At bottom, the unrest in Jaitapur is not about the prospective Areva nuclear park and its perils but rather about angry locals feeling cheated and is akin to the agitations in Singur, Nandigram, and several other locations identified for big industrial projects. Beneath the hullabaloo, it is the prospect of disturbed livelihoods and the supposedly paltry sums being paid the locals for their land that sparked disturbances. But the recent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex has handed protestors the club to beat the government with. It has left the far graver issues of the affordability and sustainability of the nuclear electricity-driven atomic energy program unaddressed.
Alone among all nuclear weapon states, India did it straight. It developed a broad-based nuclear energy science and technology programme first and obtained weapons as a side benefit. This last required no diversion of effort and little additional investment, but the programme ensured the most economical use of scarce public monies and efficient deployment of the even scarcer resource – skilled manpower. Hence, to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s query, post-1974 test, about the cost of the atom bomb, the head of the Physics Group at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, and later Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr P.K. Iyengar, replied it had cost nothing. Unlike India, however, every other nuclear weapon state inverted the thrust — seeding a nuclear weapons project and then building a larger programme around it. With national security as rationale, cost was no consideration and the programmes in all these countries naturally evolved with weapons design and production as the core.
In India’s case, the unique trajectory of the Indian programme convinced three generations of Indian scientists and engineers that nuclear security was extraneous to their primary tasks of nation-building-cum-development activity involving provision of cheap electricity, affordable nuclear medicine, cost-sensitive irradiation techniques to extend the shelf life of grains and vegetables, and what not. Except, disarmament and “peaceful uses of the atom” constituted the rhetorical policy shield behind which Jawaharlal Nehru nursed the weapons capability. Not understanding Nehru’s motivation has prevented the nuclear establishment and the Indian government from dispassionately considering how best to utilize the country’s nuclear energy programme for the future.
The early optimism about the peaceful atom was, of course, misplaced. What was also not anticipated were the exorbitant price tags for all civilian nuclear applications. Worse, the environmental dangers posed by nuclear reactors were insufficiently appreciated. Such as the spread of radioactivity, prospectively, from the vast amounts of stored spent low enriched uranium fuel generated by innumerable LWRs (light water reactors) as in Fukushima. As were the problems associated with decommissioning such LWRs by vitrification or entombment in cement, which is as expensive a business as commissioning them, and takes just as long. Their import at humungous cost – just the six French Areva reactors of doubtful provenance for Jaitapur will cost in excess of Rs 70,000 crores – will, moreover, mostly enrich foreign nuclear industries. Considering the problems and high costs in train, compoundable in case of mishaps, nuclear power plants are more liability than boon, which fact no safety reviews ordered by Dr Manmohan Singh can change.
The Prime Minister has called for “coolheaded discussions” on the future of nuclear energy once the current hysteria subsides. But he has expended too much foreign policy capital, made too many executive commitments with nuclear supplier countries, to rethink his policy of meeting the energy deficit by importing LWRs. It has eventuated in the phantasmagorical and plainly ridiculous plan the Department of Atomic Energy has drafted with an eye, it seems, to helping Dr Singh service his civilian nuclear fixation. The scheme envisages nuclear power production totalling 208,000 MW by 2052 with a 1,000 MW plant sited every 55 kms along the 7,000 km long coastline! Other than any man-made or natural disaster striking these plants, no one, apparently, has thought about the nearly insurmountable security problems these plants will create and, even less, about the resulting impossibly high unit cost of electricity.
In this context, the Indian government’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy is, perhaps, not puzzling. Unless the goal is for the ruling party to rake in the “commissions”, there is a better solution. Give a fillip to the indigenous nuclear industry and, in the process, amortize public investment in this sector by selling the home-grown 220MW pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) to energy-hungry developing states under international safeguards. This export revenue stream can make the country’s nuclear programme self-sustaining and finance the implementation of the 1955 three stage Bhabha Plan for genuine energy independence. Instead, some 65 years on, India’s nuclear energy programme is being pulled back into becoming a dependency of Western supplier countries and the poor taxpayer is paying hugely for this move, even as the development of second stage breeder and third stage thorium reactor technologies is being starved of funds.
It is still not too late for India to unlearn the nonsensical demand and supply energy arithmetic and follow the lead given by other nuclear weapon states: Designate ever more advanced weaponry as the central mission of its nuclear energy programme. Such a singular thrust, moreover, will provide ample political cover for India to focus on developing the technological competence to where the country’s thorium reserves – the world’s largest, can be exploited for electricity and, in the interim, to install advanced PHWR capacity, fired by the albeit small domestic reserves of uranium, as the bridge via the breeder stage to the thorium reactor. It will require, in the main, Delhi to discard the impedimenta of its declaratory nuclear policy and commitments. Freed of the non-proliferation cant and the system of self-imposed restraints the government has foolishly adopted, India can yoke the atom to national interest and, primarily, military purpose as the United States, China, Britain, France, North Korea, and Pakistan have done. Sadly, our political class lacks the “big power” vision, historical sense, strategic self-confidence, and the guts to change its short-sighted nuclear policy and shrug off the inevitable Western pressure against such transformation.
[Published in ‘The Asian Age’& ‘The Deccan Chronicle’ April 28, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/nuclear-independence-613 ]