"Mr President, I feel I have blood on my hands..."

Thus spoke Robert Oppenheimer to Harry S. Truman in August 1945 after the atomic bombing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A noted physicist, Oppenheimer was the director of the the Manhattan Project where he worked with top notch scientists to develop the atom bomb. But the wide scale destruction caused by the dropping of atom bombs in Japan made him admit at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society: "We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world... a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing... we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man."

Another noted physicist, Niels Bohr, in his letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt,written in July 1943 had said, 'A weapon of an unparalleled power is being created which will completely change all future conditions of warfare. Unless some agreement about the control of the use of the new active materials can be obtained in due time, any temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security.'

There were others too, whose initial euphoria over the successful unleashing of the nuclear energy (by breaking the nucleus) was masked by the terrible destructive uses it could be put to. Little must have these scientists realized that even the peaceful use of nuclear energy is fraught with unspeakable dangers. This has been proved time and again when nuclear power plant disasters caused either by human errors or natural calamities have made the efficacy of nuclear power, as a source of energy, highly suspect.

The latest in the series is the tsunami triggered accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.   Radiation from the stricken nuclear power plant is already being detected hundreds of miles away and is expected to reach Britain within a fortnight, experts predict. Monitoring stations in Russia have detected caesium and iodine in the atmosphere and the fallout is expected to reach the US soon. Fresh foodstuffs, in the vicinity of the area, have started showing signs of contamination, with abnormal levels of radioactive iodine detected in milk and spinach, putting children and young people at risk of thyroid damage.

Japan has 54 operating nuclear reactors -- supplying almost 30% of the island nation's energy needs.
All of them are on the coast, and had been built to very stringent quake proof standards. Yet the inevitable happened. The blame is now on the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that runs this facility for keeping poor maintenance and forging repair/maintenance reports during inspections.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered a safety check of India's nuclear power plants. The PM said that though Indian nuclear reactors had met safety standards in the past, they should be subjected to fresh stress tests given the enormity of natural calamity than can strike. 

This laudable concern comes very close on the heels of accusations hurled at the UPA government for spending crores of rupees to buy the votes of MPs to seal the Indo US Civilian Nuclear Agreement in October 2008, under which India plans to set up 22 new reactors. Currently, India has 19 operational reactors producing about 4,560 MW of electricity, which constitutes only 2.9 per cent of the total electricity output. During the operational phase of this nuclear deal, it is expected that India would increase its total nuclear power production to 45,000 MW by 2020.

In recent times India has plunged to unfathomable depths of political and bureaucratic immorality, where corruption has shattered the moral fabric of public life. The scams plaguing the country cast aspersions on the well meaning words of its Prime Minister regarding nuclear safety.

According to a Tehelka report   India’s track record of nuclear accidents or incidents is barely a clean one. Between 1999 and 2009, there have been 13 accidents at various nuclear facilities — a figure that may well be inaccurate since there is no document in the public domain — the list of 13 accidents have been pieced together by various DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) statements and reports over the years.

The mining facilities of the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jaduguda in Bihar have often invited criticism on the radiation issues associated with mining and milling operations. According to a Down to Earth study done in 2008, the company allegedly dumps waste from the mines in open fields and transports uranium ore in uncovered dumpers. There are many people with congenital deformities born near Jaduguda. High incidence of tuberculosis, skin and lung cancer, impotency, contortion of limbs and other diseases are also found in tribes living in the uranium mining belt.

Even as experts debate over Indian nuclear reactors' safety following the meltdown in Japan, former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar dismissed apprehension on the proposed Jaitaput N-plant  in Maharashtra, saying 'it is an advanced reactor with high level of safety'.

He defended the proposed 9,900 megawatt nuclear power plant and said there was no reason to be afraid of the project, as according to him "there is no fear of tsunami due to the Jaitapur power project as it is situated above the sea level and located on a plateau falling in Seismic Zone 3, which is geologically less active." 

However, the villagers in Jaitapur are opposing the plant on safety and displacement fears, saying that radiation from the plant will affect them and the government has no plans to protect the rich bio-diversity of the district.

A new fear about nuclear energy has gripped the globe as thousands have taken to streets in Europe in protest against nuclear power plants. Opponents of nuclear power plants feel, and rightly so, that these type of accidents - where high levels of radiation leak out - have too much potential to harm the environment, fauna, food chain and human health. When economic demands overrule safety concerns, then whither development? Any type of development at the cost of human health and well being cannot be termed as progress. One must not forget that the use of nuclear energy, even for peaceful purposes, is fraught with many dangerous outcomes, as has been proved time and again. So it would make sense to explore other safer and more environment friendly sources of energy.

Let us hope that the nuclear clouds gathering over Japan will put a lid on the nuclear ambitions of India, and good sense will prevail over mindless economic growth.

It is time we started concentrating upon solar, wind and water power to live in tandem with nature and with our fellow beings.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI).She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)