For me, as for many others who knew her even slightly, the first thing that the news of Japan's nuclear disaster did was bring back memories of Satomi Oba. The gentle and brave antinuclear activist gave decades of her life to alert the Japanese against just such a deadly danger and to avert it before dying of a brain hemorrhage at age 54 on February 24, 2005.
I met Satomi first in 2001 in Hiroshima. That city, along with Nagasaki, was then the only Japanese reminder of the horrors atomic adventurers could unleash. A decade before Fukushima, she told other participants in a world conference on nuclear weapons about the perils the nuclear reactors in her country posed. (Her views, in detail, can be found here). It was not long before she confronted the same issue as the quake-prone land faces currently, in a more inescapable form.
On October 27, 2004, Sally Light, a close friend and a courageous US peace campaigner, forwarded to me and others a message from Satomi about the grave risk of nuclear devastation in the region of Niigata, which was reeling from an earthquake and aftershocks. The region, on the coast of the Sea of Japan, housed the large Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant and its seven reactors. As the executive director of Plutonium Action Hiroshima, Satomi demanded the plant's immediate shutdown.
The powers that be ignored her, predictably. Tremors hit the same terrain in July 2007. The whole plant was shut down for 21 months. On May 9, 2009, however, one unit was restarted, followed by three others later.
Satomi, also an active member of Abolition 2000 and the Global Network Against Nuclear Power and Weapons in Space, fought for the people's freedom from nuclear threats everywhere on earth. She hastened to extend her solidarity to us in far-off India, when a natural calamity raised the specter of a nuclear disaster here, as well.
On December 26, 2004, a tsunami (of a smaller scale than the one that awaited Japan, but savage enough all the same) struck India's southern shores. Chennai, the coastal city where I live, and the surrounding region were victims of the calamity. A nuclear nightmare seemed a possibility when the giant waves lashed at an atomic plant in Kalpakkam, on the city's outskirts. Satomi read about it all and reacted with genuine concern.
On December 31, she wrote to me: “What a horrifying story it is. And we also have 52 nuclear reactors in operation along the coastline of the Japan Islands. I fear a lot about possible huge earthquakes directly hitting nuclear facilities.”
I reported on it all in Truthout immediately. Satomi responded again, linking the subject to Japan's unlearned lesson: “I will circulate this article all around. In Niigata, there was the same problem. Though the epicenter was close to the … reactors in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, there was no news about the implication of earthquakes…. ”
The article recalled the objections raised by activists to the construction of reactors in Kalpakkam, especially on the grounds of its location. The opponents of the plan argued that it violated a law against such environmentally unfriendly constructions in the terrain defined as the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). “The official reaction was an outrage. It consisted in amending the law to exempt nuclear plants from its purview.”
It was also pointed out that Kalpakkam was only one of the many nuclear installations to endanger India’s coastal environment. Besides it, five more places on the country's long coastline harbor nuclear installations – Koodankulam (located, like Kalpakkam, in the state of Tamilnadu) Kaiga (in Karnataka), Mumbai, Tarapur and Jaitapur (in Maharashtra), and Kakrapar (in Gujarat).
In a statement on January 10, 2005, the Chennai-based Movement Against Nuclear Weapons (MANW) said, “Terse official reassurances cannot take the place of a transparent and credible investigation of the consequences of the tsunami disaster in Kalpakkam.” It added: “The tsunami disaster also brings into sharper focus the more basic question: Is it not time for rethinking on the location of India's nuclear plants on an entirely unprotected coastline?”
Like Satomi in Japan, we were largely ignored then. What about now?
India's nuclear establishment cannot feign supreme indifference to the gigantic tragedy in Japan. It feels constrained to promise a closer look at the safety of its nuclear units, particularly the coastal ones. What it has to say about the devastation at Fukushima, however, does not inspire much hope.
On March 14, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) chairman S. K. Jain said: “There is no nuclear accident or incident in the Japan's Fukushima plants. It is a well-planned emergency preparedness program which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.”
India's Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman Srikumar Banerjee added, “It was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section of media.”
Nonofficial experts and nuclear observers do not exude optimism about the promised review and remedial action. As one of them, S. G. Vombatkere, points out, under India's present nuclear dispensation, no independent and transparent review is really possible. Under India's Atomic Energy Act, no one is permitted to raise questions about the nuclear installations and expect a genuine response. The nuclear industry alone is allowed to conduct radioactivity tests, even outside the perimeter of a plant. The country's Environment Protection Act does not apply to its nuclear installations.
The officially unstated explanation is: a review by outsiders cannot be contemplated, since every nuclear unit is part of India's security establishment. This strange idea of “security” does not spell nuclear safety for the inhabitants of India, especially those residing in its coastal areas.
Others will undoubtedly continue Satomi's struggle in post-Fukushima Japan. It needs to be carried forward in India as well – and elsewhere in the world.