Dennis Riches | NF2045 Blog

In late July and early August, a leading member of India’s Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Kumar Sundaram, visited several Japanese cities in order to speak to the mass media and Japanese citizens about the proposed Japan-India nuclear energy agreement. He timed his visit to Japan to precede that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of August. Modi will meet with his Japanese counterpart in hopes of finalizing a deal to allow the purchase of vital components of nuclear power plants that are proposed or under construction.

Sundaram foreign correspondents club

Mr. Sundaram wished to draw attention to numerous problematic aspects of India’s nuclear energy ambitions, negative aspects which the mass media, intellectuals and politicians have failed to criticize sufficiently.

On July 31, Mr. Sundaram gave a press conference in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. During his hour at the microphone, he gave a detailed explanation as to why he believes the plans for nuclear energy development in India will lead to disastrous consequences for both India and foreign countries. This report summarizes the information given by Mr. Sundaram, with additional background information and commentary.

The Nuclear Energy — Nuclear Weapons Connection

Since India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, it has had pariah status as a nuclear power. Like Pakistan and Israel, it possesses nuclear weapons but never signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In response to India’s first test of a nuclear weapon, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was formed by Canada, West Germany, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in order to stop exports of nuclear technology to countries that refused to sign onto the NPT. In 1998, after another nuclear test, India faced further sanction, but the pressure decreased after Western nations shifted their emphasis to “the war on terror.” At the same time, their nuclear energy suppliers grew more interested in exporting nuclear technology to developing nations, and the Indian market was too tempting to ignore. During the G.W. Bush presidency, ways were found to skirt around the problems with India’s status as an intransigent possessor of nuclear weapons, and thus the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement came into force in 2008. This waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still permitted to engage in nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.

In addition to the US deal, India now has bilateral arrangements with France, Canada, Russia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and Australia. The present push for a Japan-India agreement could be seen as a multi-lateral effort that aims to facilitate nuclear deals for multinational corporations.

The preferential treatment for India set an obvious dangerous precedent. It signaled to other nations that there was a double standard, and it suggested that if they too defy international agreements to not develop nuclear weapons, they merely need to endure rogue status until pragmatic considerations force other nations to legitimize their nuclear power status. It signaled to China that the US was tacitly approving India’s nuclear weapon status in order to have a strategic balance to China in the region. It signaled the same to Pakistan, with the added message that its political instability would prevent it from getting the same treatment as India.

In spite of the opening for nuclear energy created by the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement, there was still a drawback in the works. The major American corporations that want to build India’s reactors have become American-Japanese hybrids such as GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse-Toshiba. Other corporations building plants in India are dependent on parts from these companies. In order for construction to proceed, a Japan-India deal is necessary, but traditionally Japan has taken a hard line against nuclear weapons proliferation, the obvious reason being its status as the only victim of nuclear weapons in an act of war.

The present Japanese government is willing to abandon the strong stance on disarmament and non-proliferation and instead just pay lip service to the issue, as it did this month with regard to the 69th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Times of India reported that on August 10th, the foreign ministers of India and Japan, Sushma Swaraj and Fumio Kishida, met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum to exchange what, to my skeptical eye, was no more than cynical pieties regarding the Hiroshima memorial. The Times report played up the fact that Kishida is from Hiroshima, as if that necessarily makes one sincere on nuclear proliferation issues. Then it portrayed an Indian parliamentary observance of silence for Hiroshima as a blessing by the people of both countries for everything that the two nations are planning to do with regard to nuclear energy development. After this brief ritual of mutual flattery, both ministers emphasized it was time to cut to the chase, to finally sign a civilian nuclear trade deal, regardless of the numerous valid objections their own citizens have.

No matter how much the Indian and Japanese governments would like to pretend otherwise, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are inextricably linked, especially in South Asia. For India, the primary motive for pursuing nuclear energy is to obtain legitimacy for its nuclear weapons. In this pursuit, all other considerations have been ignored. The government has not considered whether nuclear energy is worth pursuing in terms of its social, environmental and economic costs.

Neglecting safety, local opposition, environmental damage, economic viability, and the decline of nuclear energy in developed nations

Mr. Sundaram pointed out that even among various Indian government agencies the methods of developing nuclear energy have not been unanimously approved. Official environmental reviews have raised strong objections. Even among those who are, in general, supportive or undecided about nuclear power have voiced objections about the methods and the scale of the nuclear expansion. Nonetheless, diplomatic imperatives always sideline these concerns.

For example, after the Bhopal disaster, laws were strengthened to make foreign corporations liable for the damage they may cause, but these laws are now being rolled back in order to please the corporations that are building nuclear reactors. The citizens’ right to information is being curtailed for the benefit of foreign corporations as well. The comptroller and auditor general raised severe concerns about nuclear regulation, and secretaries from eight ministries said they are not in a position to deal with a nuclear emergency. Local opposition to plant construction has been brutally oppressed, with trumped up charges of vandalism and violence laid on peaceful protesters. Five thousand people have been charged with sedition because the government now construes opposition to nuclear energy as treason. Nonetheless, the protests continue. Security agencies now keep files on organizations such as the Coalition for Nuclear Peace and Disarmament (CNDP), Greenpeace, and individual activists (including Mr. Sundaram) because they are defined as threats to national economic security. If they obtain funding or cooperate in any way with groups and activists abroad, they are viewed all the more as traitors.

During the question period after the news conference, I asked Mr. Sundaram to speak about the front end and back end of the nuclear cycle; that is, to describe India’s record in dealing with safety and environmental issues in uranium mining and processing, and issues in the disposal of nuclear waste. He said there have been significant health and environmental impacts from mining, all documented by independent scientists, but the government has continued with complete unaccountability. As for the waste problem, the government is in “complete denial,” asserting even that there won’t be any waste to worry about for another thirty years.

Mr. Sundaram concluded by emphasizing that the pursuit of nuclear energy is an anachronism. India has been targeted by multinational corporations who can no longer make profits from nuclear energy in the countries where they built plants in the past. In this sense, India might be the lynchpin that the global nuclear industry is depending on for its survival. Indian elites are allowing themselves to be used in this way in order to legitimize the nation’s status as a nuclear power, but they have failed to consider whether it is necessary for any other reason. Since India has a chronic trade deficit, these very expensive, high technology deals will be financed by debt that the country cannot afford. Nuclear energy should be opposed in India because it is an undemocratic, unsafe, uneconomic, unaccountable expansion of a technology that will bring horrors and great costs on the nation’s most vulnerable people.