An independent parliamentary panel in Japan last week submitted a report challenging the dominant assumption that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011 was due to a confluence of a tsunami and an earthquake. The findings of the investigation, chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, show that the tragedy was ‘man-made’ and occurred due to a ‘multitude of errors and wilful negligence’ that implicated the government, safety regulators and the operator of the nuclear plant. Contending that the nuclear power plants could and should have been made more quake-proof, the report blamed Japan’s powerful and ‘collusive’ decision-makers and described how regulators and nuclear operators went to painstaking lengths to either ignore safety risks at the plant or cover them up.
While the report will no doubt be debated and contested widely within Japan and beyond, it has certainly dispelled the assumption that Japan has an error-free template for nuclear safety. Its observation that the fundamental causes for the tragedy were to be found in ‘our reflexive obedience and our reluctance to question authority’ is of relevance to India for two reasons. The first is that India has experienced the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, over 27 years ago and is still grappling with its legacy. The second is that India is proposing to set up a slew of nuclear plants in the coming years.
With an acute peak-hour power deficit of 13 per cent and 40 per cent of its population still without electricity, India does need nuclear power. It has to be safe power and, as the Koodankulam impasse shows, the people’s genuine concerns about safety cannot be ignored. It is the government’s responsibility to instil nuclear literacy, address legitimate fears and counter misinformation. The government also needs to set up an independent Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India in place of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board that reports to the Atomic Energy Commission. This would make clearances more credible and boost public confidence.