Indian Scientists Call for Moratorium on New Nuclear Plants

NEW DELHI—A group of scientists has stirred a controversy within India's research community last week by calling for a moratorium on new nuclear plants. P. Balaram, a molecular biophysicist and director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and 60 others last week wrote an open letter to the public, stating: "We strongly believe that India must radically review its nuclear power policy for appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance, and undertake an independent, transparent safety audit of all its nuclear facilities, which involves non-Department of Atomic Energy experts and civil society organisations. Pending the review, there should be a moratorium on all further nuclear activity, and revocation of recent clearances for nuclear projects."

The appeal drew a sharp response from C. N. R. Rao, chair of the prime minister's scientific advisory council, who called it "irresponsible." Visibly angry, according to Indian press reports, Rao called instead for a review of nuclear plant safety, adding: "There should be reviews; only foolish people don't want reviews. A constant review in any sphere is important. … Nobody can avoid a tsunami which is a natural phenomenon; if has to occur, it will."

Balaram told ScienceInsider, that the "Fukushima crisis is a wakeup call. While I am no radical, we can't be complacent." A nuclear accident in India, he said, "would have huge consequences," partly because the population is much larger than in Japan.

India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh has said that the country should expand its nuclear energy program mainly by using its indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, of which the country now has 18 installed. Ramesh feels that "there has been huge drop in public confidence in nuclear energy," and as a consequence setting up large nuclear energy parks of 10,000 MW capacity, as has been planned, needs a "relook." Ramesh also suggests that the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board needs to be made independent of the nuclear establishment and responsible directly to the parliament.