India’s nuclear power problem

Recent people’s protest movements at Jaitpur (Maharashtra), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh), Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) and Haripur (West Bengal) have shown how ‘national’ nuclear power projects are increasingly coming into clash with ‘local’ stakeholders’ livelihoods and land rights. As with power plants, local people are also becoming restive about uranium mining and milling. While the largest vein deposits in Singhbhum and Jaduguda are older projects and had the benefit of common people not knowing their implications, recent projects in Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have faced people’s ire resulting in disastrous delays and cost-overruns.

Heavy Water — the third key element of nuclear power — has also had hiccups though Heavy Water reactors had been India’s hot favourite from the very beginning. All this has led to reactors working on low capacity and facing shut downs and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) staying happy with turnkey projects and imports. Expensive plutonium separation from used fuel rods continues to be justified for its ‘tremendous potential’ for treating hazardous radioactive waste and for unlocking the huge energy reserves of low-grade uranium and thorium resources through breeder reactors to unfold India’s nuclear renaissance.

Nuclear genie continues to be the symbol of progress and power and our scientific and political leadership continues to vouch for its cost-effective and indigenous nature. It reminds one of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ of 1950s and the famous prognoses of Lewis Strauss, President Eisenhower’s Chairman of US Atomic Energy Commission, who once called it source of energy “too cheap to meter.”

The Power of Promise highlights how DAE continues to rely on future projections with zero correlation to its past accomplishments. From its original target of 10,000 MW by year 2000, to its revised target of 20,000 MW by 2020 since 1984, the heated debates on Indo-US nuclear deal were to make Cabinet Minister for Power, Sushilkumar Shinde declare that, against existing 4120 MW for 2008, “the U.S. will help us add 40,000 MW of nuclear power by the year 2020.” Atomic Energy Chairman Anil Kakodkar was to pitch in predicting, how by 2050, the share of nuclear power will constitute 20 to 35 per cent of electricity generation though it now stood at less than 3 per cent.

But it was for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to top it all. At the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in New Delhi in September 2009 he prophesied: “India would have 470 GW of nuclear power by mid-century” which was one-hundred times that of India’s current total. It is this penchant for making unrealisable projections that triggered Ramana’s research into evaluating DAE’s history.

Take the case of recently-in-news Koodankulam. The deal for two 1000 MW VVER-1000 Soviet reactors was originally signed in November 1988. This was soon after the notorious 1986 Chernobyl accident as also in the face of this reactor’s disastrous track records in Bulgaria and Czech Republic which had destroyed Soviet reputation.

DAE did not take into consideration the fact that Koodankulam lies at the edge of the Gulf of Mannar, one of the world’s richest marine biodiversity areas. The hot water discharged after cooling nuclear reactors is likely to affect adversely this precious biological reserve. Not just Environmental Impact Assessments are flawed but popular protests were met with either neglect or use of force.

DAE’s real institutional power, says Ramana, comes from its ability to addresses States’ basic need for legitimacy by promising “military security and development” at the same time. He shows how the DAE leadership was aware of this unique advantage and as early as in 1955 when Bhabha recruited a young doctorate from University of Paris, Vasudevya, and sent him to Saclay laboratories near Paris to learn about ‘polonium’ — a chemical element used to trigger a nuclear explosive device. Ramana does not dwell on this and refers to George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb (2002).

Bhabha also used his old friends from Cambridge. Sir John Cockcroft, an important figure in British atomic research establishment, helped him procure engineering drawings, technical data, and enriched uranium fuel rods for building “a completely indigenous” Apsara reactor so admired by Nehru. Second reactor CIRUS was facilitated in by W. Bennettthen a senior official in Atomic Energy of Canada. Notorious American company Vittro International — which had suffered multiple failures in US — got the contract of India’s first heavy water plant near Nangal (Punjab) along with Di Nora of Italy, English Electric of UK and De Gussa from Germany. And again, “indigenously starting from scratch” is how DAE described it.

But there is more to it than mere cunning and inefficiency. Nuclear Power, Economic Development Discourse and the Environment: The Case of India (Manu Mathai 2013) explains this fatal attraction for nuclear power as integral to modern megamachine societies that see modernity as a linear process premised on powerful patronage of science by State. The National Politics of Nuclear Power (Benjamin Sovacool and Scott Valentine 2012) shows how inability to justify enormous funding for poor performance of nuclear power and inability to justify such investments in the name of nuclear weapons led Indian elite to calibrate songs of “nuclear non-alignment” and “nuclear apartheid” to celebrate liberation and equality. In Nucleus and Nation (Robert Anderson 2010) alludes to corruption and infighting within the scientific community and lack of political vision resulting in loss of talent (e.g. Noble laureate Hargobind Khorana or Meghnath Saha) and opportunities.

This political inaptness made slick scientists promise power generation and weaponisation that no other agency could offer, and the resultant political clout has been used by the DAE to bypass democracy. Besides, the DAE has been building other niches namely, seeking to export of indigenous reactors as also to producing other forms of energy beyond electricity. Recent climate change debates have brought another lease of life projecting nuclear power as less carbon-intensive and therefore environment friendly. The result is that DEA’s budget of Rs. 5,880 crore for 2013-14 is almost thirty-times up from its 1997-98 budget of Rs. 200 crore when India entered the nuclear league.

Narrower perspective

Given his training, Ramana fails to sufficiently underline the politics which is what finally determines all discourse on technology. Understandably, in view of popular imaginations of nuclear revolution being symbolised by mushroom cloud and radiation its enormous civilian spin-offs or political capital is not easy to publicise or internalise in scholarly writings. Ramana here falls prey to conventional superiority of hard sciences and advocacy and underplays its politics as superfluous, if not demeaning.

Other than counting in its tangible spin-offs, a balanced evaluation of nuclear power calls for contextualising it i.e. putting it in comparison with other sectors and with comparable other countries. It must also take into account the intangibles like power and prestige that have turned India from being an outcast to a partner of global nuclear sheriffs. In March 1983 President Reagan had proposed for gigantic Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) promising to make US impregnable to enemy missiles. Thirty years later, US is yet operationalise even its initial technologies but SDI is credited to having exasperated former Soviet Union leading to its collapse thus making the US the sole surviving superpower of twenty-first century. The impact of India’s projections as market for nuclear reactors worth $150 billion has transformed India’s image far too much to be marginalised as puerile.

The Power of Promise, Examining Nuclear Energy in India: M. V. Ramana; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 699.

( Swaran Singh is Professor for Diplomacy & Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 6:52:31 PM |

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