It is how they coincide that is interesting” Sreedhar went on, seeming in every phrase to contradict the sage politics and weasel words of those doing deals.
“India’s uranium sources are of a low grade, so we have in mind fast breeder reactors,” Sreedhar added.
I was reminded of a friend who commented that fast breeders are like the Amway of old. Pyramid selling style neutron reactors that produce more fuel so that more reactors have to be built to use up the supply ... or one could simply build weapons.
“Yes that is true,” Sreedhar agreed. “It is most likely part of the plan. Fast breeders are still the focus of Indians nuclear program.”
In 2004 Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy told The Hindu newspaper of the important place fast-breeder reactors had in meeting the country's energy needs.
“Nuclear energy (has) applications in agriculture, health, food security and so on. While we have done this, we have also contributed towards nuclear weapons ability in the country. India today is a country with nuclear weapons to ensure its long-term security….”
When asked if Indians fast breeders would have any more success than the failed experiments of Europe, he responded:
“Fast-breeder reactors are more important to India than to other countries which have capabilities in nuclear power technology. This is because of the nuclear resource profile we have in the country (sic). Our uranium reserves — what we have — as per the present state of exploration will be able to support 10,000 MWe generating capacity, which is not large. But it is the starting point for setting up fast reactors. When the same uranium, which will support 10,000 MWe generating capacity in the PHWRs, comes out as spent fuel and we process that spent fuel into plutonium and residual uranium, and use it in the fast reactors, we will be able to go to electricity capacity which will be as large 5,00,000 MWe. This is due to the breeding potential of the fast reactors, using the plutonium-uranium cycle. That is the importance of the fast-breeder reactors under Indian conditions, compared to other countries.”
India has declared that it would divide its civilian and military nuclear programs, place safeguards on its civilian nuclear facilities, and allow international inspections. But India will have sole discretion over whether to classify any new reactors as military or civilian, a decision that will affect which ones are subject to international scrutiny. Already, eight nuclear reactors—and all future military reactors—will remain off-limits to inspections.
Howard and Bush may burble on about peaceful means and safeguards, but as I was halfway through this article Sreedhar emailed me from India with the news that a private company had bought rights to a huge uranium mine in Niger. One wonders how accountable can private companies be?
Taurian Resources Private Limited, Mumbai, a Rs. 300-crore company, has recently won a contract which gives it exclusive rights over 3000 sq. km. ofthe Sahara Desert known to be rich in deposits of uranium. According toestimates of the Managing Director of the company, Sachin Bajla, " against huge odds, Taurian won a permit to search for uranium in the Arlit region of Niger for an undisclosed amount. (The Hindu 19th August 2007)
This also ups the ante in terms of the supplier calling the shots. I have written that Burma is also processing yellowcake which is being sold on the market via intermediaries in Russia and possibly China. The issue may not be, How do we solve global warming so much as, How do we stop global nuclear irrationality?
From the reportage it appears that rather than greet with news with horror and knee-tightening concern, the applause has been deafening. India looks and feels like a stallion out of control, neither swerving nor swaying from its tail-streaming path.
Dump and Run
India has no coherent plan for waste disposal . “You can see that at the moment we just dump it in the ponds at Jaduguda,” Sreedhar told me.
“The Pollution Control Board is badly understaffed so there is now way to keep an eye on what happens to waste even if we wanted to. They have been inefficient for 60 years. It is not likely that now the crush is on there are going to suddenly reform. India has this reputation for ineffective bureaucracy that is well deserved,” he laughed.
“Personally I think that nuclear power is hopelessly inefficient. It costs too much to build reactors and more to run them. We need to be looking at alternatives and conservation now. But India is fixated on nuclear and is determined to go ahead.”
This could be said for all the nations wanting to go nuclear.
“We have ten or twelve local sources such as in Andhra Pradesh where uranium has been found, but the population density of that area is 900 per square kilometer so it is not advisable. We have to buy the stuff in to avoid social conflict. We can reassure the people that their land won’t be taken and the cost of keeping social peace is buying in uranium.”
It is not as though India does not have the capability to run and maintain the great nuclear experiment. India had a scientific and intellectual culture that predates that of the west. It is not merely a land of sadhus and saris. India’s nationalism is base on deeply rooted pride and a quick peek over a wary shoulder. The attractions of Lord Shiva’s power to create and destroy is a strong temptation. It is written in the Veda’s.
Lies, Damned Lies and Nuclear Salesmen.
In recent times the US and India have agreed again to openly work collaboratively on nuclear programs ending, some say, years of hypocrisy. But the truth of what is known or agreed to is one of the most fungible and secretive areas of foreign and defence policy, the usual repositories of born liars. The US recently reclassified newly unclassified documents which referred to the deployment and number of nuclear missiles during the Cold War. These document describe the covert installation of nuclear weapons into 27 nations and territories during that time. Strangely, the first country to receive these weapons during the tense 1970’s was Morocco. It is highly unlikely that a nation that is so cute with the truth of many years past would come clean about exactly what it holds and where now. Which makes the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty look as viable as a land rights claim in Australia.
In early September this year, the US admitted to flying nuclear weapons under the wings of a B-52 across the nation, despite supposedly infallible command and control systems. Anyone who had seen the chillingly serious Fail Safe with G. Clooney as a doomed pilot flying a nuke to drop on Moscow may now conclude that the script might not be at all fanciful.
Dr Abdul Kalam, the gentle and sauve philosopher who drove India’s well known detonation in Pokhran on the edge of the tourist region of Rajasthan in 1998, was known to have to whooped, “I have heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight”. This was the second explosion in Pokhran. The first, shrouded in secrecy, was given the nod by Mrs. Gandhi in defiance of her namesake and the will of the people. She was, as Tagore predicted, moved to nuclear capability by China’s own weapons build up. In all, five tests were conducted. One wonders what they test: the ability of the sand to turn to glass, the Richter scale of tremors, the power to terrify?
Sreedhar said that the Indian-Pakistani stand off in the 1970’s and 1990’s were some of the tensest and most vulnerable times he can remember. He reported that it compared with the more glacial chilliness of the Cold War. But it's happening all over again according to Sreedhar, who concludes that the government is ready to go ... they are just fine-tuning the computer simulations for the event.
The Big Bang:bang bangs.
On May 11th-13th, 1998, India detonated five nuclear devices underground in opposition to many of its citizens who wanted nothing to do with nuclear bombs. And that, I must say, is probably a global phenomenon. Most people in what are increasingly weakly known as democratically elected countries do not want nuclear power. However, the voice of the majority is a mere artefact to the commercial and lobbying imperatives of industrial and military interests. Ironically, the then Prime Minister said after the event, "Buddha smiles".
Those living comfortable middle class lives in the western world, who console themselves that mining or uranium shares will solve global poverty or warming problems, are worthy of drugs for delusions. The reality is that the poor suffer for the imperial intentions of the rich. How easily we are manipulated. Many years ago I suggested to labour activists frustrated by inaction that they monitor the airborne asbestos levels outside the schools attended by the children of the rich and influential. It worked. But how to bring the outcome of all this uranium profligacy to the rich? The best idea will be awarded a Geiger counter, and a trip to a distant Pacific island.
Uranium sources are finite. Some experts argue that they may last at present rates of consumption for another 30 years. Asia is approaching nuclear power stations like a bowl of noodles, to be slurped and gulped down. To have a nuke is like having ones own national airline: a symbol of modernity and muscle flexing nationalism. If the rate doubles it will be exhausted all the sooner. A competent and safe nuclear plants costs the earth and takes about 9-15 years to build. If the global use continues to expand then many power plants will be completed after the supply has been exhausted. That is the high quality uranium. Studies done indicate that low grade ore can be processed but the amount of energy it takes to extract the power exceeds the energy output. The logic of that might still by pass the most ardent nukeaholic.
India is merely an exemplar of what is a very alarming trend, one which the Prime Minister is eager to reward. If one takes into account Amartya Sen’s reflections about the addiction of war and weapons that the Veda’ warn us about (www.pugwsah.org/reports/pac/pac256/amartya.htm), then the Prime Minister can be likened to a pusher, selling an addictive substance to those who have a craving for nihilistic growth. Clothed in the camouflage of poverty reduction, growth is a chimera which keeps us running over the desert in a feverish attempt to catch the image of happiness and inviolability. It is a way to death, to anomie and biospherical catastrophe. Already global cancer rates are heaving skywards, while doctors try assiduously to attribute them to lifestyle factors.
Kali the demon Goddess walks through the malls and factories of development. The Prime Minister, and possibly Rudd, want to keep the fetish alive to divert attention away from the alternatives, and the fact that the buying nations do not have coherent plans to protect their own peoples. The drug of choice is yellow-caked and cooked.
India has many more to kill than most nations. Its population density alone disallows any safe place for nuclear waste. As an American industrial hygienist said to me in Hong Kong, “I am a Celt, so to me, all this needs to be left in the ground.” No doubt Aborigines would agree with her.
Radiation measurements outside the Methodist Ladies College, anyone?