In Response to Dr. Kalam: Shankar Sharma

(Editor’s Note: India’s former President and one of the main architects of India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam, has come out in support of Indian government’s nuclear expansion. His recent article Nuclear power is our gateway to a prosperous future is an ode to the virtues of nuclear energy, hailing it necessary for India’s rapid economic growth.  Dr. Kalam’s article does not only present a distorted, techno-determinist outlook for India’s future ‘development’ based on unhindered energy consumption, unviable urbanisation and pursuit of the the American dream, but also presents contested and outdated official rhetoric about nuclear energy as axiomatic facts. Since Dr. Kalam’s persona enjoys a great admiration among the Indian people, particularly the urban middle classes, and the media also goes out of its way to give space to his voice, we hope that the concerned Indian experts and social activists would undertake this painstaking responsibility in near future to clear the misconceptions arising out of Dr. Kalam’s article about safety, viability and future of nuclear energy. In this series, is publishing a letter written by energy policy analyst Mr. Shankar Sharma. We are also reproducing his recent presentation putting the nuclear and the entire energy question in a more holistic perspective.)

Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
C/O Editor, The Hindu

Dear Dr. Kalam,

Greetings from Western Ghats.
This has reference to an article in The Hindu under your name as below.

Nuclear power is our gateway to a prosperous future

After reading the article I got the feeling that a holistic view of nuclear power and the Indian energy scenario was not considered by those who might have briefed you.

When we consider a crucial policy, such as nuclear power policy, which will have far reaching consequences for many generations, we should not only take a very careful approach but also respect the “precautionary principle” as propounded by World Charter for Nature which was adopted by consensus by UN General Assembly in 1982.

Three principles so adopted were: (i) Activities which are likely to cause irreversible damage to nature should be avoided; (ii) Activities which are likely to pose significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that the expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed; (iii) Environmental Impact Assessment should be thorough, be given sufficient time, and be carried out in an open and transparent fashion.

Can we say that the considered opinion of many eminent people like Michail Gorbachev, Dr. A Gopala Krishnan, Dr. Balaraman, Dr. Helen Caldicott (Physicians for Social Responsibility), Peter Bradford (Former Commissioner, US Nuclear Regulatory commission) etc. have no role to play in our policy ?

Additionally, Indian power sector has many other issues not addressed in your article. One of the enclosed article deals with some of those
issues. If we consider all these issues objectively the need or otherwise for nuclear power may become obvious.

It would be very useful if you can please attempt to respond to many issues raised in the attached article, and to questions raised in
another open letter to Dr. Anil Kakodkar (both attached).


Shankar Sharma
Power Policy Analyst
Mulubagilu, Doorvasapuram Post, Thirthahally
Shimoga District, Karnataka – 577432
Phone: 08181 203 703 / 296 402 & 94482 72503

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we
tackle that.” – Thomas Edison in conversation with Henry Ford, 1931

 Role of Nuclear Power in India: a holistic approach


Shankar Sharma
Power Policy Analyst


Synopsis: The debate as to whether nuclear power is a safe, suitable and essential option for India has been going on for many decades. While the proponents of the nuclear power have been offering many arguments in favour of the option, there have been any numbers of issues raised by those who consider it to be not the best solution to meet the legitimate energy requirements of our society on a sustainable basis. This paper attempts to take a holistic look at the relevant issues.

Key terms: credible risks, CBA, efficiency, Precautionary Principle, alternatives



The debate as to whether nuclear power is a safe, suitable and essential option for India has been going on for many decades. While the proponents of the nuclear power have been offering many arguments in favour of the option, there have been any numbers of issues raised by other sections of the society who consider it to be not the best solution to meet the legitimate energy requirements on a sustainable basis.  A holistic approach towards nuclear power in the Indian context is very essential before India commits itself to additional nuclear power plants. All the related issues from technical, economic, social, environmental and even inter-generational perspective need careful consideration keeping in view the long term implications of a nuclear power policy.  Most importantly such a long term policy should not be pursued without people’s effective participation.


Nuclear accidents

Nuclear power plants are some of the most sophisticated and complex energy systems ever designed.  Any complex system, no matter how well it is designed and engineered, cannot be deemed failure-proof.  The reactor systems are so enormously complex machines with the possibility of a large number of things that can go wrong. The fact that no nuclear power plant has completed the timeframe of 100 years yet gives raise to the concern that there may be many failure modes not experienced so far. It appears almost impossible to ensure adequate levels of safety during such a long period.

There are concerns that a combination of human and mechanical error at a nuclear facility could result in significant harm to people and the environment.  Operating nuclear reactors contain large amounts of radioactive fission products which, if dispersed, can pose a direct radiation hazard, contaminate soil and vegetation, and be ingested by humans and animals. Human exposure at high enough levels can cause both short-term illness and death and longer-term death by cancer and other diseases.

The most common failure mode of utmost concern in a nuclear power plant is the failure of the cooling system of the reactor.  Even after shutting down, for some time the reactor will need external energy to power its cooling systems. Normally this energy is provided by the power grid to that the plant is connected, or by emergency diesel generators, or by a battery bank. Failure to provide power for the cooling systems, as happened in Fukushima, can cause serious accidents.  Such a failure of cooling system of the reactor can happen because of many reasons, and there is ones section of the expertise which believes that it is impossible to design a nuclear power plant with foolproof cooling system, as can be gauged from the three major accidents which have happened. In Fukushima three independent supply systems to power the cooling systems failed to prevent the damage in a strange coincidence of failures.

Nuclear reactors have become preferred targets during military conflict and, over the past three decades, have been repeatedly attacked during military air strikes, occupations, invasions and campaigns.

Nuclear Controversy

Proponents argue that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source which reduces carbon emissions and can increase energy security if its use supplants a dependence on imported fuels. Proponents advance the notion that nuclear power produces virtually no air pollution, in contrast to the chief viable alternative of fossil fuel. They emphasize that the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power plants.

Opponents say that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste. They also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong, and there have been many serious nuclear accidents. Critics do not believe that these risks can be reduced through new technology. They argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, and the amount energy required to keep the nuclear waste safe for thousands of years, nuclear power is not a low-carbon electricity source.

Economics of Nuclear Power

The new nuclear power plant being built in Europe is by EDF at Flamanville in France. It is now at least four years behind time and Euro 2.7 Billion over budget.  The only other new nuclear plant being built in Europe is at Olkiluoto in Finland.  Areva, the builder of this plant is reported to be four years late and Euro 2.6 Billion over budget.

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When nuclear power was initially propounded as a possible source of electricity, it was touted as so cheap that even metering its consumption was considered unnecessary. Today it is the seen as the costliest source of electrical power.  It is projected that at Jaitapura (Maharastra) the total cost of the proposed power capacity of 9,900 MW with 6 of EPR reactors will be about Rs. 200,000 Crores. This comes to about Rs. 20 Crores per MW.  In comparison the cost of a coal power plant is about 7 – 9 Crores/MW, and that of a hydel power plant is about Rs. 8 – 10 Crores/MW.  Even the cost of a solar power plant, which was being dismissed as very costly till recently, is known to be about Rs. 18-20 Crores /MW without any of the attendant risks of nuclear power.  In view of the continuously dropping costs of solar power technology, there is already a projection that by 2017 the cost of solar power will compare favorably with that of coal power.  So, the capital cost aspect of nuclear power seems to be against the technology.

Long term storage of nuclear waste is a major issue requiring our attention. Even US, which has over 100 nuclear reactors and which depends upon nuclear power for about 20% of its electricity generation capacity, has not found a satisfactory answer to this problem.

In a related article Dr. M V Ramana has shown that the cost of a 235 MWe nuclear power unit at Kaiga, Karnataka is much more than that of a comparable size coal power unit at Raichur, both built at about the same time.  If we also take into objective account the long term storage costs, insurance costs, government subsidies  and all the associated environmental and health costs, the nuclear power projects will be much costlier than any other conventional power sources.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, had expressed his concerns in an article ‘Chernobyl 25 years later: Many lessons learned’.  He has said:  “ … But it is necessary to realize that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy sufficiency or climate change.  Its cost-effectiveness is also exaggerated, as its real cost does not account for many hidden expenses.”

In an article, Dr. Michael I. Niman,  a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College has anlysed the nuclear power cost: “The potential risk from a nuclear accident is so huge as to be commercially uninsurable. In fact, if the nuclear power industry were left to fend for itself in the free market, it would instantly collapse, turning upside-down once risk gets factored into any equation. The risk of catastrophe is so high, and the potential catastrophe so large, that the cost of insurance, assuming hypothetically that it was available, raises the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity off of the charts.”

Safety concerns for the Public

Since each of the three techno-economic super powers (USA, Russia and Japan) has experienced the nuclear emergency from their power plants, the very wisdom of relying on nuclear power technology is being increasingly questioned.  If such resource rich and knowledgeable communities could not avert nuclear emergencies, can our densely populated and ill-prepared society ever hope to avert the possible human catastrophe from a nuclear mishap?

While the country is fortunate that there have been no major accidents in the nuclear establishment, the observers are of the opinion that adequate safety of operation in the nuclear facilities within the country cannot be guaranteed for various reasons. While more and more complex safety systems/redundancies are being designed and built for the overall safety of nuclear power stations, it should be noted that they are only increasing the number of sub-systems and the complexity.

In an open letter, signed by more than 50 prominent figures, Dr. Balaram, director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and part of prime minister Manmohan Singh’s scientific advisory council, has stated:  “In the light of what has happened in Japan…. we strongly believe that India must radically review its nuclear power policy for appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance, and undertake an independent, transparent safety audit of all its nuclear facilities, which involves non-DAE experts and civil society organisations. Pending the review, there should be a moratorium on all further nuclear activity, and revocation of recent clearances for nuclear projects,” said Dr Balaram.

The proponents of nuclear power in India project it as a very safe technology.  But the reality in Indian conditions seems to be vastly different.  In an article by rediff NEWS at on 4th October 2010 under the title “197 suicides and 1,733 deaths at India’s nuclear establishments in last 15 yrs”, it was mentioned that  “197 employees belonging to a number of nuclear establishments and related institutes in India  have committed suicide and 1,733 scientists and employees belonging to these centres have died of illnesses like multiple organ failure, lung cancer, cirrhosis of liver etc, as per a report compiled by Mumbai-based RTI activist Chetan Kothari.”

On safe practices in nuclear industry in India, the ex-chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan has the following to say: “…. in India, we are most disorganised and unprepared for the handling of emergencies of any kind of even much less severity. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s (AERB’s) disaster preparedness oversight is mostly on paper and the drills they once in a while conduct are half-hearted efforts which amount more to a sham.”

A new dimension to the public safety is the ‘nuclear terrorism’.  In this regard Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, had expressed his concern in an article “Chernobyl 25 years later: Many lessons learned”.  He says:  “ …. I also remain concerned over the dangers of terrorist attacks on power reactors and terrorist groups’ acquisition of fissile material.”  “ ……. we must very carefully consider the vulnerability of reactor fuel, spent fuel pools, dry storage casks, and related fissile materials and facilities to sabotage, attack, and theft. While the Chernobyl disaster was accidental, caused by faulty technology and human error, today’s disaster could very well be intentional.”  His caution of wisdom also included : “The material damage inflicted by Chernobyl, although enormous, pales in significance when compared to the ongoing human costs. The true scope of the tragedy still remains beyond comprehension and is a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat. It is also a striking symbol of modern technological risk.”

There have been suggestions from Indian nuclear authorities that the safe storage of nuclear waste is technically feasible during its active life time. Is it really so, and even if it is so, what about the huge costs involved? In this regard there are credible and serious concerns that whereas the present generation may get the benefit of electricity from nuclear power, the future generations have to deal with all the risks and costs associated with the spent fuel. Is this fair or socially responsible?

Major issues for the society with Nuclear power technology

Economic  IssuesDemands large tracts of forests and fertile land; huge Capitalcosts; long term waste management costs; serious shortages ofnuclear fuels
Social  IssuesPeoples’ displacement and health; long term health implications;inter generational  implications of nuclear waste;
Environmental   Issues Mining related pollution; radiation emission during operations andfrom nuclear wastes for centuries ; radiation contamination of air,water and  land; contamination of food products

How relevant and green is nuclear power to Indian scenario?

Observers of nuclear power industry have been of the opinion that whereas the nuclear establishment in the country has been making tall claims on the increased role of nuclear energy, the reality has been much less in successive decades after independence.  The reality has been quite different.  Despite the huge increase in the total power generation capacity in India, from a meager 1,800 MW in 1950 to 177,000 MW in 2011, the total contribution of nuclear power to the total power generation capacity is about 2.7% only.

Pro-nuclear advocates have started to argue that nuclear power is a good option against Global Warming.  Two assumptions made by such pro-nuclear advocates are fundamentally flawed. One is that Global Warming can be contained without fundamentally changing the Western pattern of energy consumption, because nuclear energy is tiny contributor to energy mix world wide.  It is generally considered to be impossible to contain Global Warming without significantly reducing the energy consumption levels of Western/ developed countries.

The second flawed assumption is that adoption of nuclear power can make sense as a strategy to lower aggregate carbon emissions. In this regard an example of Japan, a pro-nuclear energy country until the Fukushima disaster, is given. From 1965 to 1995 Japan’s nuclear power plant capacity went from zero to over 40,000 MW. During the same period its CO2   emissions increased from about 400 million tons to about 1,200 million tons.  Increased use of nuclear power did not really reduce Japan’s emission levels. {M. V. Ramana, “Nuclear Power in India: Failed Past, Dubious Future”, March 2007,}.

In an article “Too hot to handle? The future of Civil Nuclear Power”  Frank Barnaby and James Kemp of Oxford Research Group have discussed why the nuclear power cannot be an acceptable option in the future, even from the Global Warming considerations.  They have estimated that about 2,500 Nuclear reactors of average capacity 1,000 MWe would be required, and nearly four new reactors would have to begin construction each month from now until 2075.  Looking at the past experience of slow growth, the increasing public opposition, the safety issues, the threat of nuclear terrorism etc. such a huge addition of installed capacity is impossible.

Additionally, the amount of energy consumed in the nuclear fuel cycle from the mining stage till its radio active emission gets reduced to safe levels after hundreds of years is estimated to be colossal. The contribution to atmospheric pollution at the stages of mining and processing, and radiation leaks to atmosphere are not inconsiderable.  Taking all these facts into objective account it seems futile to argue that the nuclear power can make considerable contribution to mitigating the threat of Global Warming.


Credible alternatives to Nuclear Power – Indian perspective

Keeping in proper perspective the fact that the contribution of nuclear power to the total power generation capacity is only 2.7% even after massive budgetary support since 1950s should raise the very pertinent question as to how important is nuclear power in the context of overall power sector in India.

The power sector in the country is characterised by the gross inefficiency prevailing in the system; whether it is in generation, transmission, distribution or utilization.  From the perspective of the transmission & distribution losses alone in the country, it becomes strikingly evident that bringing it to 10% from the present level of 25% can provide more virtual additional power capacity than the total projected nuclear power capacity of 12,000 MW by 2020.

The average Plant Load Factor (PLF) of the coal power plants in the country is about 73%, which if taken to 90% can provide about 15,000 MW of virtual additional capacity in the existing infrastructure.  The potential for efficiency gains from hydel power plants is not inconsiderable either.

Urgent measures such as improving the generating plant performance;  reducing the T&D losses; minimizing the wastage in end usage; optimising the demand side management (DSM); and maximising energy conservation will be able not only to eliminate the existing deficits, but also will be able to meet a good portion of the future electricity demand.

The perceived need for any additional power plants in the country needs to be considered in the context of many other blunders within the power sector: the unscientifically targeted subsidies which have become unsustainable; huge losses incurred by the electricity supply companies; corrupt political interference in the affairs of these companies; lack of social and environmental responsibility for these companies; and poor work practices in these companies.  Such deficiencies for decades have resulted in serious problems for the society as a whole. Without addressing these serious deficiencies to invest massively in additional power capacity will be a huge drain on the society.

                                                          Power Sector Efficiency in India

(Source: Compiled on the basis of many reports/article on Indian Power Sector)

       Power Sector AreaPrevailing level of efficiency / loss in IndiaPotential for improvement/savings (percentage of total annual energy)
Generating capacity utilisation  50 – 60%5-10 %
Aggregate Technical & Commercial losses (AT&C)   35 – 40 %15 -20%
End use efficiency in agriculture  45 – 50 %15-20%
End use efficiency in industries and commerce  50 – 60 %5 -10 %
End use efficiency in other areas(domestic, street lights and others)  40 – 50 % 5 -10 %
Demand Side ManagementPotential to reduce the effective demand by more than 20%


A rational analysis of the gross inefficiency prevailing in various segments of the power sector will reveal that about 30 – 40% of the present demand can be met by the efficiency improvement measures, which would make the existing scenario to be surplus by a considerable margin.

Being a tropical country, India is also endowed with huge potential in new and renewable energy resources.

N&RE Potential In India

(Source: MNRE)

Potential: (Grid interactive power only)Remarks
1. Wind energy > 45,000 MW100,000 MW as per World Institute of Sustainable Energy
2. Small hydro 15,000 MW
3. Solar over 5,000 trillionkWH/yearPotential estimated to be many times more than the total energy needs of the country;As per World Institute of Sustainable EnergyCSP based solar power  – 200,000 MWSolar PV based power   – 200,000 MW
4. Bio-mass >> 25,000Not known
5. Geo-thermal and Ocean energyHugeEstimates not known


Huge emphasis is needed on decentralized energy options in the future energy policy. Major options which have been considered as techno-economically viable are:

  • Roof top solar Photo Voltaic systems, which can meet most of the domestic and smaller loads, such as lighting, TV,   computers etc.  These are being increasingly used in countries like Germany and USA not only to meet the domestic necessities, but for even exporting the excess power to the grid through a mechanism known as Feed-in- tariff.
  • Solar water heaters have established themselves as very effective tools to provide hot water for houses, nursing homes, hotels etc. at very economical prices.  They are found to be very popular in Towns and cities, but can find good use in rural areas also.
  • Community based bio-mass systems are highly suited for rural areas, which generally have very good supply of bio-mass.
  • At places where there is good average wind speed throughout the year, wind turbines can provide very cheap power either at the community level or at the individual house holds level.

Keeping in view the overall welfare of our communities, and the sustainability of energy supply scenario, huge emphasis is essential to develop and harness renewable energy sources as the first option of energy source for each MW of additional demand.


Holistic view of overall costs to the society: Costs & Benefits Analysis

In deliberating as to how much and what technology to be adopted in adding to the electricity generating capacity, there is a dire need to keep the overall costs and benefits to our society of such a policy in proper perspective.  Any course of action we may take in order to meet the growing power demand in future will have deleterious impacts on our natural resources and environment, as also on the vulnerable sections of our society.  Hence there is an imminent need to take utmost care in minimizing such impacts.

A good decision making mechanism in this regard is Costs & Benefits Analysis, which will take into account all possible costs and benefits (direct and indirect, tangible and intangible) to our society in an objective way, and deliberate in detail on the best course of action in the overall benefit of the society. Any decision to build a nuclear facility (or for that matter any technology we may like to adapt) should be preceded by such a diligent process.

Many benign alternatives to nuclear power could become evident if the concerned authorities care to look for them.  It is very pertinent to state that the benefits from these alternatives can come at much less overall cost to the society and with least impact on the environment and the population.  Without considering various alternatives it may be considered as scandalous to consider that nuclear power plants at horrendous cost should be acceptable to the society.



In any such discussion on nuclear power in India adequate focus on the following issues will be of critical importance.

  1. Despite huge investment in the nuclear industry since 1950s why the nuclear power capacity has not lived upto the tall claims of its Captains?
  2. In the background of the fact that USA, USSR and Japan, which are all known to be the leaders in technological issues, and which are generally associated with quality and safety issues, have failed to avert nuclear accidents, can India hope to have safe/accident free operation of all the existing/proposed reactors?  
  3. Can we say the decision by Germany and Japan to move away from the reliance on nuclear power is ill-conceived?  Have, Australia and New Zealand which have shunned nuclear power from the beginning, suffered from lack of quality electricity supply?
  4. With the projected cost at Jaitapur nuclear power park (Maharastra) of about Rs 20 crore per MW, can nuclear power compare favorably with coal power (about Rs. 7 Crore/MW), OR hydro power (about Rs. 8 crores/MW) OR solar power (about Rs. 20 /MW and which is coming down steeply)?
  5. Are there better options to bridge the gap between demand and supply of electricity in a densely populated country such as India? Shall we not consider all the much benign options before we consider the nuclear power option, which has not gained popular acceptance because of many reasons?
  6. Can we afford to accept the high risks (where ‘risk’ = ‘probability of nuclear accident occurring’ X ‘consequences of such an accident’) associated?  How many of us are ready to live near a nuclear power plant knowing well the credible threat of radiation leakage?
  7. In the background of three major nuclear accidents, and many near misses, can we afford to ignore the “precautionary principle” as enunciated by the international convention of bio-diversity?
  8. Can we afford to ignore the caution by many reports/articles which have appeared in the media, and by leading personalities such as Michail Gorbachev, UN Secretary General, Physician for Social Responsibility,  Dr. A Gopala Krishnan, Dr. Balram etc. ?
  9. Whether the costs, which we need to pass on to the future generations (in safeguarding the nuclear waste for thousands of years), justifiable since there will be no benefits to these generations?  How many times more electricity will the nuclear fuel cycle consume as compared to the electricity it can generate in its economic life cycle of about 40 years?
  10. What are all the direct and indirect costs to the society of nuclear power as compared to the benefits in a poor country? Are such benefits unquestionably higher than the costs?
  11. Can the nuclear establishment in the country take the public at large for complete confidence by sharing all the relevant information?
  12. How to ensure that all the stake holders are party to carefully considered decisions on setting up nuclear power plants?



Additional Reading Materials

“Chernobyl 25 years later: Many lessons learned” by Mikhail Gorbachev, former President USSR


“Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer” by Dr. Helen Caldicott, founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility

“Why should Jaitapur be made a guinea pig for untested reactor?” by Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India

“The missing safety audits” by Dr A Gopalakrishnan

“Chernobyl, Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” by ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, Volume 1181

 “Why A Future For The Nuclear Industry Is Risky” by Peter Bradford, Former Commissioner, US Nuclear Regulatory commisison

“Too hot to handle? The future of Civil Nuclear Power” by Frank Barnaby and James Kemp, Oxford Research Group

Click to access toohottohandle.pdf

 “Rush in now, repent later” by Siddharth Varadarajan

“For nuclear sanity” by PRAFUL BIDWAI


“Reactors, residents and risk” by  Declan Butler

“Nuclear fault lines run deep” Down to Earth (Issue: Apr 15, 2011)



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