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India says nuclear plants safe, but better response needed

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 1 Jun 2011 15:40 GMT
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NEW DELHI (AlertNet)- India's rapidly emerging nuclear power plants are seismically safe, but the country needs to ramp up its capacity to respond should an emergency strike, a top disaster management official warned on Wednesday.   

The nuclear fallout from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March has in recent months turned the media spotlight onto India's own nuclear energy expansion plans and the high risks it poses.   

Following a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to review the country's level of preparedness to cope with a nuclear crisis, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) officials told a news conference they were satisfied with the construction and design of the country's plants.   

"Dr Banerjee, head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), has reassured us that they are very confident that our facilities are safe," said Shashidhar Reddy, NDMA's vice chairman.   

Citing disasters from the past where Indian nuclear plants have emerged relatively unscathed – the 7.9 magnitude quake which hit the western state of Gujarat in 2001 and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – Reddy said it proved that such facilities could withstand a major natural disaster.

With an energy deficit of about 12 percent, power-starved India is rapidly establishing nuclear plants to fuel its economic growth. It currently has 22 plants across the country and at least six more are on the way.

BOOSTING RESPONSE   

But the events at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant have not only resurrected concerns from environmentalists and social activists over the need for nuclear power, but also whether due attention is being given to the risk of a nuclear fallout in the world's second-most populous nation.

Reddy said while he believed the construction standards of nuclear facilities were safe, India still needed to prepare for the worst.

"Despite having a clean record, the government is very keen on taking all necessary preparedness measures to deal with any unlikely nuclear or radiological emergency," he said, adding that plans for mass evacuations of affected populations and better detection of radiation were being examined.

This ministry of health has also produced a road map on improving response, which includes stockpiling medicines and equipment, training doctors and paramedics in dealing with nuclear and radiological injuries as well as investing in psychosocial care.

In districts where there are nuclear installations, the government hopes to pre-position specialised medical teams, upgrade and equip hospitals and create better awareness amongst the general public on how to protect themselves.

"The honourable prime minister has directed concerned officials of all the ministries to fast-track all these activities," said Reddy. "I am very confident that we will be able make a lot of progress ... so that we can instil confidence in the minds of the people of this country."

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