The Smile That Makes Generations Sick

Surendra Gadekar*

The after glow of Operation Shakti lingers on. Yes, India has done
it. Our scientist and engineers and even our politicians are second
to none. Recalls to mind those famous lines coined during the Russo-
Turkish War of 1877-78 which gave the English language a word which
describes rather well the mood in middle class India today.

We don't want to fight, yet by jingo, if we do,
We got the ships, we got the men,
And we got the money, too!

Achievement at what cost
A nuclear test involves the release into the environment of large
quantities of radioactive poisons. Poisons that shall linger on and
on; long after the after glow fades; long after the applause and the
mutual back-patting fades; long after all the scientists, engineers,
and even the evergreen politicians fade; long after historical
constucts such as Pakistan, China and even beloved India fade. This
deliberate poisoning of our soil and that most precious of all things
in a desertuwater, shall continue to extract an inevitable toll.

Till now five other nations have conducted approximately 1,900
nuclear tests. Of these, 518 have been in the atmosphere, under
water, or in space. Approximately 1,400 tests have been conducted
underground in scores of places around the globe.

Obtaining complete and accurate data on health and environmental
effects of nuclear weapons testing is difficult. In large part this
is because countries that have tested nuclear weapons give the
princiapl responsibility of assessing the health and environmental
effects of the testing to the very agencies that make and test the
weapons. These agencies have therefore found themselves with
essentially contradictory missions. On the one hand, the reality of
widespread fallout requires that people be carefully informed about
the nature of fallout and the dangers of radiation. It requires
openness and free discussion. On the other hand there is the
overwhelming desire for secrecy and the perceived need to build up
nuclear arsenals come what may.
In this mindset, it is no wonder that the health and security of
one's own citizens is sacrificed at the alter of geo-political
considerations. Henry Wasserman very aptly named his book describing
US experience with the effects of ionising radiation as "Killing Our
Own."

Except for at very high doses, radiation damage is not immediately
apparent. Considerable damage is done to health and the environment
before the public becomes aware.

A 1-kiloton explosion (explosive force equal to 1,000 tons TNT) will
typically produce 11 billion curies of radioactive fission products
one minute after detonation and this will be reduced to 10 million
curies in 12 hours, as the short-lived radionuclides decay. Most
bombs have four to five kilogrammes of plutonium of which one can
safely assume that more than half is left behind. Plutonium is one of
the most toxic substances known. It has a half life of 24,000 years
and would thus remain in the environment of Pokhran essentially for
ever. Strontium-90 and cesium-137, two other long lived radionuclides
(half lives around 30 years each) are produced at the rate of 0.1 and
0.16 kilocuries per kiloton respectively.

Sometimes underground tests result in quick, massive releases into
the atmosphere called ventings. Releases which take place slowly over
a period of months or years are called seeps. The Des Moines test of
1962 vented 11 million curies while the Bainberry test of 1970 vented
6.7 million curies into the atmosphere. Mercifully operation Shakti
hasn't resulted in ventings. Seeps are another matter and would
require careful monitoring of the site.

The long term dangers arising from wastes in the underground
environment have not yet been carefully assessed anywhere in the
world. However, there is evidence quoted by the Office of Technology
Assessment of the US Congress which shows that soil and groundwater
at the Nevada Test Site has been contaminated. This is not surprising
since radioactive testing results in the drastic fracture of rock
structures.

Of one thing we can be sure. If it is found that operation Shakti
has resulted in radioactive contamination which is a threat to human
health, the villagers living in the vicinity are unlikely to be told
anything about the fact or asked to take precautions that might
reduce their risks. In our persuit of geo-political might, some have
to pay the price of development. Modern versions of the ancient
custom of human sacrifice for the sake of power and glory can be
played to thunderous applause from a nation thirsty for international
recognition.

On this World Environment Day it is well to ponder over the fact that
environment is not just trees and tigres.



* Surendra Gadekar is the Editor of Anumukti: An Anti Nuclear Journal from India, Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya, Vedchhi 394641