The Indo-Sri Lanka summit talks earlier this week seem to have gone off smoothly; notwithstanding the outstanding poaching issue it was the Nuclear Pact between the two countries that took most by surprise. That it was kept a well-guarded secret and under wraps belies the spirit of transparency. In whose ultimate interest it was to [...]


Are we going nuclear?


The Indo-Sri Lanka summit talks earlier this week seem to have gone off smoothly; notwithstanding the outstanding poaching issue it was the Nuclear Pact between the two countries that took most by surprise.

That it was kept a well-guarded secret and under wraps belies the spirit of transparency. In whose ultimate interest it was to spring this surprise will remain an unanswered question. The Indian media were quick to hail the agreement as a diplomatic ‘tour de force’ — some called it a coup — on the part of India’s foreign policy team. They went to the extent of praising the Indian Government for succeeding in getting Sri Lanka to veer towards India “as a partner of first choice”, a euphemism for Sri Lanka to have dropped China in that position. But what is in this nuclear pact for Sri Lanka?

Under the deal, India is to assist Sri Lanka build its nuclear energy infrastructure including training and selling light, small-scale reactors. Later this week, the Minister of Power and Energy met the Russian Ambassador in Colombo to discuss a similar agreement. It means the country is seriously going towards obtaining nuclear energy to power its energy requirements — while the rest of the world, especially the West, has decided to move away from nuclear fuelled energy given the dangers it portends to their populations from any fall-outs from the reactors. The trend in these countries clearly is to go for renewable energy sources and a greener, safer world.

The horrific incident in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 still reverberates in East Europe. Japan is still to fully recover from its disaster at Fukushima due to radioactive leaks when a tsunami hit the plant. Germany, Europe’s biggest industrial power, has pledged to close down all its nuclear stations by 2022 in the face of widespread anti-nuclear protests.

Sri Lanka does not have an anti-nuclear lobby and arguments have been trotted out that alternative energy sources must be found to the traditional hydropower output which is subject to droughts, expensive imported fuel-fired plants and environmentally unfriendly coal plants. But does it mean that the nuclear alternative is the best option.

So, why then is geographically small Sri Lanka, more vulnerable than bigger nations with larger land mass going for the nuclear option? The Minister of Power and Energy, an engineer by profession, is an advocate of nuclear energy. He has been a critic of coal plants at Norochcholai (Chinese) and Sampur (Indian) for different reasons, but on exploiting nuclear energy he says there are vast opportunities. He speaks of the benefits that will accrue to agriculture, power-generation, medicines etc., and recommends its use in Sri Lanka.

Whether this is Government policy is unclear. In a statement to Parliament in 2012, also as the Minister of the same subject under the previous Government, he did admit that India had not given the ‘safety analysis report’ to Sri Lanka on its nuclear reactors closest to this country, and conceded there was no 100 per cent guarantee that an accident would not happen. Has his view changed in 2015 in New Delhi?

In an official media statement by his ministry this week after the signing of the agreement with India, there is reference to provisions of the bilateral agreement. It says the agreement was signed after three meetings in 2012, and in May and October 2014, the details of which being made public, one cannot recall.

Forms of cooperation under the New Delhi agreement will be, inter-alia, training and education of Sri Lankan scientists and engineers etc., etc., and there is also a reference to “emergency notifications and assistance by affected States in case of an emergency” — an admission that nasty accidents can happen.

In a recent interview the minister dismissed as bunkum the possibility of India dumping its nuclear waste in Sri Lankan waters. For a government that cannot say “boo” to the armada of Indian fishermen poaching in the waters of the Palk Strait, fearing it would jeopardise Indo-Lanka relations, what action the Sri Lankan Government can, and will take against a very real possibility of Indian nuclear waste being dumped in Sri Lankan waters is a vital question.

Neither the Sri Lankan nor Indian Energy Ministries – nor their External Affairs Ministries have made available the MoU signed between the two countries on their respective websites. This is a new Government in Colombo that blamed the previous Administration for signing agreements with foreign countries in total secrecy and called for transparency. Quite rightly too. Should it not then practise what it preaches?

The former Government did express its concern, however feeble it may have been, over the Indian nuclear reactor at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu because any accident there would have dangerously impacted on the people of Puttalam and the neighbouring areas. A tracking station was set up at the islet of Kachchativu to monitor any leaks from the Russian supplied reactors in southern India bringing ill winds over Sri Lanka. Have we taken a paradigm shift now vis-a-vis India and in our policy towards nuclear energy?

At the time (2011) when Sri Lanka signed an agreement with the US for “technical assistance” for Sri Lanka’s nuclear and other radioactive material, we asked how capable we were of disposing of nuclear radioactive waste when we could not even solve our common or garden garbage disposal problems. At the time, the Cancer Hospital at Maharagama was at odds with the local Pradeshiya Sabha which was unable to clear the hospital’s radioactive waste. The IAEA (the UN’s atomic energy agency) was engaged in providing radiotherapy equipment to hospitals to combat the spread of cancer.

What is our preparedness for a nuclear clean-up; do our soldiers have the necessary uniforms; do we have special units in hospitals; what about skin ailments and deformities in unborn children? Have we asked ourselves that question before embarking on a programme to take the nuclear road that advanced countries are now abandoning – and for good reason?

Above all, where is the transparency and discussion in all this? Is Parliament going to discuss this Nuclear Pact with India, even post-facto? Or are we just timidly doing India’s bidding when the Indian Supreme Court itself is keeping a close tab on that country’s nuclear expansion programme on behalf of its citizenry? Or are we too busy with electioneering?

The State has a duty by its own citizens to be more open and transparent on foreign agreements. It was not so long ago, that the former regime was accused of failing to do so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.