Dr M.V. Ramana is a nuclear physicist who works in Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Programme on Science and Global Security, both at Princeton University. Author of several books on nuclear energy, Ramana recently published The Power of Promise: Explaining Nuclear Energy in India. Excerpts from an interview with RASHMEE SEHGAL

India has made various choices that allow Pakistani hawks to make arguments for increasing their fissile material production—PTI

India has made various choices that allow Pakistani hawks to make arguments for increasing their fissile material production—PTI

Q: Have we in the sub-continent become prisoners of the nuclear dream? Would you say the sustained agitation in Jaitapur and Kudankulam has helped introduce a sharp degree of scepticism around India’s nuclear programme.
A: I think that the nuclear dream is not new and has existed in some form or the other for decades. However, the sustained protest movements in Jaitapur and especially Kudankulam has raised important questions about the social costs of a nuclear expansion.

Q: Can India afford a rapid increase in nuclear energy given the rising costs and also its safety record?
A: The high costs of imported nuclear reactors as well as fast breeder reactors, which constitute the second stage of the three stage programme, imply that a large scale expansion of nuclear power will be incredibly expensive, and unaffordable. For example, the cost of the six proposed EPR reactors at the Jaitapur site is expected to be upwards of `3 lakh crores. The inherent hazards associated with nuclear reactors and deficiencies in the safety culture of the nuclear establishment imply that there is a significant risk associated with each new reactor operated. Thus, the more the number of reactors, the more the risk of a catastrophic accident.

Q: Why is so little known about DAE’s accident record and why is there a veil of secrecy around its programmes?
A: There is some secrecy associated with the nuclear programme, but I think it primarily affects discussions about performance and costs. I have detailed several instances of such secrecy in my book. In terms of the accident record, I think the greater reason for the lack of awareness of the safety hazards is the constant propaganda that DAE officials engage in. They have repeatedly claimed that there is simply no chance of an accident at any nuclear reactor in India. Even though that claim is scientifically not tenable, by being repeated frequently, it creates the impression that all is well.

Q: Again, the problem of disposing of nuclear waste has not been discussed publicly by the DAE?
A: In its public discussions, the DAE has never acknowledged that nuclear waste disposal could be a problem. Its standard response when the question is raised is that they do not consider spent fuel as waste but “a resource to extract plutonium from”. Moreover, they state that reprocessing of spent fuel and vitrification of high level waste is a solution to the whole problem of radioactive spent fuel. But vitrification only helps with storing the high level waste rather than destroying any radioactivity which also has to be disposed off. Reprocessing has various problems associated with it, including the release of low-level radioactive waste into the environment.

Q: India has declining coal and gas energy while the cost of installing renewables is also on the rise. Nuclear energy has been projected a reliable and steady source of energy for an energy-starved nation?
A: Actually the cost of electricity from renewables has been decreasing, and their contribution to electricity generation in India, as well as a number of other countries, has been increasing relatively rapidly, albeit from a small base. Nuclear energy can be described as a steady source, but only in the sense that its share of total energy generation has remained fairly consistent at around 2 to 3 per cent for a couple of decades. Even if it expands, remember that all other sources of electricity generation are also expanding. Therefore, nuclear power is unlikely to become a major source of electricity generation in India for decades.
Q: If, as our book has made out, nuclear energy is risk-prone and uneconomical, why was an economist politician like Manmohan Singh willing to risk the survival of his government to push the Indo-US nuclear deal ?
A: I don’t think Manmohan Singh was acting like a hard-nosed economist in pursuing the US-India deal. Instead, his greatest emphasis seems to be on building a sense of trust and credibility with the United States. The importance of this characteristic to the United States is explained by physicist Suvrat Raju thus: “Credible governments are those that do not allow domestic political compulsions to prevent them from adhering to American interests”. Thus, he is still pursuing the idea of importing a number of nuclear reactors, even though they are expensive and untested, without subjecting them to public scrutiny.

Q: Your earlier book Bombing Bombay talked about the enormous loss of life that would entail if Bombay was bombed by a nuclear device? Can such a scenario unfold, given that Pakistan is building up its stockpile?
A: Yes, of course, there is always that risk. While I don’t condone Pakistan’s building up of its fissile material, one must remember that the India has led the arms race in south Asia, and has made various choices that allow Pakistani hawks to make arguments for increasing their fissile material production. Specifically, during the course of the negotiations of the US-India nuclear deal, India got away with keeping its prototype fast breeder reactor outside of safeguards, precisely because it had “strategic” uses, code for saying that it could be used to make about 30 weapons worth of plutonium for the nuclear arsenal. This unsafeguarded source of plutonium as well as the accumulated quantities of reactor-grade plutonium are among Pakistan’s reasons for not stopping its own production.

Q: Is our nuclear energy meant for civilian purposes or is there a strong likelihood that it can be used to make bombs as well?
A: The DAE’s programme is deliberately both a source of weapons materials and nuclear electricity. I don’t think it can be said to be either purely for peaceful or purely for weapons purposes. Though some of its nuclear reactors are under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards, there are still several reactors classified as strategic. Thus, even if these are not being utilised to make plutonium for weapon right now but the DAE would like to keep its options open.