Nuclear Power: Nava Ratna, White Elephant or Trojan Horse?

Ever since the tragedy of Fukushima hit the world in March 2011, nothing has been the same – not in Japan; not in Germany; not in France or Russia, nor even in the USA. From scientific and academic communities, to governments and politicians, media and social networking sites – we continue to witness a high level of activity wide spectrum of scientific studies, on-site monitoring of radiation related problems, and the implications for future energy scenarios as a result of the triple disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Many major nuclear power producing states immediately ordered their nuclear power plants to be temporarily shut down while in depth studies on safety were conducted.

Admiral (Retd.) Laxminarayan Ramdas with Lalita Ramdas

Admiral L Ramdas served as Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian navy taking the reins on November 30, 1990. Vir Chakra, Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Admiral Ramdas was warded Vishisht Seva Medal and the Vishisht Seva Medal during his time in the Indian Navy.

In 2004, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Awards for peace for his efforts in trying to demilitarise and denuclearize South Asia. Admiral Ramdas is a leading voice of the growing people’s resistance against nuclear energy projects in India.

Lalita Ramdas has been an educator and activist with a broad and varied experience spanning a professional life.

She has been involved into examining national and global economic, social and ecological trends and developments within a human rights framework – especially looking at the connectivities with gender, minority and indigenous communities and policy formation. Lalita Ramdas is a national co-ordination committee member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

Admiral Ramdas and Lalita Ramdas can be contacted at:
LARA – Ramu Farm
Bhaimala Gaon – PO Kamarle
Alibag 402209 – Raigad Dist
Maharashtra- India

Countries like Germany, Switzerland, Italy among others, decided to phase out nuclear power altogether.
Sadly however, here in Indiawe have seen little, if any, serious debate or introspection in official circles. On the contrary we have witnessed the unbelievable spectacle of responsible leadership holding steadfastly to their earlier decisions on following the nuclear pathway after a notional safety review. The Department of Atomic Energy, duly supported by their political masters, wasted no time in re-affirming the quality of design and safety features of all existing and projected nuclear power plants in the country. The message was simple – don’t worry this can never happen in India.

Nuclear versus other Technology Options
More than any other form of technology, the nuclear option carries within itself potentially deadly fallout which is utterly destructive and totally unethical. Be it in weapons manufacture or nuclear power generation, any accident, due to natural causes or human error, is potentially disastrous, not withstanding the improvements that have been made to improve safety measures. Unlike any other technology, including rocket science , where misfires or malfunctions do not cause huge, long lasting disasters, a nuclear accident, accompanied inevitably by radiation, causes unacceptable harm to humans and the environment often lasting thousands of years. The nuclear industry the world over is only too well known for down playing if not glossing over, the harmful effects of their accidents and shortcomings – TEPCO inJapanbeing the most recent most glaring example.

Dr Rosalie Bertell of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health estimates in her seminal study in 1999-2000 , entitled VICTIMS OF THE NUCLEAR AGE that “up to 1,300 million people have been killed, maimed or diseased by nuclear power since it’s inception. The industry’s figures massively underestimate the real cost of nuclear power, in an attempt to hide its victims from the world. “

Nuclear power or renewable energy – the critical context
TheFukushima accident also led to a global and welcome resurgence of widespread and healthy debates on nuclear power and its relevance as a reliable or primary source of energy.

It is the supreme irony that Dr Kalam himself admits “solar and wind energy are the greenest and purest forms of energy”, but he apparently dismisses any mention of a central role for renewables when speaking of the product mix required to fulfillIndia’s future energy demands. Significantly, much of the alternative and renewable energy like wind and solar is virtually available for free and in perpetuity, unlike oil, coal or nuclear. Alas this has never been prioritized in the Indian context despite the token existence of a Ministry for Renewable Energy for several decades.

In brief, the foregoing provides the big picture within which the country wide protests and peoples movements must be contextualised – be it the unprecedented and sustained protests in Tamil Nadu against the Koodankulam project; the equally firm and ongoing opposition to the AREVA led Jaitapur project [note the successful Yatra from Tarapur to JAITAPUR in April 2011], and numerous concerns and ground level problems from around the country regarding India’s decision to go down the nuclear road. Media has not always provided the accurate backdrop and linkages which alone will ensure that these important voices and landmarks are not trivialized or dismissed as isolated eruptions encouraged by mavericks.

Dialogue, Debate and Dissent – a Democratic Imperative?

A brief personal digression and a course corrections
It is against this background that this note seeks to address some of the key issues around nuclear power, which, in my opinion, have been distorted and often misinterpreted. But first of all a brief digression to clarify my own credentials before I too am accused of being influenced by a `foreign hand’, or worse, being anti- national!

As one who served the nation with pride and loyalty for over four decades in Naval uniform, I believe it is my responsiblity to speak up when my conscience tells me that certain actions are basically against ethical principles which violate the moral compass we were trained to follow . The very location of major nuclear power plants along our coasts presents challenges to both availability of water and a future security hazard.

During my time in the Navy, as Deputy Chief, FOC-in-C Eastern Naval Command, and Chief of Naval Staff, I was among those who believed that it was indeed in India’s interest to pursue the nuclear path . I worked closely with Dr Abdul Kalam when he was the Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, and supported the building of our own indigenously designed nuclear submarine. Much of this was dictated by a strong reaction to our being denied access to technologies and the bigger imperative of self sufficiency.

A Journey and an Education to reality
It was after laying down office in Sept 1993, moving to live in a rural area, taking to a new and unfamiliar activity of farming, and coming face to face with the problems of real Bharat, that we had the time to reflect and ponder on the course of development we had chosen to follow inIndia. We began to question the wisdom of atomic weapons and atomic energy, and also to explore our energy road map and options which would be both clean, green, cost effective, renewable, and independent of foreign suppliers and influences. Yes, it was a major course correction and a turning point, which has led us to work on Indo Pak peace initiatives, and for total nuclear disarmament. Since Pokhran II in 1998 , I have spoken in many public fora, both inIndiaand abroad, to publicly advocate rejection of the nuclear option – not only forIndiabut globally.

The True Cost of Growth and Development – which India is shining?
he past nineteen years in village Indiahas also demonstrated beyond all doubt, that Indiais paying a heavy price for her neglect of agriculture and rural communities – which in turn has affected food security and therefore is also a human and national security issue. Increasingly the system has moved from being fiercely independent, to an alarming obsession with the corporate world, mesmerised by growth rates and the mirage of quick returns. This inevitably has created a value system which has legitimized widespread plunder of resources from rural and marginalized communities, in the guise of providing infrastructure and services. In October 2006, the then Maharastra Government issued a Gazette notification for take over of my land near Alibag, along with 22 other villages, for a Special Economic Zone[SEZ]. It was this traumatic personal exposure to the spectre of arbitrary eviction, with no public consultation, for a project with no apparent public purpose except speculation in real estate, that turned a former serviceman into an activist. I found myself in deep empathy with the despair, and also the anger, of millions of citizens facing the injustice of imposed decisions and consequent displacement and re-location, across the country.

And so to Koodankulam
Therefore let us return to the protests against the nuclear power plants at Koodankulam which has hit the headlines and will surely face increasing state repression as is evident from media reports.

It is clear that the DAE and the NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation India Limited), have played their trump card by inviting our former President, Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam to be an emissary for and on behalf of the State and the Nuclear Establishment. From all accounts this visit has further reinforced the resolve of the citizens of the area around the plant, to add greater strength to their protests.

Reviewing some key issues in the nuclear energy debate and stand off
The issues surrounding nuclear questions, as much as those around the vexed and yet critical questions of the right energy mix for India, are as complex as they are important. I will outline some key elements of the debate and then put forward some suggestions as to how we can move ahead constructively, keeping in mind the overall interests of our land and our people. It is my humble submission that the fundamental question of what constitutes National Interest, how it differs from the “peoples’ interests”, how it is defined, and by whom, cannot be left to the government of the day to determine, often unilaterally. A true definition can only emerge out of a process of joint dialogue and debate among some of the sectors and players and identified below whose interests are likely to be divergent rather than convergent!

1. There are the protagonists of a nuclear weapons capable Indiawho also believe that Nuclear Power must be a central element in the energy projections so as to maintain a super power status and high growth rate. Those in support of this position would probably include: most major political parties and governmental machinery; the corporates and industry – both Indian and foreign; a large section of the scientific community; and of course the Governments of the major nuclear power manufacturing and exporting countries – all of whom are out seeking lucrative contracts in emerging markets. It is worth examining the position of mainstream media in the mix.

2. Those who oppose nuclear weapons but support nuclear energy – some political groups and academics.

3. The protagonists of indigenous technology and expertise in nuclear power production. They are strongly against the current moves to import nuclear power plants from abroad, both on grounds of enormous and unjustifiable costs and the lack of proven technology. However they are not against nuclear power per se . ( A sizeable number of technocrats, scientists, and former bureaucrats would fall in this category )

4. Those who oppose both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. A large and growing number of those, like us, who recognise the need for the country to be self sufficient in energy, who believe in the potential for growth, but who oppose nuclear power for compelling, well argued reasons. This group is clear that India has both the potential and the ability to harness the abundant renewable energy resources with which Nature has provided us in this region and would like to see much stronger initiatives in this direction. The group comprises scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, former bureaucrats and academics, citizens groups representing a range of sectors, disciplines and players, including those in peoples’ movements, womens’ groups, and human rights and environmental bodies, both national and global.

Significantly, there are several business houses, small scale entrepreneurs and others who are already implementing projects which demonstrate that alternatives by way of wind, solar ,energy production is both do- able, efficient and cost effective. They will be more than willing and able to take these to scale, if even half the sums of money invested by the Government in subsidizing the Nuclear industry, is made available to them.

5. Voices of Dissent – In addition to the above, there is the growing tide of popular discontent, resentment, anger and frustration in varying degrees with a system that is not responsive to the genuine difficulties of the poor and marginalized, those who face eviction, displacement, and dislocation with meager compensation. It is these folks whose livelihoods, homelands and very existence that will directly be affected by the proposed and existing nuclear facilities, who are raising genuine concerns, undoubtedly influenced by the continuing radiation and other major problems following the disaster at Fukushima. Today they are asking intelligent and probing questions.

6. The Trust Deficit – together with the frustrations described above, there is a level of cynicism and mistrust in the intentions and performance of the Government, fuelled alas by an increasingly hostile , unsympathetic and unresponsive administration at every level .This in turn has led to the phenomenon of increasingly confrontationist posturing on all sides, not to mention highly repressive measures from agencies of the State. These are danger signals in our democracy.

Finding a Way Forward – so, what is the way forward – here a few thoughts for the serious consideration of all sectors involved.

A. Create an all party parliamentary group on Energy Policy: This body should be tasked with the preparation of a comprehensive, safe and sustainable energy road map for India, within a tight time frame, and should include representatives from Civil Society, especially Peoples’ Movements, and environmental bodies.

B. Declare a moratorium on proceeding with any new nuclear power projects until such time as there is a solid, indigenously developed , carbon free, renewable energy road map on the anvil. This should be debated nationally and get a buy in from the widest possible sectors in society

C. Prepare a time bound plan for phasing out nuclear power and co- ordinated switching over to renewables, together with an aggressive national conservation and energy saving Action Plan. Most bodies that have been set up to produce energy scenarios for the country, for example the only Energy Task force set up by the Planning Commission some years ago, have been dominated by representatives from industry – ie those with the largest stakes and a vested interest in advocating high tech, multi billion dollar solutions regardless of their safety or cost factors. Typically there is little if any representation of “the people” – “ especially of the Aam Aadmi and Aurat in these committees, and therefore the interests and needs of our diverse population not to mention mother earth, are scarcely surfaced of addressed.

D. Prioritise and recognize the sovereign right of the people of India to determine their future and their best interests.

For this to be enabled, we need to see a leadership which can indeed stand up to the likes of representatives of Foreign governments [in this case the USA] who have, as recently reported in one of our leading newspapers, openly chastised India for giving Indian entrepreneurs preference in bidding for solar energy projects under the National Solar Mission. Nor for that matter do we need to be told by any officials of any foreign country, that we should follow this or that trajectory to meet our own energy requirements [see the recent report in the HT about the USofficial who tells us that Indiamust implement all the projected nuclear power plants!]

E. Secrecy, Safety and Security – a call for transparency and dialogue: Above all we need the key government bodies like the DAE and it’s various departments and spokespersons to see things in the larger perspective of a holistic response rather than immediately taking a defensive position on issues which are often completely indefensible . This applies to their postures regarding true facts about nuclear accidents the world over, or the uncomfortable reality of weaknesses within or own establishments. The application of the Official Secrets Act to all things that have a prefix `atomic’ needs urgent change. Above all,Indiadoes not need to prove its loyalty to foreign powers, especially their corporate interests, who are pressurizing us in every sector to look after their economic interests, not ours.! If we are to regain the confidence of our people, officials now need to demonstrate that their expertise and loyalty is indeed to our people and to the Indian Constitution, and not to anyone else.

****It is ironic that the day after Dr Kalam and Dr. Banerji pronounced that Koodankulam was 100% safe, TV channels repeatedly flashed breaking news that the special government appointed nuclear safety watch dog had asked for a number of additional safeguards to be put in place at the KKNPP!.

F. Build a National Consensus on Renewable Energy: Perhaps the time has indeed come for us to pay heed to the countless warning signals starting from the 3 Mile Island, toChernobyland nowFukushimatelling the world that Nuclear Energy and Power plants are basically unreliable and hazardous. In addition, the costs are astronomical, do not ever include the hidden costs of fuel and dismantling plants and nuclear waste. And this is by no means casting aspersions on the reputation or competence of our nuclear scientists. So since this has everything to do with a global wake up call – can this become a rallying cry for citizens and the nuclear establishment to join hands and move forward ?

Pressing the pause button
As far as a temporary pause in Koodankulam goes, there are many responsible voices who are pointing out that there is no grave danger in calling a temporary halt since the plant has not achieved criticality nor come on line. Perhaps we are indeed at a historical moment and an opportunity for our top leadership and best brains to gather up the moral courage to say that we too might need to consider course corrections in light of new evidence – both scientific, objective, and agree to undertake a comprehensive review of our energy policies, without the presence and pressures of foreign elements – be they business, governmental or scientific.

The Sun God – Surya Bhagvan – that Free Reactor in the Sky!
As mentioned earlier, we have abundant reserves of solar and other renewable energy resources inIndia. Why then is our nation being doomed to disaster by this grand plan to induct so many new nuclear power plants! The early pundits ofFukushimahad also predicted that it was a perfectly safe power plant which has been proved so tragically wrong. In addition the reputation and very credibility of the international and Japanese nuclear establishment is today in shreds.

Every single one of the series of nuclear accidents, big and small, demonstrates that there are no guarantees that there will never be any Nuclear Accidents. If this was the case no foreign supplier would have been so persistent about obtaining a waiver on their obligations whilst signing the no-liability documents! These reactors have a life of nearly 40 years. Where will all the wise men of today be should there be an accident say 35 years down the road? Hence the urgent imperative of a thorough, combined policy review of the Nuclear and other energy options.

A Policy Review of our Nuclear Road Map

Much of this situation in which we find ourselves today, has been created by the role played by the forces of globalization and the markets, and the unbelievable pressures applied by the powerful global nuclear industry, led by the United States, to continue to sell their dangerous technologies around the world whilst halting all new nuclear plants on their own territory!

It is still not too late for our policy makers to review their earlier decision to go in for nuclear power plants. In this era of breathtaking and rapid advances in technology when solar energy is available in abundance, and increasingly at a competitive price, the consequences of acting in haste and under pressure are too grave. Let us also not start a witch hunt and launch red herrings such as finding the sources of ‘ foreign funding ‘ behind the recent protests! We the people might well ask about the parade of foreign experts who stride in and out of our corridors of power, our nuclear and other establishments with total freedom and power.

How is their money and their influence acceptable, while the voice of people – [incidentally funded pitifully from large numbers of simple, not wealthy people, who believe in the cause – be they small farmers and fisher folks] – is treated with such suspicion as being subversive?

In conclusion, it has been an oft repeated cliché that war is too serious a matter to be left to generals. By the same token, it is time to ask if nuclear decisions are far too serious to be left to nuclear scientists, the nuclear industry and the nuclear techno- politicians!




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