In this light, or darkness shall we say, Indian citizens should welcome the news that the Prime Minister has called for an audit of nuclear facilities on their resilience to disasters. Learning from the losses of others is cost effective and this audit is certainly a response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The Indian Government should work to release some basic information on the safety of our nuclear facilities into the public domain.
Public access to information will help alleviate the general doubt among members of Parliament and citizens. It will also help better inform the decisions made on this vitally important subject.
To help frame the discussion, let me offer six sets of basic questions:
First, what kinds of planning and operational processes are used when auditing the safety of nuclear facilities against a natural disaster? Though full details may not be needed at this stage, basic facts and figures on the processes will help citizens better understand the efforts made in the past by the authorities to make these facilities safer.
Second, what is the accountability and participation structure for the facilities? If preparedness is lacking, who is responsible? What is the past record of incentives and disincentives for performance on this count? Who has been punished or promoted on this count in the past twenty years? At what level? What actions are or can be taken in future? To what extent? At the moment it is not clear to the citizens who is accountable to whom, and an impression is created that expertise equals accountability.
Third, how are assessment teams selected and how is their performance measured? What qualifications do they hold? Nuclear power is relatively new in India and thus, the field of nuclear and natural disaster risk overlaps in people’s minds. However, it will be very important to understand this more fully as India moves forward with its nuclear power expansion plans. Human resources and understanding on this issue will be more and more in demand.
Fourth, what baseline data will be used for this audit? Who collected that data and how? Who verified the data? Is baseline data India specific or global in nature? Citizens know very little about the status of safety in this sector and such information will build their confidence.
Fifth, what indicators are being used to measure the safety levels of these nuclear assets from the impact of a natural disaster? How have these indicators evolved? Who selected them and why? These indicators may be used to prioritize certain stakeholders such as liability experts, local communities, insurance agencies and authorities. An all round audit must have an agreed set of indicators.
Sixth, what has caused unsafe conditions in our nuclear facilities in the past and what was the effect of the resulting remedial measures? This information is important, as it demonstrates the care that the authorities took to fix even smallest emergencies in the past.
What is being asked in the above six sets of questions is nothing new and must be in the existing records of the central safety official to start with. Say three days time, this could be ready to give to the citizens and the Members of Parliament.
Understanding nuclear risk is the first step towards making India safe from the possible catastrophic impact of a natural disaster on its nuclear facilities. And public understanding depends on public access to information on risk.