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A nuclear accident anywhere is an accident everywhere: ElBaradei

Somnath Dasgupta & Anika Gupta     March 29, 2011
As a possible candidate for the presidency of newly-democratic Egypt, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei is a busy man. He talked with BT's Somnath Dasgupta and Anika Gupta about his plans for the Egypt-India relationship and the need for better international nuclear safety norms.

Somnath: How do you rate your chances of becoming the president of a new Egypt? Have any new opponents emerged?

ElBaradei: We are at an early stage of the transitional period and I am at this stage focusing on making sure that we do it right, in terms of the transition. In my view, we need a new Constitution, we need to give people the right to establish parties, to reactivate civil society, before we go into election.

And the election probably is six to nine months from now, and I would even prefer we do not rush into this process. So who is going to run and whether I am going to run [is not important] - and I made it very clear I am not going to run unless there is a fully democratic framework.

Somnath: But you have asked for a Constituent assembly, voices drawn from responsible parties… but who is going to select those people?

ElBaradei: In my view, you can either have it appointed or elected. A Constituent Assembly needs to reflect all segments of society……It doesn't really matter whether it is appointed or elected. It is important that it engages the people, gets the people's views and then revises whatever draft they have and puts it to a referendum.

Somnath: But who does this process? The military?

ElBaradei: I am recommending a presidential council of civilians and may be a representative of the military. The military does not want to stay very long [in power] and I understand they have a lot of other responsibilities and my suggestion to them is transfer power to civilians during the transitional period.

Somnath: Have you been in touch with the military, have you contacted them?

ElBaradei: Yes, I had a meeting with the head of the military council and we had a long discussion along these lines, and we hope to be able to continue in dialogue. They want to do the whole thing in six months; in my view, we need at least a year, a year and a half, to ensure that we do it right. If we do it right, the impact on the Arab world is tremendous, and the impact for Egypt - after many decades of repression - will be very important. So I see no reason to rush the transition. Many other countries like Indonesia or Slovenia who have gone through our experience, did not rush.

Somnath: Do you have an economic plan for the country?

ElBaradei: I mean I would like to focus on basic needs - 40 per cent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars a day. The gap between the rich - and we have quite a few billionaires on the Forbes 500 list - and the poor is obscene. The priorities are healthcare, food, housing and education. Education is No 1. Unless you invest heavily in education, you will not be able to compete. Of course, we need to review where we have comparative advantage. Tourism is clearly one area where we can expand greatly.

Somnath: What about cooperation with India?

ElBaradei: Of course, India is very much in the IT area, in textiles. I have always advocated that we need to cooperate closely with countries like India, South Africa, Brazil. These countries have gone through our experience, have knowledge that fits our culture, our level of development. I need to look more to the emerging powers, and not really to the West, because, you can get cheaper technology, you can get technology that is easily adaptable.

But this is just off the cuff. In a democracy, we have to sit together and make sure that we make use of the best brains we have. And Egypt for one thing is not short of good, qualified people. We have six-seven million Egyptians, like Indians, all over the world. I mean I went to Harvard, and this year we have 15 Egyptians on the Harvard faculty. This is not a country that is bereft of talents, you know.

Anika: Where do you see opportunities for political partnership between a democratic Egypt and democratic India on the world stage?

ElBaradei: India and Egypt as democracies need to build space, we need to build cooperation. If you look at the European Union, if you look at ASEAN, you really need to look for political space and work together. Traditionally India and Egypt have been very close since Nehru's time and I think I would like to see that come back. A lot of our perception of inequities, insecurities, creating a level global playing field - there are a lot of areas where we can work very closely together.

Anika: If we can switch tracks to talk about nuclear... You know the debate over India and the non-proliferation treaty, and you also supported the Indo-US nuclear deal. So my question is, in today's times…is the NPT's approach to non-proliferation - with these weapon states, non-weapon states etc - still sustainable or has that become outdated?

ElBaradei: It's not sustainable if you want to have a world free from nuclear weapons… Our continuing reliance on nuclear weapons is going to end in our self-destruction, as Rajiv Gandhi mentioned, in the 1980s, before the United Nations General Assembly in his disarmament plan. Now you see now [Henry] Kissinger and [Helmut] Kohl as the apostles of nuclear disarmament… [But] the djinn is now out… every country now pretty much can proliferate. The major threat is of course extremist groups getting hold of nuclear weapons.

So this is not the way. We have to interact with each other… you have to engage India, you have to engage Pakistan…. I think in any disarmament negotiation, India has to be at the table, Pakistan has to be at the table, Israel has to be at the table. It is affection to think these are not nuclear weapons states. To me it is not the question whether you are recognised or not recognised. The reality is that they are weapons states, they have a security threat, and you have to address the security threats, and develop a global security system where everybody feels secure - one that does not rely on nuclear weapons.

Anika: In India, we have had incidents of leaks in nuclear equipment used in medicine, chemotherapy etc. There are obviously gaps between the laws in the books and what is implemented. In countries like India, where a lot of the safeguards are lacking, but the need is great, how can we go about promoting the use of these potentially dangerous technologies for development purposes?

ElBaradei: For every technology you can think of, it could be dangerous, it could be beneficial. I mean, if you look at the chemical industry, you had Bhopal here, for example. If you look at biological agents, you can make medicine, and you can make biological weapons. You just have to make sure that you maximise the benefit, minimise the risk. In the nuclear field, you just have to continue to put more focus on safety, safety culture and ensure that you have redundancies.

Of course, after what is happening in Japan, that is a pause for thought. We need to revisit the entire structure - look at old reactors, look at a safety structure that is designed to what is possible. Nobody expected an earthquake with a Richter scale of 9 and a tsunami. We probably need to shut down old reactors that do not have the kind of safety that we have with the third generation reactors.

Somnath: How far do you go? Suppose we have a reactor in India, should we be prepared for a tsunami or a Richter 10 earthquake? Should it uniform across the world irrespective of your location?

ElBaradei: Well, you cannot just have across-the-board decision. You have to have the highest level of safety, but you have to look at each reactor, is it sitting on an earthquake zone, like in Japan? Have you done every safety plan to be able to cope with anticipated disasters? At the IAEA, I have always put focus on the practices. It is one thing to have safety regulations, it is another to make sure it is adequately implemented.

We have to make an effort as much as possible to increase safety.

Somnath: What was your experience with the Japanese set up…when you were the head of the IAEA, because now there are reports of corruption, cover-ups….

ElBaradei: We have seen a couple of situations of cover ups in the past, and I think these were corrected before. But again, you need to look at that. This is a reactor that is 40 years old. Right now, from the outside, the container is not as good… this is a boiling water reactor, different from a pressurized water reactor.  There are at least 60 or 70 reactors in the US and other places of this type.

But I hate to generalize. I think what we need right now is a global safely review of every single reactor.

Anika: We have reactors in India that aren't running under IAEA safeguards. Do think there is a case first for shutting those down?

ElBaradei: I think you have some reactors for military purpose. Now, under the India-US agreement, which is a good thing, all the reactors in the civil sector will be under IAEA safeguards. I would like to see India as open as possible, as transparent as possible in the safety area. That I think is very important. Of course, it gets very complicated in the military part. But we should be able to find a way to look at safety. Safety is to everybody's benefit.

Somnath: You were talking about advanced reactors. There is talk in India about trying out the EPR reactors in new projects. What are your views on the EPR?

ElBaradei: (Laughs) I don't want say anything because this is a commercial issue. I know that the EPR is a very modern design with double containment. But again, I would not compare different kinds of reactors.

Anika: What specific safety measures does India need to adopt in our reactors today?

ElBaradei: It depends on the reactor, the type of reactor, but we look at operation, we look at redundancy, we look at equipment, we look at training of operators. Safety covers the gamut… That is why we send peer review teams - people from different parts of the world, who can tell you, you can improve here, upgrade there. That is a service I was very much advocating when I was at IAEA. An accident anywhere is an accident everywhere. What is happening in Japan now will have an impact on nuclear power everywhere.

Somnath: Coming back to politics… In this run-up to the elections, do you see countries like India or western democracies in having a role?

ElBaradei: Very much. We haven't lived in a democracy, people don't even know what democracy is about, how to go about elections, how to make sure there is no fraud, how to engage in an electoral campaign. We are novices in all that… I think a country like India - particularly a country like India [could help], because people have their own perceptions about the West having a hidden agenda. I don't anybody will think that India will have a hidden agenda in organizing a move into democracy.
Somnath: How does Israel…. I mean are they happy with your candidacy?

ElBaradei: (laughs) I don't know…think you should ask them! I don't think it is their business frankly, who is going to run. I think they should focus on their own business.  Whether Egypt is a democracy or not, the Middle East will continue to be in turmoil until we have a Palestinian state. The sentiments of the people are not going to change.

Somnath: So the Egyptian peace accord [1979 Israel-Egypt peace accord] is of secondary importance, even if the radicals come to power?

ElBaradei: I don't think the radicals will come to power. And I think the peace accord will stay. We all know the solution is not through confrontation, the solution is through engagement, real engagement. Everybody knows what the solution is! You cannot gulp Palestinian land and say we want peace! I keep telling the Israelis that their security is diminished by what they are doing.

Watch video of his speech at the India Today Conclave

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