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Playing with Nuclear Fire: Lessons from the Kursk Catastrophe
Praful Bidwai, a journalist and commentator based in Delhi, is a founding member of Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament. He recently co-authored South Asia on a Short Fuse (Oxford University Press: New Delhi), published in the UK under the title New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Disarmament (Signal Books, www.signalbooks.co.uk). A slightly modified version of this article appeared in The Times of India, August 30, 2000
In March 1994, Aleksandr Nikitin, then a 44 year-old former submarine captain, published a report on the appalling state of safety in Russia's Northern Fleet, which handles the bulk of the country's nuclear-powered submarines. Using publicly available information, he painstakingly documented the Fleet's declining operation and maintenance standards, accumulating and overflowing radioactive waste, steeply falling budgets and morale, and the growing scarcity of spares, and warned of a series of disasters. Nikitin was arrested in February 1995 and charged with espionage and treason, punishable with death. Detained for months without trial, Nikitin was not allowed to choose his own lawyer. Finally, last year, he was acquitted by the courts, but now faces another trial on the same charge.
Welcome to the Kafkaesque world of nuclear weapons and submarines! The Kursk tragedy hasn't ended. The submarine's two nuclear reactors, with a 380 MW output, still lie 108 metres deep inside a damaged hull amidst torpedoes, high explosives, and other hazardous material. They contain an estimated 1200 kg of highly enriched uranium, mostly U-235, with a half-life of a mind-boggling 710 million years. Therefore, huge quantities of the radioisotope will continue to menace the marine environment and humans for millions of generations to come. Even assuming that the reactors were not damaged by the explosives that sank the sub, which seems unlikely, dismantling the potent cocktail of uranium, hundreds of fission products including deadly plutonium, and chemical explosives will entail large radioactivity exposures. The job will be incomparably more onerous than accessing the sub's rear hatch--a week-long, super-expensive, multi-national effort. Abandoning the sub would mean leaching radioactivity into the environment.
The Kursk is only one disaster that Nikitin forecast. "Much bigger ones are waiting to happen around Murmansk and Severomorsk," he told me two months ago in Stockholm. This severely depressed area of the Kola Peninsula holds 21,000 nuclear fuel assemblies and one-fifth of the world's 1200 nuclear reactors--in patently unsafe, rapidly deteriorating, conditions. More than 200 reactors are literally rotting aboard 110 submarines which have been taken out of service. (About 180 Russian subs have been decommissioned). The Fleet, which receives less than half its designated minimum budget, has no money to dismantle the nuclear cores. Indeed, "it often lacks money to buy rations for the crew," says Nikitin, whose case this writer has followed since 1995. The result: scores of subs are corroding and sinking as their reactor compartments fill with water--presaging an ecological catastrophe. As bankrupt Russia's military budgets shrink--now to less than half the level of India's--training, maintenance, and safety norms plummet further, making disaster likelier in the world's largest nuclear arsenal.
Russia's specific troubles are only one part of the nuclear submarine story. The other two parts are generic. Nuclear submarines everywhere are extraordinarily disaster-prone. And nuclear establishments everywhere operate secretively, irrationally, and in paranoid ways. Nuclear subs have had serious accidents ever since they drove the Cold War's most furious phase of arms racing, in which safety hardly mattered. Today, wreckages of American and British as well as Russian subs lie on the earth's ocean floor. There have been numerous accidents aboard US, French, British, and Russian submarines. Greenpeace has documented 121 "incidents" in the last case, ten of which caused reactor damage. There were also two core meltdowns--a nuclear reactor's maximum accident--in 1979 and 1989. Nuclear subs have inherent safety problems because they (like bombs) pack huge amounts of energy in small volumes and operate in conditions much harsher than civilian power reactors, themselves seriously accident-prone. A small error gets magnified into a big crisis.
The authorities' handling of the Kursk crisis further compounded the catastrophe. They first denied, and then tried to deflect attention from, its gravity. For four critical days, they refused offers of foreign assistance out of hubris and "national pride." President Putin refused to cut short his holiday. The British and Norwegians, too, delayed sending in assistance. Russia's nucleocracy refused to disclose relevant information, including the sailors' names, the sub's location, and the accident's circumstances. According to independent sources, there were two internal explosions, not a major collision, as claimed. Journalists had to bribe naval officers to get the victims' list. Their number was raised without explanation from 116 to 118. When relations confronted them, the bosses used KGB/CIA-style methods: forcibly injecting sedatives to silence questioners.
Such sordid behaviour is typical of all nuclear establishments. Whether in the US or USSR, France or Iraq, China or Pakistan, these all-male, Dr Strangelove outfits are marked by excessive secrecy and dominated by unaccountable "experts" who cynically exploit their privileged access to information. Secrecy cuts across the democracy-dictatorship barrier. For 40 years, the US refused to divulge facts about its terrifying radiation experiments on humans, including injections of poisons. The N-5 have always suppressed or denied unpleasant facts about their nuclear programmes. Transparency and nuclear activities just don't jell. Nuclearism, with its bellicose "national security" mindset, its crude male-supremacism, its coarse Social Darwinism, its abiding faith in violence and mass destruction, has little use for effete, "effeminate," or "idealistic" things like human rights, social/gender justice, or decency. Nuclear weapons and democratic accountability are mutually antagonistic.
All this applies a fortiori to India. Our Atomic Energy Act (1962) betrays utter contempt for accountability. It allows arbitrary suppression of all information--patently unconstitutional, according to V.K. Krishna Iyer. The atomic energy department (DAE) is easily one of our most secretive. It has much to hide: uranium mining hazards in Jadugoda, excessive irradiation of power-plant workers, waste mismanagement, numbers regarding explosive yields... Worse, we have our own Nikitin: former Captain B.K. Subba Rao who also was charged in 1988 with spying and jailed for 20 months--until fully exonerated by three courts. His real crime? Questioning the DAE's nuclear sub (Advanced Technology Vessel) project, a spectacular Rs. 2,000 core failure. Evidence of "espionage"? His IIT-Bombay Ph.D thesis.
However, we in India have an additional, and special, problem:
unacceptably poor, sub-Russian safety and reliability in our nuclear
and defence establishments--witness 202 Air Force plane
crashes in nine years, the Main Battle Tank project mess, the
Purulia arms drop, the distinction of having six of the world's
10 dirtiest nuclear reactors; or for that matter, industrial and
road accident rates four to 12 times the OECD average. It won't
do to deny, Russian-style, India's poor safety culture
and disaster-proneness. We can't even run power-grids and
surface transport safely. We must freeze our nuclear and missile
programmes and return to the global disarmament agenda.