In response to the earthquake-triggered accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, India's prime minister has asked for a full safety audit of India's 20 operating nuclear reactors. Srikumar Banerjee, chair of India's Atomic Energy Commission, met with Science's Pallava Bagla to discuss the review. Banerjee says he is confident that India's reactors are 100% safe. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: This is an unfolding nightmare—has it shaken your confidence?
S.B.: It has not shaken my confidence, but it has disturbed me. But obviously had this not happened, we would have been happier.
Q: So are Indian reactors safe?
S.B.: One hundred percent.
Q: Can you keep your hand on your heart and say the public need not fear Indian reactors?
S.B.: Yes, I am keeping my hand on my heart to say that Indian public need not fear Indian reactors and if there is any chance of any accident then we will be the first one to say, "Close it."
Q: But you are so secretive?
S.B.: How can you say that? We are not secretive at all.
Q : After the Japan incident, the Indian Prime Minister has ordered a safety review of nuclear facilities? What will you do ?
S.B.: We are going to make a revision of the safety scenario of all the plants under extreme conditions of natural calamities. We have some design margins. What are the additional design margins above the design basis accident? So these are called "beyond design accidents." Each [reactor will be examined for] robustness in the conditions which are beyond the design basis.
Q : What are the natural disasters you are talking of?
S.B.: We are talking of earthquake, tsunami, flooding, and cyclone.
Q : How soon will this review be over?
S.B.: It will be done within a week but it will not be a one-step process. We will continue to upgrade our systems. Safety is linked with the multiplicity of the barriers. No safety can be assured by one layer.
Q : Other countries have already ordered a shutdown of nuclear reactors. That is giving a lot of confidence to the general public. Why have you not given orders for a shutdown till this review is complete?
S.B.: I don't think there is any necessity of calling for a shutdown. What are we going to gain by just shutting down, because there is nothing that has happened in any of our systems which would call for a shutdown? I am unable to understand the rationale behind thinking of shutting it down. If we see that there is some weakness in the safety analysis because even I don't want to bring any kind of danger to our own countrymen.
Q : People don't inherently trust the Indian atomic energy establishment.
S.B.: I wouldn't say so, because if this was true then we would have never got any support from the people because in a country like ours when we are isolated from the rest of the world on the nuclear activity.
Q: Should India continue to embrace nuclear energy or move away from it?
S.B.: We have to generate energy and the clean energy that we can provide, the best way to do that is through nuclear but we should not do it recklessly. We should do it with concern of safety and keep in mind that we are not damaging the environment at all.