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The nuclear crisis in Japan has stoked fears in India. The country is preparing to build enough nuclear reactors to increase its power-generating capacity by sixfold. Top nuclear officials in India say their existing reactors are safe and that the next generation of power plants will be even safer.
But some Indian nuclear experts worry that the country's nuclear establishment is so secretive that it's impossible to know how safe the program may be.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from New Delhi.
COREY FLINTOFF: Concerns about nuclear safety in India aren't just theoretical. The country has already had some close calls, including an accident at the Narora Atomic Power Plant not far from New Delhi in 1993.
Dr. A. GOPALAKRISHNAN (Former Chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India): In our Narora station, there was a major fire, which got that reactor pretty close to meltdown, frankly.
FLINTOFF: Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan was head of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board at the time. He says the early morning blaze knocked out all electric power to the plant, leaving the reactor temperature to soar uncontrollably.
The reactor was being run by a group of young engineers who, in those pre-cell phone days, were cut off from contact with the outside world.
Dr. GOPALAKRISHNAN: So these seven or eight people in that control room, in pitch darkness, had to take the decision on their own without any supervisory advice.
FLINTOFF: They grabbed flashlights, Gopalakrishnan says, climbed up inside the reactor structure and, luckily, took the right steps to get the situation under control.
Dr. GOPALAKRISHNAN: It was quite clear that this action, which these engineers took, really saved a meltdown. Otherwise, we had two major cities nearby, Meerut and Aligarh, those places would have completely had to be evacuated.
FLINTOFF: At the time, the cities of Meerut and Aligarh had a combined population of nearly seven million people. That, say many nuclear experts, is why India should be learning lessons from Japan's nuclear crisis. India may be less likely to face earthquakes as severe as those that hit Japan, but any accident could have a much greater human cost.
Dr. G. Balachandran is a nuclear power consultant at India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. A strong advocate of nuclear power, he says data from Fukushima show that there was a failure on the part of Japanese regulators to force the company to comply with tsunami protection measures.
Dr. G. BALACHANDRAN (Consulting Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses): That is the primary lesson to be learned, that regulations must be fully enforced and absolutely enforced without any delay whatsoever.
FLINTOFF: Balachandran says that like Japan, India's regulatory bodies have a too cozy relationship with the nuclear plant operators. He points out that the chairman of the department that promotes nuclear power also sits on the board that's supposed to regulate it. He says the two authorities should be completely separate and independent.
Critics also complain that India's nuclear establishment needs to be much more transparent.
This is Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Center for Science and Environment, based in New Delhi.
Dr. CHANDRA BHUSHAN (Deputy Director, Center for Science and Environment): Our nuclear establishment is also directly related to our defense establishment. So in the name of national security, a lot of information about our nuclear establishment were not put out in the public domain.
FLINTOFF: That information, says Bhushan, includes environmental impact assessments dealing with issues such as safety and potential radiation hazards.
Bhushan says the issue is particularly urgent because India is preparing for a sixfold increase in its nuclear generating capacity by adding new reactors from the United States, France and other countries, many of which will be located near populous areas.
Dr. BHUSHAN: After all, India is a extremely densely populated country. The number of people that will be affected if something like Japan happens in India would be huge. So who will be liable if something like that happens? Will government bailout companies? Will companies pay us?
FLINTOFF: The current head of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, wasn't available for an interview. He recently told the Indian Express newspaper that Fukushima raised concerns for India's nuclear establishment, including the need to constantly assess its nuclear safety.
But Banerjee also told the paper, quote, "You should worry less for nuclear energy than walking on the streets or driving in Delhi."
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi.
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