Mv Ramana

M. V. Ramana is with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University and the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin 2012)

Click on cover to see the book in

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After all the build-up over the last few weeks, it seems that the best that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could come up with after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was: “Our negotiations towards an agreement for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy have gained momentum in the last few months”. The blandness of the statement suggests that the momentum cannot be all that great and the pace of movement on the agreement is quite slow.

This is reinforced by a comparison to the best that Manmohan Singh and then Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan could say about their meeting in 2010—“encouraged their negotiators to arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement for civil nuclear cooperation at an early date”. The latter statement was issued before the disaster that struck Fukushima on March 11, 2011, and the Japanese Prime Minister was described during that period by the Financial Times as “enthusiastically embracing a new role as salesman for some of his nation’s biggest businesses” which included “high-speed rail, nuclear power and water-related infrastructure systems”.

Much changed after the accidents at the reactors in Fukushima Daichi. One was former Prime Minister Kan’s change of mind and his realization that nuclear reactors are hazardous and that Japan should aim to be “a society… without nuclear power” . The second change is that the majority of Japanese public “want to end the country’s dependence on nuclear power”. The third change is that in India too, there is now significant opposition to nuclear power, especially at all the sites that have been selected for installing reactors imported from companies like Westinghouse, General Electric and Areva.

The primary motivation for a nuclear agreement between Japan and India dates back to the US India nuclear deal. In 2008, William Burns, a senior U.S. diplomat, told the U.S. senate that as its part of the bargain, the Manmohan Singh government had “provided the United States with a strong Letter of Intent, stating its intention to purchase reactors with at least 10,000 megawatts (MW) worth of new power generation capacity from U.S. firms [and] has committed to devote at least two sites to U.S. firms” . Those sites are Mithi Virdi in Gujarat and Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh. We also know thanks to Wikileaks that in 2007, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar told a nuclear trade delegation from the US-India Business Council that “the Jaitapur site in southern Maharashtra would go to the French”. All of these reactors need key components produced in Japan and the Japanese government has to formally allow these exports.

Fisherfolk and villagers in Jaitapur walked for 8kms and courted voluntary arrest on 25th January to protest against India-Japan nuclear agreement. For this world's largest reactor project under construction in Maharashtra, Japanese companies will provide crucial components to the French nuclear giant Areva, and for that a formal agreement with Japan is a requisite.

Fisherfolk and villagers in Sakhri Nate,  Jaitapur walked for 8kms and courted voluntary arrest on 25th January to protest against India-Japan nuclear agreement. For this world’s largest reactor project under construction in Maharashtra, Japanese companies will provide crucial components to the French nuclear giant Areva, and for that a formal agreement with Japan is a requisite.

There is a confluence of interests here. Exports “of nuclear components and technology, as well as conventional arms” are said to be a key element in Prime Minister Abe economic program, dubbed “Abenomics” by many. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl disaster, when the Soviet nuclear industry was desperate to improve its image and Soviet leaders were willing to sell nuclear reactors at concessional prices. The result of that drive was the 1988 agreement to buy the Koodankulam reactor.
We do not know what the Soviet population then thought of that idea, but we do know that the majority of Japanese do not support the export of Japan’s nuclear technologies. A public poll found that a mere 24 percent are in favour of such sales.

Abe’s democratic credentials are evident from his various attempts at peddling reactors despite this overwhelming opposition. In October of last year, Abe reached an agreement with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another head of state who doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned about democratic sentiment, to sell two nuclear reactors. The majority of the Turkish public too opposes the construction of nuclear power plants [See here and here].

All this at a time when TEPCO was struggling—and failing—to contain radioactive water at Fukushima plant. For Prime Minister Abe, not surprisingly, the leaks were not a problem. When trying to persuade the international Olympic committee (IOC) to hold the 2020 Olympics in Japan, Prime Minister Abe said (in Japanese, of course), “It poses no problem whatsoever…There are no health related problems until now, nor will there be in the future…I make the statement to you in the most emphatic and unequivocal way”. So it is no surprise that as radioactive water leaked from Fukushima, Prime Minister Abe has led sales promotions in at least 21 countries.

His current sales trip to India comes just after the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) acknowledged for the first time, nearly three years after the accident started, that water was leaking from the reactor containment vessel in Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. According to Tatsujiro Suzuki, the vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), “the leakage is a significant finding [and] could indicate that the Unit 3 containment vessel has significant damage”.

The continued leaks are risky. The escape of radioactive materials into the soil and the sea at Fukushima adds to the hazards to human and marine health from the accident. This means that estimates made so far of the likely long-term total health and environmental effects of Fukushima are necessarily incomplete, even if future contributions to the total radiation dose may not add significantly to the already incurred dose. Or it may. Trying to control a hazardous technology such as nuclear power is always linked to the possibility of failures and errors, and events going disastrously wrong.

While this possibility of disastrous accidents should be evident to anyone who examines the long history of accidents at nuclear facilities, Prime Ministers Abe and Singh continue to reassure the public with promises to “make our nuclear power generation increasingly safe” and to “ensure that the safety and livelihoods of people are not jeopardised in our pursuit of nuclear power”.

These assurances don’t reassure. Abe’s visit provoked widespread protests against the proposed agreement and for a change these were actually covered by the mainstream press. As most of those in protest presumably realize, the primary goal should be to have the idea of reactors at Jaitapur and Mithi Virdi and Kovvada abandoned. And there is some hope for that. Recently even the nuclear establishment seems to have realized that the cost of imported reactors is prohibitively high and the secretive “negotiations” they have been involved in for several years now don’t seem to be making the price come down to anywhere close what they think they can get away with. One hopes that the opposition that developed before the Abe visit will, like the negotiations of the would-be Indo-Japanese agreement, gain momentum and force the government to call off the entire idea of importing nuclear reactors.