STEVE KROFT: Nothing frightens the world like a nuclear bomb falling into the wrong hands or a nuclear accident like the one that occurred at Chernobyl, which is why the international community has paid a lot of attention to countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and to the aging, decrepit nuclear reactors of the former Soviet Union. But one country has largely escaped scrutiny--India--where nothing seems as important as its membership in the nuclear club. Over the years, it has steadfastly kept international safety inspectors out of its facilities, while pursuing one of the most ambitious, secret and potentially dangerous nuclear programs in the world.
(Footage of Indian rain forest; of Indian people in common settings)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Deep in the heart of the Indian rain forest, the Indian government is building two brand-new nuclear power plants of outmoded design, surrounded by the kind of secrecy and security that you'd expect to find at a military installation. The Indian government says the reactors are needed to help lift more than 800 million people out of poverty and into the 20th century--that nuclear power is vital to India's future prosperity.
(Footage of meeting)
Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Sharma from India.
Dr. DHIRENDRA SHARMA (Indian Activist): Thank you.
KROFT: (Voiceover) But Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a retired university professor and one of the few people in India willing to take on the government-controlled nuclear establishment, says there's a reason why the country's nuclear power plants are treated like military installations.
Dr. SHARMA: Nuclear power program is to feed our nuclear-weapons program. I have no doubt about it. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons--the two are Siamese twins. They cannot be separated.
(Footage of weapons plant; of Indira Gandhi; of Indian nuclear power plants)
KROFT: (Voiceover) They can't be separated, Dr. Sharma says, because the spent fuel from those nuclear power plants is needed to make nuclear bombs for the Indian military.
When the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi exploded a nuclear device 20 years ago, the United States and Canada stopped helping India build reactors. And to this day, the sale to India of nuclear fuel, vital spare parts and critical safety systems for its nuclear plants is forbidden by most Western governments. But that hasn't stopped India from making more nuclear bombs and building more nuclear plants, even though Sharma says India probably can't maintain the safety standards that the high-risk technology demands.
Today, the Indian nuclear program is a dangerous failure. Its power plants are all operating at less than 50 percent of capacity, and some are even suspected of using more electricity than they generate. There's little oversight, no independent regulation, and for the most part, Indian reactors are off-limits to international inspectors.
(Footage of nuclear plant control room)
KROFT: (Voiceover) The most recent trouble was in March at Narora, a nuclear power plant built in an earthquake zone, barely 155 miles from the capital of New Delhi. A major fire broke out at the plant, knocking out all of the power in the control room.
How serious was it?
Dr. SHARMA: I would say that it was touch and go.
(Footage of regulatory report)
KROFT: (Voiceover) And he isn't the only one who says so. A US Nuclear Regulatory Commission report called the incident a `close call.' Just how close may never be known, Sharma says, because Indian law gives the government the power to operate in almost total secrecy when it comes to nuclear matters.
Dr. SHARMA: It is forbidden to talk, plan, write, investigate about past, present or future nuclear power programs. All this is under the law as forbidden.
KROFT: Aside from the emergency at Narora, the Indian government has admitted to 146 other nuclear mishaps--and that's just last year. Five of them ended up killing people. There was an explosion at the country's main fuel fabrication plant; a jet fire at a heavy water facility that sent flames shooting 130 feet into the air; and an underground leak of radioactive water at a research facility.
(Footage of government building)
KROFT: (Voiceover) That information, but very few details, was provided by India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the government-controlled watchdog group that's responsible for nuclear safety. It's chairman, Dr. A. Gopalakrishnann, makes no apologies for the fact that India is one of the only nuclear power-producing countries in the world to resist safety reviews by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Why don't you allow safety inspectors from the . . .
Dr. A. GOPALAKRISHNANN: (Chairman, Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board): Why should we--why--why . . . .
KROFT: . . . international agency to come in and in--and inspect?
Dr. A. GOPALAKRISHNANN: Why should we do it? What is the need for it?
KROFT: Almost every other country in the world does.
Dr. A. GOPALAKRISHNANN: I don't know. What--for--they're coming to look whether the reactors are safe? Or coming to see what--what they are doing there?
(Footage of Rawatbhala facility)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Whatever they're doing here at the Rawatbhala nuclear facility in the state of Rajasthan, they're not doing it very well. The plant has one of the worst operating records in the country. Unit number one was shut down for three years because of a crack in the reactor's endshield.
Dr. A. GOPALAKRISHNANN: Yes, there was a crack in the reactor endshield. That doesn't mean . . .
KROFT: And you shut the plant down for three years.