Is India’s Nuclear Energy Promise Realistic?: M V Ramana’s New Book Triggers Debate

Book review in OUTLOOK Magazine



How should one describe an industry that promised abundant, safe, environment-friendly energy that would be “too cheap to meter”, but has delivered only one-tenth of the projected electricity, caused catastrophic accidents, contaminated millions of square miles, poisoned lakhs of people and proved “too costly to matter”? Nuclear power has globally inflicted losses exceeding a trillion dollars—in subsidies, abandoned projects, cash losses and other damage. It inspires fear and loathing. In most countries, it can only be imposed undemocratically.

Nuclear power is in global decline. The number of reactors worldwide peaked in 2002; their output peaked in 2006. When production was at a peak, nuclear power contributed 17 per cent to the world’s supply. It has gone down to 11 per cent. After Fukushima, nucl­ear power stands irredeemably discredited and is probably moribund.

In India, however, the elite treats it as the technology of the future, promising an unending supply for unbridled consumption. And we have a State that considers peaceful anti-nuclear protests seditious. It wants to multiply India’s nuclear capacity a hundred-fold to 470 GW by 2050. Forgotten is the Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) abysmal failure to deliver. It projected 43.5 GW for 2000, but achieved a pathetic 2.7 GW. It has since missed every target. Also erased is the department’s appalling record on safety, health, transparency, accountability and technology absorption. Cost overruns are routinely over 200 per cent.

This excellent book explains why, despite this, official India remains obsessed with nuclear energy and the DAE remains politically powerful. The two pillars of DAE’s power, Ramana says, are the promise or future projection of limitless energy, and the deadly attraction of nuclear weapons. An elaborate charade rationalises India’s economic and political investment in nuclear power: vanishing fossil fuels, unviability of renewable sources, the imperative of consumption-driven “development” and N-power’s claimed advantages.

The book subjects these claims to a politely worded but devastating critique. It exposes Homi Bhabha’s fantasy of a three-stage programme—heavy-water reactors, fast breeders, and third stage reactors—promising virtually limitless power. The DAE, Ramana shows, has grievously miscalculated plutonium production and consumption; the projected breeder growth is both theoretically and practically unachievable.

Even assuming that breeders are viable, this knocks the bottom out of the DAE’s mid-century target. These ultra-high-risk, very accident-prone reactors have been abandoned worldwide, and thorium cycle Uranium-233 reactors haven’t been industrially proved. Ind­ia’s 12 MW Fast-Breeder Test Reactor has worked at only one-fifth its capacity amidst numerous accidents. But the DAE declared it a “success” and is building a 500 MW breeder!

Ramana shows how the DAE was craf–ted and run as an institution unanswerable to Parliament and the public. It abuses its power to mess up everything, violates its own safety norms, routinely makes extravagant claims about developing technologies indigenously while importing/borrowing them and hides costs with accounting tricks. Nuclear power in India, like elsewhere, is far costlier than electricity from fossil fuels, and increasingly, from truly abundant, benign, safe, renewable sources. The French erp, proposed for Jaitapur, is the world’s most exorbitant reactor. It has suffered an unconscionable 265 per cent cost escalation in France. It will haemorrhage India’s power sector.

One of the book’s best chapters analyses the DAE’s safety, health and environmental record and failure to learn from accidents. The DAE gets away because there’s no independent safety regulator and no real obligation to disclose relevant information. One wishes Ramana had addressed the Koodankulam and Jaitapur reactors’ safety issues at greater length, evaluated Fukushima’s long-term global impact, and discussed sustainable alternatives to nuclear power, including decentralised renewable ene–rgy. Nevertheless, this seminal book will contribute significantly to the cause of halting the nuclear juggernaut.

M V Ramana is a nuclear physicist working in Princeton University. His work has helped generate informed debate on nuclear energy and nuclear safety in India. He has been travelling recently in India to several cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Delhi to promote discussion on his latest book and the question it raises.

His book, “POWER OF PROMISE: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” will be launched in New Delhi tomorrow (Thursday, 21st Feb, 6.30 pm) by Penguine and CNDP at the India International Centre.

We are re-producing some reviews of Ramana’s book and media reports on his India tour:

‘Is hundred-fold nuclear growth feasible?’ | The New Indian Express

A renowned nuclear physicist has questioned the country’s obsession with nuclear growth.

“At present, there are two questions: is rapid expansion of nuclear power desirable and ‘hundred-fold growth’ in nuclear energy industry is feasible?” said M V Ramana, nuclear physicist, here on Monday. “Without finding an answer for these questions, we cannot move further,” he said.

M V Ramana is now working at Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University. He was at Madras Institute of Development Studies to address on the theme ‘Nuclear Energy in India: Perspectives on its past, present and future’.

He has authored ‘Bombing Bombay? Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion’ and co-edited ‘Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream’. His most recent book ‘The Power of Promise – Examining Nuclear Energy in India’ has been well received by nuclear scientists and activists of international community.

Speaking to City Express, Ramana discussed the history of nuclear energy in India, the faults and failures the country faced. He also questioned the feasibility of rapid expansion of nuclear industry, as it’s contribution is only 2.3 percent to the total power production.

“In 1948, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru introduced Atomic Energy Bill terming ‘exclusive responsibility of the State’. But one member Krishnamurthy Rao, pointed out that the Bill did not have scope for oversight, checks and balances when compared to the US Atomic Energy Act. He also said that in the UK, the secrecy was restricted only to defence purpose and asked if secrecy had to maintained even for research in India? Nehru then confessed saying, I do not know how to distinguish the two (peaceful and defence purposes),” said Ramana.

He added, “Secrecy is maintained even when it is not needed and that becomes the problem.”

He also revealed that our total installed capacity is 4.78 GW, including Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) and Boiling Water Reactors (BWR). “We have one pilot scale Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR), the construction of which began in 1985, but it is yet to be completed. We are amid the construction of 5.3 GW reactors. Besides, the government has also plans to import 40 GW Light Water Reactors (LWR) in the period between 2012-2020, to fill the deficit. With all these, till date, the power from nuclear energy is just 2.3 percent when compared to other energy sources like thermal, hydro and renewable. Still, the government’s rhetoric is that the nuclear energy industry will be expanded. At this juncture, the debate on costs, benefits and risks of expanding has not come up,” he added.

He further said that in 2009, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said that our three-stage strategy could yield potentially 470,000 MW of power by the year 2050. But the country’s nuclear society forgets to ask questions like if rapid expansion is desirable and the hundred-fold growth is feasible, in the next four decades. My recent book focuses on these questions.”

“The hundred-fold growth is not feasible. The reasons are our history of nuclear energy, the constraints we faced during the developments of new reactors and oppositions from the people. Till date, all reactors have had overruns in construction, including time and cost. Meanwhile, every accident is new and likewise, while constructing new reactors in India, each reactor unit has different problems. We have failed to learn lessons from the past and there is a possibility of repeating those failures in the future too,” he said.

When asked about his stand on nuclear energy debate he said, “We are scientists. If we tell the facts of the nuclear energy which are negative, we are ultimately branded ‘anti-nuclear’. Nuclear is a source of energy which needs democratic public discussion,” said Ramana.

‘Need to sensitise people on dangers of nuclear reactors’ | THE HINDU

Editor of Economic and Political Weekly C. Rammanohar Reddy, physicist and writer M.V. Ramana, and former chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A. Gopalakrishnan, during the launch of the book, ‘The Power of Promise – Examining Nuclear Energy in India’, in Hyderabad on Tuesday.— PHOTO: NAGARA GOPAL, The Hindu

Editor of Economic and Political Weekly C. Rammanohar Reddy, physicist and writer M.V. Ramana, and former chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A. Gopalakrishnan, during the launch of the book, ‘The Power of Promise – Examining Nuclear Energy in India’, in Hyderabad on Tuesday.— PHOTO: NAGARA GOPAL, The Hindu

Former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman, A. Gopalakrishnan slammed the government for giving a push to the nuclear power programme and warned that the country would be heading for a major catastrophe as the systems were not ready for such a sophisticated technology.

Speaking at the launch of a book, ‘The Power of Promise – Examining Nuclear Energy in India’ written by M.V. Ramana, a physicist from Nuclear Futures Laboratory, Princeton University, USA, here on Tuesday, he accused the corporates, bureaucrats and scientists of colluding to promote the nuclear power programme. He called for sensitising people to the dangers of having nuclear reactors.

Referring to the French nuclear reactors being set up at Jaitapur, he said the twin plants would be costing around Rs.32,000 crore and questioned the rationale for giving a push to nuclear energy when thermal, gas or solar energy was comparatively cheaper. Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, he said modifications were carried out to the French reactors and they needed to be put through safety analysis.

Mr. Ramana said the large-scale expansion of India’s nuclear energy as projected by the Department of Atomic Energy was not feasible given frequent ambitious targets set by itself routinely in the past. He mentioned that a target of 8,000 MW of nuclear energy was set in 1980 after the DAE unveiled the three-stage nuclear power programme in 1954. He also questioned the desirability for such an expansion in nuclear energy.

C. Rammanohar Reddy, Editor, Economic and Political Weekly, gave a broad overview of the book and described it as an “authoritative study” of the country’s nuclear power programme which was always shrouded in great amount of secrecy. Besides looking at nuclear power programme in comparison to thermal and health, safety and environmental aspects, it also mentioned about under reporting of fast breeder reactor programm

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