A ‘Nuclear Renaissance’, Climate Change and the State of Exception

Salvador Dali's Painting: Three Sphinx of Bikini

In Jaitapur, we have already seen how the local village Panchayats (representative self-governance bodies) are gagged and overruled to clear way for Areva’s nuclear power park. Ironically, India’s nuclear deal with the US was touted as a deal between world’s oldest and biggest democracies. Read below Dr. Raminder Kaur’s brilliant analysis on how nuclear discourse becomes totalizing, more so when it meets the official discourses on climate change.



Increasingly, nation-states such as China, France, Russia, Britain and India are promoting the nuclear option: firstly, as the main large-scale solution to developing economies, growing populations, and increasing demands for a consumer-led lifestyle, and secondly, in order to tend to environmental concerns of global warming and climate change.[i] India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, speaking at a conference of atomic scientists in Delhi, for instance, announced a hundred-fold increase to 470,000 megawatts of energy that could come from Indian nuclear power stations by 2050. He said, ‘This will sharply reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and will be a major contribution to global efforts to combat climate change, adding that Asia was seeing a huge spurt in “nuclear plant building” for these reasons (Ramesh 2009).The Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster of March 2011 has, for the time being at least, dented some nation-state’s nuclear power programmes. In India, however, the government has declared that it has commissioned further safety checks whilst continuing its nuclear development as before.

About the Author

Dr. Raminder Kaur is Senior Lecturer in University of Sussex, London (Anthropology, Centre for Migration Research).

Find more about her at the University website

This article was originally published in TAJA: The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 2011

Whilst the ‘carbon lobby’, including the fossil-fuels industries, stand to gain by undermining the validity of global warming, it appears that the ‘nuclear lobby’ benefits enormously from the growing body of evidence for human-based global warming. This situation has led to a significant nuclear renaissance with the promotion of nuclear power as ‘clean and green energy’. John Ritch, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, goes so far as to describe the need to embrace nuclear power as a ‘global and environmental imperative’, for ‘Humankind cannot conceivably achieve a global clean-energy revolution without a huge expansion of nuclear power’ (Ritch nd). To similar ends, India’s Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, remarked, ‘It is paradoxical that environmentalists are against nuclear energy’ (Deshpande 2009). With a subtle sleight of hand, nuclear industries are able to promote themselves as environmentally beneficial whilst continuing business-as-usual at an expansive rate.

Such global and national views on climate change are threatening to monopolise the entire environmentalist terrain where issues to do with uranium and thorium mining, the ecological costs of nuclear power plant construction, maintenance, operation and decommissioning, the release of water coolant, and the transport and storage of radioactive waste are held as subsidiary considerations to the threat of climate change. Basing much of my evidence in India, I note how the conjunction of nuclear power and climate change has lodged itself in the public imagination and is consequently in a powerful position, creating a ‘truth regime’ favoured both by the nuclear lobby and those defenders of climate change who want more energy without restructuration of market-influenced economies or changes in consumerist lifestyle. The urgency of climate change discourses further empower what I call the ‘nuclear state of exception’ which, in turn, lends credence to the veracity of human-centric global warming.

The Nuclear State of Exception

Although Giorgio Agamben’s (2005) work on the normalisation of exceptional state practice has been much cited, it would appear that Robert Jungk anticipated some of his main axioms. Jungk outlines how the extraordinary, as it pertains to the state’s possession of nuclear weapons and the development of atomic industries since the mid-1940s, became the ordinary (Jungk 1979: 58). When associated with nuclear weapons, the state operates under the guise of a paradigm of security which promises ‘peace’ in terms of a nuclear deterrence to other countries, and also legitimates the excesses of state conduct whilst abrogating citizens’ rights in the name of ‘national security’. Jungk adds that, in fact, state authoritarianism applied to all nation-states with nuclear industries: ‘Nuclear power was first used to make weapons of total destruction for use against military enemies, but today it even imperils citizens in their own country, because there is no fundamental difference between atoms for peace and atoms for war’ (Jungk 1979: vii). The inevitable spread of technological know-how through a range of international networks and the effects of the US’ ‘atoms for peace’ program in the 1950s led to a greater number of nations constructing institutions for civilian nuclear power, a development that was later realised to enable uranium enrichment for the manufacture of weapons.

Due to the indeterminacy between atoms for peace and atoms for war, the nuclear industries began to play a key part in several nations’ security policies, both externally with reference to other states, and also internally with reference to objectors and suspected anti-national contingents. Jungk notes ‘the important social role of nuclear energy in the decline of the constitutional state into the authoritarian nuclear state’ by focusing on a range of indicators, including a report published by the American National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice in 1977 which suggested that:

in view of the ‘high vulnerability of technical civilization’, emergency legislation should be introduced making it possible temporarily to ignore constitutional safeguards without previous congressional debate or consultation with the Supreme Court. (1979: 135)

The bio-techno-political mode of governance encapsulates subjects into its folds such that it becomes a ‘technical civilisation’ – a civilisation that, although promising favourable aspects of modernity to the populace and development for the country, is also to be accompanied by several risks to human and environmental safety that propel states including democracies further towards authoritarianism. ‘Big science’ – that is, science that is centralised or at least circumscribed by the state – and the bureaucracies surrounding it play a critical part in the normalisation of the state of exception, and the exercise of even more power over their citizens.

Jungk elaborates on the routinisation of nuclear state violence, epistemological, juridical and physical:

Such measures will be justified, not as temporary measures made necessary by an exceptional emergency … but by the necessity of providing permanent protection for a perpetually endangered central source of energy that is regarded as indispensable. A nuclear industry means a permanent state of emergency justified by a permanent threat. (1979: 135)

This permanent state of emergency with respect to anything nuclear applies to restrictions on citizens’ freedom, the surveillance and criminalisation of critics and campaigners, the justification of the mobilisation of thousands of policemen and sometimes military to deal with peaceful demonstrators against nuclear power, and a hegemony on ‘truth-claims’ where the nuclear industries are held as the solution to growing power needs whilst advancing themselves as climate change environmentalists. In this way, power structures and lifestyles need not be altered where nuclear power becomes, ironically, a powerful mascot of ‘clean and green’ energy.

This permanent state of emergency with respect to anything nuclear applies to restrictions on citizens’ freedom, the surveillance and criminalisation of critics and campaigners, the justification of the mobilisation of thousands of policemen and sometimes military to deal with peaceful demonstrators against nuclear power, and a hegemony on ‘truth-claims’ where the nuclear industries are held as the solution to growing power needs whilst advancing themselves as climate change environmentalists. In this way, power structures and lifestyles need not be altered where nuclear power becomes, ironically, a powerful mascot of ‘clean and green’ energy.

In India, the capitalist modality of the nuclear state was exacerbated by the ratification of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement in 2008, a bilateral accord which enables those countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to provide material and technology for India’s civilian nuclear operations even though it is not a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. This has led to an expansion of the nuclear industries in the country where the limited indigenous resources of uranium could then be siphoned into the nuclear weapons industries. The imposition of the nuclear state hand-in-hand with multinational corporations in regions such as Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu (with the Russian nuclear company, Atomstroyexport), Haripur in West Bengal (with the Russian company, Rosatom) or Jaitapur in Maharashtra (with the French company, Areva), without due consultation with residents around the proposed nuclear power plants, has prompted S. P. Udayakumar (2009) to recall an earlier history of colonisation describing the contemporary scenario as an instance of ‘nucolonization (nuclear + colonization)’.

The Indian nuclear state, with its especial mooring in central government, has conducted environmental enquiries primarily for itself – and this so in only a summary fashion. In a context where the Ministry of Environment and Forests can override the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the first two nuclear reactors at Koodankulam in 2001, saying that the decision was first made in the 1980s before the EIA Notification Act (1994); or where the Supreme Court of India can dismiss a petition against the construction of these reactors simply by saying: ‘There is no reason as to why this court should sit in appeal over the Governmental decision relating to a policy matter more so, when crores of rupees having [sic] been invested’ (cited in Goyal 2002), then there is a strong basis upon which to consider the Indian state as a whole as a nuclearised state – that is, a state wherein matters relating to nuclear issues are given inordinate leeway across the board. The nuclear enclave consisting of scientists, bureaucrats and politicians, is both the exception to and the rule that underpins the rest of state practice. So even though we may be talking about a domain of distinct governmental practice and political technology as encapsulated by the notion of a nuclear state, it is evident that its influence spreads beyond the nuclear domain in a discourse of nuclearisation through state-related stratagems which have become increasingly authoritarian and defence-orientated since the late 1990s. In a nutshell, discourses about the urgency of climate change, global warming, nuclear power and defence have converged in a draconian and oppressive manner that now parades itself as the necessary norm for the nation.



Despite their particularities, machinations of the Indian nuclear state are also notable elsewhere. Joseph Masco elaborates on the ‘national-security state’ in the USA (2008: 14). Tony Hall comments upon the ‘defence-dominated, well-cushioned [nuclear] industry’ in the UK (1996: 10). And on the recent issue of the construction of more nuclear power stations in Britain, David Ockwell observes that a public hearing was only undertaken for ‘instrumental reasons (i.e. it was a legal requirement), as demonstrated by a public statement by then prime minister Tony Blair that the consultation “won’t affect the policy at all”’ (2008: 264). These narratives are familiar across the board where a nuclear renaissance is apparent. But critics continue to dispute the hijacking of environmentalism by the state, and argue that if climate change is the problem, then nuclear power is by no means a solution. Moreover, the half-life of radioactive waste cannot be brushed away in a misplaced vindication of the saying, ‘out of sight, out of mind’.





Agamben, G. 2005. State of Exception. Trans. K. Attel. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bidwai, P., A. Vanaik. 1999. South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Deshpande, V. 2009. It is paradoxical that environmentalists are against nuclear energy: Jairam Ramesh’. The Hindu, November 29. http://www.hindu.com/2010/11/29/stories/2010112962601300.htm

Goyal, S. L. 2002. Court Master c/o The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice R.P. Sethi and Mr. Justice Arijit Pasayat, writ petition (civil) no.286/2002.

Hall, T. 1996. Nuclear Politics: The History of Nuclear Power in Britain.Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Jungk, R. 1979. The Nuclear State. Trans. E. Mosbacher. London: John Calder.

Masco, J. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ockwell, D. 2008. ‘Opening Up’ policy to reflexive appraisal: A role for Q methodology? Policy Science 41: 263-92.

Ramesh, R. 2009. India plans to cut carbon and fuel poverty with untested nuclear power. Guardian, 29 September. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/29/nuclear-power-thorium-india.

Ritch, J. nd. The necessity of nuclear power: A global and environmental imperative. http://www.world-nuclear.org/john_ritch/the_necessity_of_nuclear_power.html.

Udayakumar, S. P. 2009. Response to National Convention on ‘The Politics of Nuclear Energy and Resistance’: June 4-6 at Kanyakumari. http://www.mail-archive.com/greenyouth@googlegroups.com/msg08208.html

This article was written during the period of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Research Leave award.  I am also indebted to earlier funding by the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council. Thanks to P. K. Sundaram, Hans Baer and Thomas Reuter for helpful comments on the article.

[i] While, to date, Australia does not harbour nuclear reactors for power generation, it nevertheless partakes of the nuclear fuel industry in terms of the prospecting for, and expansion of, its uranium mining, primarily for export. India remains a moot point, however. Despite the opening up of nuclear trade since the ratification of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement (2008), Australia does not export to India as it is not a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. But under the influence of mining giants such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, the leader of the Conservative opposition, Tony Abbott, declared that his party would support nuclear trade with India. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/ mining-energy/abbott-to-allow-uranium-exports-to-india/story-e6frg9df-1225903464726. Accessed 17 January, 2011.





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