Monday 8 July 2013

Technology is never a guarantee to safety - Part 1

A faulty jet fighter may lose you a battle, 
A faulty nuclear plant will lose you an entire country.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”                            –- Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes

When I repeatedly hear about ’Nuclear Safety’ in India and its track record, I’m a bit perplexed. 

After all, nuclear safety is an oxymoron.

Many people (including yours truly) have written earlier refuting these safety claims and  have provided documentary proof of the hollowness of such claims.
Well, it seems to have worked because while earlier, only the Prime Minister (PM), the PM's office  and the NPCIL were touting about “nuclear safety”, now his whole office, staff and probably even his gardener and dog toe this same line to claim that Nuclear energy is the safest form of boiling water into steam!

Why does the Delhi politicians' heart bleed so much for people in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra etc who are apparently suffering from lack of electricity even as the VERY place they occupy their seat of power (i.e. Delhi) is facing crippling power outages?

In this context, would it not be far better to have a nuclear reactor within the parliament or Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential palace) premises? So, why not take this ‘safest form of energy’ (sic) and use as much power as needed for Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR)?

We ALL know that this will not happen - because those in power know the brutal truths, facts and risks and they will not accept these dangers and risks associated with Nuclear energy.
In 2010, it was announced with much fanfare that the seat of Indian democracy - Sansad Bhavan - would go “green” with Solar PV panels and biogas plants for backup power. There does not appear to be anything done after that. Not that one expects much, it is simply wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, a lot of media attention has focused on the German green revolution. The fact is they threw out of the window the nuclear option and choosing a mix of solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy which has been a toast to the Greens around the world. 

Germany showed that political will can indeed bring about a sea change in how we look at previous paradigms and how we can challenge them successfully and live a safe life without being worried about horrific accidents, being displaced, losing lives and livelihoods and have a sustainable existence with the planet.

What has been less highlighted is the fact that Germany was on the path of solar much before Fukushima happened. More than five years prior to Fukushima, Germany had changed its Electricity Act and allowed private operators to connect to the central electricity grid. They provided subsidies to the private sector investing in renewable energy. And given this policy push, a whole host of companies came forward to take advantages of the tax breaks and the profits. 
In fact, Germany is now slowly taking away the subsidy it gave to set up this infrastructure! Now that the things are in place, Germany can well afford to let its nuclear industry wither away -  like what is happening with the giant companies like RWE and E.ON.
Fukushima was just a tipping point for Germany. The decision had been made years back and had been put in place with typical German precision! Safety, economics, sustainability were all thought about proactively and not post-facto in Germany.

But back in India, let us accept one fact. There is no such thing as a “Safe India.” That is a moronic thought. Another oxymoron, if you please.


Forget it!!

India is a country that sees the highest number of road accidents, the highest number of rail accidents worldwide per thousand people. And it results in the highest number of human lives lost in the whole world each year to these two combined modes of transport.

It actually ought to be a matter of national shame for India.

Yet, India lumbers along, slumbers on the way and awakens with a start only to hibernate once again. The standard refrain is that of “over population” But then why is China not at the top of this list? In fact, China does not come anywhere near the top. Don’t the Chinese travel by roads or trains built in extremely harsh and difficult conditions? Why are Indians so callous about safety?

Transport in itself is a quasi civilian problem – because drivers drink and drive, laws are lax and enforcement is difficult and mostly not implemented for those with enough money. Mind you, these are more of excuses. But for the moment, let it pass.

What then makes India so spectacularly accident prone? Why are Indians so highly safety averse that in practically every sector, the accident rate is far higher than the worldwide average! Is it a genetic predisposition? 

Nuclear power is government controlled and regulated with some portion given out to private contractors who in turn give it to sub contractors. The technology comes from a friendly foreign country and each contract runs into billions of dollars. It requires a whole lot of spares and constant maintenance to be run smoothly. These spares and upgrades and maintenance cost another few billions each year. The contracts to buy the technology and the subsequent orders are negotiated between the two governments in private. A lot of diplomatic and economic bargaining is done for each contract. In short, a huge amount is spent on keeping them afloat. They are symbols of "progressthat are supposed to show that India is indeed an "advanced/developed" nation.

Let me come to the moot point. Obviously, roads and railways cannot be compared with nuclear reactors if all the above parameters are used.

So, let us choose the ‘industry’ closest; based on the above parameters – The Indian Air Force. A brilliantly capable organization having even more brilliant officers and pilots who have time and again proven themselves during war and peace.

While not comparing the two on the merits or demerits of their people, there is a reason to compare them both– their purpouted similarities in their processes and tools.

Indian political and nuclear establishment heads hasten to assure that India has the ‘latest’ nuclear technology, the best brains to run and sustain them and therefore they will NEVER EVER fail. Well, probably they will not fail during the lifetime of the these decision makers because cost and time over runs are so commonplace in India that it takes decades to even start a building nuclear power plant. By this time, these politicians and bureaucrats would have long retired from service into oblivion or probably even would have died by then. So, then who cares if their judgments and plans go awry? Case in point is the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Southern India which has taken over 20 years since being conceptualized by the late Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi but which cannot be commissioned even now due to the genuine safety issues raised by the locals and others and which the operator (NPCIL) cannot fix.

Well, the same case can be made with the Indian Air-force Fighter Jets

A look at the statistics points to a startling fact. The IAF has lost a huge number of its fighter jets, be it the MiGs or Mirages. These are absolutely world class planes; bought after a lot of technical debate, deliberations and undoubtedly use the very latest available technology.

And yet, they crash. Repeatedly.

So, how is it possible that a fighter jet worth millions of dollars, selected after careful and
detailed analysis, flown by the very best and capable pilots in the country, maintained in Mint condition at a huge cost suddenly crash? And these are crashes are not on an enemy mission but rather happen when they are on routine domestic sorties.

The Russian MiG's are termed as “flying coffins” and “widow makers” among the air force because of the fact that they are prone to crashes.

Every fighter jet is equipped with the latest in technology – termed as “fly by wire.”
On board computers do most of the job of steering the flight on course doing millions of calculations per second. Without this technology, a modern fighter jet would not exist.

Yet, even wit this technology the best of the fighters fall out of the sky routinely and crash. Over the past 40 years, India had lost more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft. (More)

Of course, the human losses do matter; but what is most incredible is that the MiG, Mirage and the Sukhoi's are considered to be the absolutely the top class military hardware in the whole world.

The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft ( FGFA ) costs approximately $100 million each. This is only the production cost. Add to it the maintenance and spares cost plus the ground level infrastructure and it turns out to be a whopping expensive machine!
As a patriot Indian, most Indians have never questioned the fact that the armed forces are even lesser than God himself - including myself. 
But doubts creep in when we read about the horrific crashes of MiGs and think of the families and institutions behind it. If the Indian Air-Force (with all its systems and discipline) can go wrong and select a wrong technology, what is the guarantee that the civil nuclear program is not on the same path??

After every crash, there is an inquiry made about the cause of the accident. Most often, it is brushed aside as pilot error.

Yet, facts emerge later during the inquiry into such accidents although most  times, the government pushes them under the carpet. 

More often than not, the cause of the millions of dollars falling out of the sky are Design or Technology related - not Pilot Error as claimed.

A retired Wing Commander said, “As a senior pilot, I have trained several juniors on the MiGs and we have faced problems. But in keeping with the unwritten code of the armed forces, we could never point out shortcomings in the aircraft.”

“It is an established fact that several young IAF pilots lost their lives because they were not willing to eject despite engine flameouts. Nobody ever cares about these factors as the super bosses have their own point to prove – that MiGs are very safe and airworthy,” another officer pointed out sarcastically. (More)

Faulty design of the fight systems, improper positioning of switches, bad software design and perhaps most importantly overuse caused these jets to crash. Add to this the heavy maintenance cost. One millisecond of error can prove to be fatal when dealing with jets and atomic energy. There is no second chance. 

The reason to compare India’s Nuclear program with the Air Force Jets is because of the startling similarity between the two.

Russia and France are the pivot of the Indian Air Force as well as India’s nuclear power sector. It is not by coincidence that defence deals go through with France or Russia. The quid pro quo is always that for every defense deal, a civil deal should happen. And some of those deals happen to be at Koodankulam (with Russia) or Jaitapur (with France), Mithivirdi (with USA). Despite knowing that better technology exists, India has purchased high cost military hardware from these “friendly” nations, even when some of these purchases were unnecessary and unjustified. The West and Russia have a huge vested interest in fomenting an arms race. They do it with admirable alacrity and also push countries to develop “peaceful” nuclear programs.

Whom does this most benefit? Obviously, US, Russia & France gain both ways. By selling defense equipment then getting involved in long term 'partnerships' for maintaining the hardware, and as an added bonus, they set up nuclear power plants in India from where the material to manufacture nuclear weapons can come. 

Make no mistake about it. Far from benign, nuclear power is actually the breeding ground for nuclear weapons. Hence, it is in the keen interests of the US, France and Russia to occupy this space.

Can India, which has invested heavily in this "latest" technology from Russia and France, explain why the same "latest" technology make these jets crash? Whatever the cause of the MiG and Sukhoi crashes, the fact remains that the hundreds of millions of technology wonder are routinely crashing all over India. That is an irrefutable fact.

You may blame a pilot or the weather or technology or spares or stress or any number of reasons.
But the fact remains that they DID indeed crash.
A fighter jet allows a pilot to eject to safety and they do so in cases of emergency. The plane crashes on the ground but the pilot may survive (although in many cases pilots have lost their lives and families have been shattered.)

But, when such an incident occurs at a nuclear power plant, there is no way that anyone can eject or deny the reality. A plane crash in a desolate area and a nuclear meltdown are totally different.

The billions spent on the IAF jets will at most kill the on-board pilots.

A nuclear accident will kill thousands immediately, and will keep doing so for hundreds of years.

Part 2 will be coming soon

(This is an updated version of an original article dated 25-06-2012)

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