Terror a New Element in India's Nuke Plans

The latest revelations in a US courtroom about the Pakistan-American David Headley suggest that the jihadi intelligence agent visited an Indian nuclear power plant ahead of the brazen November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that took 164 lives and injured another 308, and sought ways to cause havoc from it.

The revelations have added a new dimension to the safety debate centered round India's big atomic energy plans following the nuclear crisis in Japan, bringing not only the possibility of natural catastrophe but manmade catastrophe as well. India's nuclear ambitions are considerable. The country aims to produce 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020 and 63,000- MW by 2032. Its atomic energy market is estimated in the range of US$150-200 billion, predicted to rise to US$500 billion if plans are implemented as targeted.

India has signed civil nuclear deals with countries including the United States, France, Namibia, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Angola, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the European Atomic Energy Community for various aspects of nuclear power generation cycle including installation of reactors and import of uranium.

It was after several years of aggressive diplomatic moves and help from America that India managed to win itself nuclear exception status despite refusing to sign global nonproliferation treaties such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

However, the calamity in Japan and its troubled struggle to avert an earthquake-tsunami induced nuclear catastrophe has raised safety related questions about India's massive atomic energy plans as a green and safe source of power.

The prospects of a terror strike on a nuclear installation got a considerable boost when released court documents in Chicago revealed that Headley, aka Daood Gilani, visited an unnamed India nuclear power plant in India in April 2008 at the request of a handler named as a Major Iqbal in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who also gave him Indian currency notes for expenses in the country.

Headley, who has pleaded guilty in helping the militant Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry out the Mumbai attack, spent time in India's financial capital in April 2008, made videos of potential landing sites for terrorists on boats from Pakistan and took pictures of the city harbor.

"Headley also performed surveillance of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) train station (that was later attacked). Headley returned to Pakistan and met with Zaki, Sajid, Abu Qahafa, and another Lashkar member," the court submissions alleged.

In his testimony before the Chicago court, Headley has said that he was also plotting to assassinate prominent political leaders in Mumbai on behalf of the LeT. As fallout from the revelations, the Maharashtra state intelligence department is reviewing security arrangements of the potential targets in Mumbai that Headley claims to have surveyed.

In these contexts, there is no way to know whether the latest nuclear technologies will stand up to an apocalyptic disaster situation as happened in Japan or a terror attack, as they have not been tested. Given India's high population density, an accident could rival the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 in which thousands of villagers around the chemical plant died and thousands more continue to suffer grievous health problems.

Some analysts say given the non-transparent nature of India's state-controlled nuclear energy sector, there is no way to estimate whether safety issues will be carefully followed. Data on the sector are closely guarded by the nuclear establishment, which functions under the close purview of top government departments including the Prime Minister's Office.

Some of the atomic plants, including the proposed 9500 MW Jaitapur station in Maharashtra which is being constructed by the French firm Areva and another in Tamil Nadu will be built along coastal areas, given the large consumption of water by nuclear plants. Coastal areas are considered to be particularly vulnerable to amphibious militant attacks, especially in the wake of Mumbai 26/11.

In Jaitapur, villagers have been opposing the project on environmental and rehabilitation issues. Regional political parties in Maharashtra have voiced concern following the Japan calamity. Activists have warned that the massive Jaitapur project falls in a class 3 seismic zone. Data from the Geological Survey of India show that between 1985 and 2005, there were 92 earthquakes, the biggest measuring 6.2 on the Richter Scale.

Indeed, despite the miniscule role of atomic power in India's energy mix till now, there have been negative fallout instances. In the early 1990s, the Tarapur plant near Mumbai leaked radioactivity from faulty cooling systems. Incidents of genetic disorders have been recorded in populations at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan state and in the sea near Kalpakkamd.

In the 1990s, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A Gopalakrishnan, expressed fears about the safety status of some nuclear installations under the Department of Atomic Energy.

The Indian chapter of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, in a 2008 survey, found that "sterility was found to be more common in people residing near uranium mining operations." Birth defects and congenital deformities followed a similar pattern.

Indian officials and some analysts, meanwhile, say unlike in Japan all of India's nuclear plant except Narora in Uttar Pradesh are situated in the moderately seismic Zone 3, thus ruling out an 8.9 magnitude earthquake. No plant is located at the highly seismically unstable Himalayan region.

Further, the Narora plant has not been damaged despite facing the tremors over the last two decades, including the 6.2 quake in 1999. The 6.7 magnitude quake that hit Gujarat in 2001 did not have an impact on the Kakrapur nuclear facility. During the 2004 tsunami, the Kalpakkam plant in Tamil Nadu went through an automatic shutdown process.

Yet, fears of a terror attack given Headley's confessions raise another set of doubts about the safety of India's nuclear power plants, planned or already operational.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com