Nuclear Bhopals for India’s people?
A World to Win News Service.
In mid-July Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to India with a deadly agenda. India feared a change in its relations with the U.S. under the new Obama government. Further, with Clinton’s visit coming only days after the G-8 meeting of the developed countries of the world including the U.S. had reaffirmed a commitment to not pass along enrichment and nuclear reprocessing technology to non-signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India, a non-signatory of this treaty, may have thought it had cause for concern.
But Clinton unabashedly informed the world, “We have just completed a civil nuclear deal. If it is done through proper channels and safeguarded, then it is appropriate.” (india-server.com/news/hillary). India remained a “global partner”, she said, and the two countries would proceed with agreements initiated by Bush on military issues (the sale of billions of dollars worth of U.S. airplanes and military technology) and civilian nuclear deals.
She continued, “I’m so pleased that Prime Minister Singh told me that sites for two nuclear parks for U.S. companies have been approved by the government. These parks will advance the aims of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, facilitate billions of dollars in U.S. reactor exports, and create jobs in both counties, as well as generate much-needed energy for the Indian people.” The two sites are of “significant acreage” and have forested buffer zones to allow for future expansion. (Frontline, 1 August 2009, tni.org) They are in Andhra Pradesh, where Maoists lead the masses in a people’s war that is often in sharp conflict with the Indian government’s encroachment on tribal lands, and in Gujarat. In both states anti-government feeling runs high among the poor and downtrodden. ..
Her visit received scant publicity in the Western press. In India, news of the Clinton visit was big and controversial. One the one hand, Indian industrialists (like Ratan Tata) salivate at the possibilities of this new deal.. On the other hand, the anti-nuclear forces promise a tough fight, and have joined ranks with the Indian section of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) to protest this agreement. They are outraged by the U.S. demand for the enactment of an Indian law to protect American companies against liability for future disasters like the poison gas leak in Bhopal 25 years ago.
In 1984 a pesticide manufacturing plant owned by the U.S. company Union Carbide leaked a cloud of 42 tons of toxic chemicals into the air of the densely populated city of Bhopal. Of the 800,000 people living in the city, 8,000 to 10,000 died within 72 hours. About 300,000 were injured. As many as 25,000 have died from gas-related causes since then.
The worst hit area was the slum next to the factory. Most of the victims were poor people from villages who had moved to the city in search of jobs. “Many– particularly children and the elderly – died in their beds as the gas seeped into their homes. Others, including women clasping babies, fled only to collapse in the street. Many were later found, huddled, sick and dying in the city’s doorways. Herds of oxen lay dead and the bodies of goats littered the roadsides where they used to roam. Leaves on the trees were yellow and shrivelled – crops in the fields were scorched and covered with a fine white film.” (BBC, 28 August 2002).
In Bhopal today there are abnormally high levels of skin cancer, lung cancer, gastro-intestinal cancer, genetic defects, serious menstrual problems and miscarriage rates seven times the national average. Survivors suffer from poor co-ordination, memory loss, partial blindness, paralysis and impaired immune systems. Often their babies are born with deformities. Now, on average one person dies per day, with 100,000 suffering from chronic illness. Every day 4,000 people queue at the city’s gas relief hospitals with ailments ranging from damaged lungs and severe heart problems to wrecked immune systems and diseases such as tuberculosis. (AWTWNS, 14 February 2005)
None of the four safety systems were in operation due to budget cutbacks at the Union Carbide plant. The company refused to listen to the warnings by the doctor at the plant. She wanted a plan of action for evacuating the people living in the neighbourhood in case of a leak and she left her job before the disaster to protest the company’s inaction.
Insisting there was sabotage, to this day Union Carbide (now owned by the Dow chemical company) refuses to accept responsibility for this tragedy. Instead they negotiated a settlement of $470 million paid to the Indian government to distribute. This meant a measly sum of $400 to each of the victims.
The head of Union Carbide at that time, Warren Anderson, was arrested by the local government and charged with homicide when he travelled to India after the 1984 disaster. But due to pressure from the U.S. government he was released on bail immediately. Since then he has not presented himself to the court. India has an extradition treaty with the U.S. but the Indian government has shown no desire to start extradition proceedings against him.
The Bhopal disaster is the backdrop for Clinton’s negotiations with the Indian government over the nuclear plants to be set up by two multinationals, General Electric (U.S.-based and one of the largest corporate polluters in that country) and Westinghouse Electric (majority owned by Toshiba). The companies are loath to miss out on lucrative possibilities but worried about having to pay for any tragedies they might create in their drive for profit. They are concerned about being at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to their rivals, the French company Areva and Russian Rusatom. These companies are already immune from liability because they are considered “sovereign”, that is, fully or partially controlled by their governments.
While the details of the India liability law for the U.S. companies are not fully worked out, one anonymous Indian minister told a reporter: “The draft of the Nuclear Liability Bill is ready. What this will do is indemnify American companies so that they don’t have to go through another Union Carbide in Bhopal.” (Frontline)
In an article at tehelka.com, activist and journalist Nityanand Jayaraman writes “Areva and Rusatom are already in the race to supply nuclear plant equipment to India. But private sector players like GE and Westinghouse say they will not invest until India ratifies the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSCNL) and installs a domestic civilian nuclear liability regime. They want no part of the liabilities arising out of a Bhopal-like disaster. Rather, they say, the entire liability in the event of a catastrophe should be borne solely by the Indian operator of the facility. Like his predecessor, President Obama is pushing India to guarantee that the Union Carbides of the nuclear world suffer no losses regardless of the role that may be played by their equipment and technology in causing the disaster.” Jayaraman concludes, “At a time when neither the U.S. nor the Indian government has done anything to address the lingering liabilities of the Bhopal disaster, it is unacceptable to project U.S. multinationals as the only real victims of the Bhopal disaster, and take steps to immunize them from liabilities in the future.”
What kind of tragedy can one expect from a nuclear disaster for which U.S. companies do not want liability?
The Frontline article describes the hazards associated with nuclear power. “Each stage of the so-called nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to fuel fabrication, and from the operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors to the handling or reprocessing of spent fuel, is fraught with exposure to ionising radiation. Radiation is a unique and long-acting poison that causes chromosomal damage even in small doses – and hence cancer and genetic damage. Radiation cannot be neutralised or destroyed. And there is no threshold below which it is safe.
“Nuclear power generation, as well as the transportation and handling of nuclear materials, inevitably exposes occupational workers to radiation. It is also fraught with routine emissions and effluents that are hazardous to the public in the vicinity. It leaves behind wastes, which remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years… The economic lifespan of a nuclear reactor is only 30 or 40 years. But it remains hazardous for thousands of years.”
Twenty-three years ago the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and fire released four hundred times more radioactive fallout than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Fallout drifted as far north as Ireland. Despite heroic efforts on the part of firefighters whose boots melted into the radioactive mess as they battled flames, 4,000 people died in the nearby area. In the Ukraine alone, those designated as permanently disabled by the Chernobyl accident rose from 200 in 1991 to 64,500 in 1997 to 91,219 in 2001. (International Herald Tribune, 25 August 2009)
Clinton’s visit to India took up other, no less significant issues like military agreements of strategic import to the U.S. We have focused here only on one glaring aspect. The deals to export U.S. nuclear technology to India that the Obama administration is pushing through will be worth $20 billion in sales. The dangers and potential damage that may be inflicted on the broad masses of Indians are incalculable