Monday, May 16, 2011


Why is it imperative to escalate nuclear activity in India against all safety logic and the declared wishes of the Indian people? Suvrat Raju and MV Ramana, physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, unpack the puzzle.

In the mid-2008, during the parliamentary debate on the trust vote, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee explained that the Nuclear Deal was essential to avoid a cataclysmic shortage of power in the future. Without the deal, he claimed, by 2050 “our energy deficit would be 412,000 megawatts”.  Mukherjee then went on to tell Parliament that, by a curious coincidence, the deal would provide India with almost exactly this amount of power and “reduce the deficit... to only 7,000 megawatts.” In other words, the deal would allow the Government to embark on a frenzy of nuclear construction amounting to roughly two-and-a-half times the country’s total current installed power generation capacity in four decades.

In fact, estimates of both the deficits and contribution of nuclear power were questionable and seemed engineered to influence the debate on the deal. In 2008, Anil Kakodkar, secretary of the DAE, presented these figures for the first time in a talk in Bangalore where he also claimed that the deal would allow India to expand its nuclear programme by more than a hundred times by 2050. The history of nuclear energy in India offers no precedent for such an increase, although it does provide many examples of grand pronouncements. The first secretary of the DAE, Homi Bhabha, predicted that India would produce 18–20,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear power by 1987; when 1987 came around, India’s nuclear power production capacity was stuck at 512 MW—less than 3 per cent of Bhabha’s projection. In the 1980s, the DAE launched a ‘profile’, claiming that it would install 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity by 2000, but the Comptroller and Auditor General’s review of this programme in 1998 found that the ‘the actual additional generation of power… was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5,291.48 crore’.

Not only have no lessons been learnt from these past failures, but, on independent grounds, the DAE’s current projections are technically infeasible. They rely on untested technology, and are based on erroneous calculations. Given this background, there are good reasons to doubt both the projections of energy shortage for 2050 and the ability of nuclear power to meet it. However, even the process of trying to set up nuclear power capacity to the extent possible imposes many economic and non-economic costs on society that India can scarcely afford.

The key feature of the deal was that it gave India access to nuclear technology in the international market. The Government plans to use this new freedom to import several large reactors from the very countries that helped secure the deal, including of course the US but also France and Russia. France seems to be first in line. The six reactors that the Government has promised to import and install at Jaitapur are called EPRs and are being sold by a French company called Areva. Each EPR—an abbreviation for Evolutionary or European  Pressurised Reactor—will produce 1,650 MW, which is almost one-third of India’s total nuclear-power-generating capacity today, and about four times as much as that of the Fukushima-Daiichi I reactor.

The Government’s hurry to seal this deal has been puzzling because no EPR is in commercial operation anywhere in the world. Apart from two EPRs in China, where construction has not advanced particularly, there are two other EPRs under construction in Olkiluoto (Finland) and Flamanville (France). These two have already run up costs of over $7 billion apiece. In the US, the EPR is caught up in regulatory hurdles. It has not cleared the regulatory process in Britain either.

Why then would India rush to buy these exorbitant reactors from France? The answer was laid out clearly by Kakodkar. Writing for Sakaal Times, in Marathi, he candidly explained that ‘we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there… America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects’.

In fact, the nurturing of foreign business interests has been of such importance to the Indian Government that it has often been willing to take away the rights of its own citizens. Before they sell anything to India, these companies would like to wash their hands off the consequences of any disaster at their reactors. To enable this, the Government spent the entire 2010 monsoon session of Parliament passing a nuclear liability law whose primary purpose was to prevent victims from being able to sue suppliers for compensation in the event of an accident.

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