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Nuclear India through a Western Eye

January 04, 2016

In the middle of December 2015, the US-based Center for Public Integrity came out with a series of four articles on different aspects of India’s nuclear programme. Of the four articles, one is on Jaduguda, the second on the Kudankulam nuclear reactor, the third on the thermonuclear device and the fourth on India’s nuclear security. Adrian Levy, the journalist who co-authored The Deception in which he recorded known and unknown facts about Pakistan's nuclear acquisitions, is either the sole or co-author of these articles.

Some of these articles have been partially or fully reproduced in other publications, including Foreign Policy. The tone or tenor of all the four articles is quite negative in terms of attempting to sensationalise the Indian nuclear science programme. The Center for Public Integrity is supposed to be an investigative news organisation, which has been apparently established to ‘serve democracy’.

Has this series of four articles been written to fulfil the objectives of the Center for Public Integrity? Unfortunately, both the main author and the organisation have failed to really fulfil the objectives. Moreover, there is the question of Levy’s own credibility as an investigative journalist. There is hardly any investigative journalism in the four articles. All are overwhelmingly written with the help of reports which have been published earlier or have been appearing in the news for years.

Most of the facts used in the four articles are available on the internet, and are quite well known. The reports, on the basis of which most of these four articles have been written, were refuted by the official nuclear establishment as well as independent scientists working in universities and research institutes. At one place, Levy accuses the Indian government of suppressing those reports. In actual fact, most of the reports and counterpoints are available in the public domain. Not only have the authors by and large overlooked these counterpoints, but they are also dismissive about them.

For instance, the article on uranium mining, titled “India’s nuclear industry pours its wastes into a river of death and disease”, mentions the Bihar government establishing a committee to inquire about the diseases prevalent in the area. And it claims that the researchers who conducted the study concluded that the people living in the Jaduguda area were ‘affected by radiation.’ The truth, however, is that the report of the committee (established on the order of the Bihar government and whose members included some doctors from the Bihar medical college) concluded: “the cases examined had congenital limb anomalies, diseases due to genetic abnormalities like thalassemia major and retinitis, pigmentosa, moderate to gross splenomegaly due to chronic malarial infection (as this is a hyper endemic area), malnutrition, post encephalitic and post-head injury sequel.” In short, this report by specialists did not find a single person ‘suffering from radiation related diseases.’

Further, the ‘investigative report’ on the Jaduguda mining complex propagates horror stories. And it spreads unscientific tales amounting to encouragement of superstition, which is antithetical to democracy that the Center for Public Integrity is supposed to promote. Further, a number of old reports cited in this article lack sound methodology and scientific basis. For instance, the methodology used by Dr. Ghose (cited in the article on the Jaduguda complex) to calculate gross alpha activity in water has not been endorsed by any of the international accredited agencies.

This article on uranium mining also refers to the ‘country’s secret nuclear mining and fuel fabrication programme’. It is not clear what the author means by ‘secret’ and how it is linked to health and the environment, which appear to be the twin concerns of the article. At the least, the Jaduguda complex is not secret. All the mines and milling stations are listed on the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) website. Similarly, India does not hide the sites of its nuclear fuel fabrication. In Indian Parliament, questions relating to fuel fabrication installations are answered and discussions have been taking place.

It is true that India does not make its uranium ore production public. However, the Indian government reveals the production of fuel assemblies in the Nuclear Fuel Complex. For example, the government has stated that in the financial year 2014-2015, the Hyderabad-based Nuclear Fuel Complex produced 1252 Metric Tonnes of fuel assemblies.

Similarly, the article on the Kudankulam reactor titled “India’s Nuclear Solution to Global Warming is Generating Huge Domestic Protests” maintains that the reactor is vulnerable to a tsunami and lists other safety problems. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) have stated that the design features of the reactor and the emergency preparedness in the facility have taken all the existing dangers into account. However, activists like Levy are not willing to accept any technical or policy explanation.

Another article, “India’s nuclear explosive materials are vulnerable to theft, US officials and experts say”, maintains, mostly on the basis of anonymous statements made by some Indian and American officials, that India’s nuclear security faces the problem of training and equipment. The article quotes one retired Indian police official asking for more manpower and weapons. If any security organisation were to be asked whether it wants an increase in its manpower and armoury, the answer will always be yes. Sometimes, the agency may really require extra manpower and weapons, but at other additionalities may be required for creating a sound reserve force.

Be that as it may, the security agencies manning key nuclear installations state that they are quite capable of managing the current level of physical security challenges. Of course, training or awareness of emerging threats, review of new technological developments, and manpower for protection of fast increasing nuclear reactors are necessary. This futuristic projection should not mean that current nuclear installations are insecure.

Has the series of articles served democracy? It does not seem so. It appears as if, after writing several revealing reports and a book on Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Adrian Levy was under some pressure to perform a balancing act by tarnishing the Indian nuclear programme.

One of the four articles is on the thermonuclear device, which democratic India developed to strengthen its nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis an overtly authoritarian China and a farcically democratic Pakistan. Like a section of the US non-proliferation community that relishes supporting and sympathising with China and Pakistan, Levy and the Center for Public Integrity have followed the same approach. That India relies on the thermonuclear device for its security is declared policy. India had exercised restraint till 1998, and went nuclear only after it had witnessed no nuclear disarmament, continued accumulation of nuclear weapons by the countries recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and worse, a NPT member country like China acting as the kingpin of nuclear proliferation that had benefited Pakistan. It is conventional wisdom that democratic India did not clandestinely acquire nuclear weapons and continues to feel compelled to develop its arsenal even if slowly or of a smaller size.

The article on the thermonuclear device also mentions several uncertain facts such as the new site for uranium enrichment or hydrogen bomb making and the real success or failure of the thermonuclear device, which have been sufficiently discussed before. Alarmingly titled “India is Building a Top Secret Nuclear City to Produce Thermonuclear Weapons, Experts Say”, this article argues that ‘an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel’ used in Indian hydrogen bombs may be considered a ‘provocation’ by China and Pakistan. Only a novice would believe that China or Pakistan will review their nuclear strategies, on the basis of these already known, but unsubstantiated, facts appearing in the media.

Further, the authors of these articles would have done great service by exposing ‘abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of ‘investigative journalism’—the mandate of the Center of Public Integrity. But other than casually mentioning a couple of unsubstantiated corruption cases, the articles have not really pushed the Center’s mandate.

In one of the articles on the protest against the Kudankulam reactor, Adrian Levy criticises the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the Indian regulatory body, by relying on what one former chairman has stated. In the process, he ignores or ridicules other versions. Further, he has not objectively examined the shocking misuse of funds by NGOs engaged in the protests. On the contrary, he is critical of the government for cracking down on dubious NGOs. In fact, he should have recommended that the Indian government make public its report on these NGOs. That would have alerted the Indian people and all the funders. Is it ethical to obtain funds for one purpose and use it for something different?

Similarly, an investigative journalist should have more thoroughly examined the role of the church in fanning the movement. Further, there is also the need to explain the sudden prosperity of environmental activists in India. Good scholars or journalists need to provide an objective perspective. Pamphleteering has a very limited role.

The last of the four articles, on India’s nuclear security, too, looks like an extension of old rumours/reports. It either lacks facts or exaggerates some stray incidents. This raises the puzzling question about the objective behind bringing out these misnamed ‘investigative’, and in actual fact extremely negative, stories on Indian nuclear policy and installations. A couple of articles clearly indicate that a section of Western nuclear community wants more information on India’s nuclear science programme, and especially its nuclear weapons programme. For this purpose, it has been using not just government delegations but also NGOs. The media now seems to have become a new partner in this endeavour.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.