Science & Environment

South Asia nuclear policy not shaken by Japan crisis

Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) Tarapur 3 and 4 at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station
Image caption This month, India's prime minister said nuclear safety would be reviewed

The nuclear disaster in Japan has prompted several countries to slow down and even suspend some of their nuclear programmes.

But South Asia - a region that hosts two rival states with nuclear weapons - has made no such move.

No nuclear plants in the region have been shut down nor are any expected to be suspended in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

Instead, the Bangladeshi government announced on Tuesday that it would go ahead with its earlier plan to build a nuclear power plant with the help of Russia.

The Pakistani government has chosen to remain quiet although all three of its nuclear plants are said to face risks from earthquakes or tsunamis.

Major regional player India has announced a review of safety systems in its nuclear power plants but many believe there are no indications for a shift in its pro-nuclear policy.

"India's Department of Atomic Energy and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India will try to reassure the people of India that they are far more superior than everybody else in the world and this kind of accident would never happen in Indian facilities," read a statement by the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements, a civil campaign in India.

It also accused the authorities of admitting that one of the reactors in south India was built without factoring in the risks from tsunamis.

'No alarm'

Another activist group, the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace said: "The (Fukushima) incident calls for a thorough review and transparent audit of the safety performance of all nuclear reactors in India, as well as of evacuation and other emergency procedures, which are known to be flawed."

In Pakistan also, few civil societies have raised the alarm.

"The aged Karachi nuclear plant on the coast is as much susceptible with as much serious consequence [as nuclear plants in] Japan because of the proximity of a dense population," said the Pakistan Peace Coalition in its statement.

"The two reactors in Chashma are known to be sitting on a number of criss-crossing tectonic plates."

Pakistan's leading newspaper, The Dawn, wrote in its editorial: "The government needs to reassure the people that natural disaster contingencies are in place at the nuclear units."

Image caption India has seen recent demonstrations against nuclearisation

But such voices of concern have been very limited in Pakistan.

"The Pakistani civil society and opinion makers are gung-ho about the nuclear issue," says AH Nayyar, a physicist with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, and based at Qaid-e-Azam university in Islamabad.

"And so, the Pakistani establishment has said nothing so far."

The situation in its nuclear rival India is not so different.

While few activists issued statements against nuclear development in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, most mainstream Indian media reports and op-ed pages suggested there would be no immediate turn around.

"The accident in Japan is quite serious and we are in touch with international organisations, but there is no need for a knee-jerk reaction on our programme," Sudhinder Thakur, executive director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which operates Indian atomic power stations, was quoted as saying by the Economic Times.

Mentioning the suspensions and reviews of nuclear and atomic programs in Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and other countries, the Indian Express wrote in its editorial: "Undeniably, Japan is witnessing a nuclear crisis but that shouldn't mean curtains for increased use of nuclear power."

Media reports suggesting continuity of Indian nuclear programmes had earlier pointed out that China, even after the Fukushima disaster, was doing the same.

But a few days later, when Beijing announced that it was suspending approval for new nuclear power stations, India did not follow suit.

"It is very strange that the countries in the region are not doing what many other countries have done in terms of nuclear power," says Amod Dixit a geologist and an international earthquake expert. "Particularly when most of the region falls in the earthquake zone and the intensity of risk is several times high."

Growing demand

The main argument for nuclear power has been that the Indian market is power hungry and that there has to be a reliable supply source.

"More than 40% of our people do not have access to electricity," says India's Atomic Energy Commission chairman Srikumar Banerjee.

"Since no other types of energy are a primary source, we need to have solar and nuclear growing at a faster rate to sustain the increase in generation capacity."

With an installed capacity of nearly 170 GigaWatts (GW) out of which nearly 3% comes from nuclear, India still suffers from a power deficit, as its demand has grown rapidly over the years.

Government estimates show that by 2030 Indians will demand 950 GW of electricity and officials admit that the plan to add around 78 GW generation by 2012 is likely to be missed.

Hence, observers say, the quest to quadruple the nuclear capacity in 10 years by pumping billions of dollars into importing reactors from France, Russia and the US.

Energy requirements apart, some in India also perceive nuclear facilities to be an international status symbol, particularly after the coalition government has signed civil nuclear deals with the US over the past decade.

Pakistan, on the other hand, also takes it as an issue of pride that China has helped it build nuclear reactors.

Little wonder that South Asia has seen no major change in nuclear-policy even after the crisis in Fukushima.