POWER OF PROMISE: Pre-Publication Review by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is an eminent Indian author. He is the author of The Circle of Reason (his 1986 debut novel), The Shadow Lines (1988), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004), Sea of Poppies (2008), and River of Smoke (2011).

This review appeared first on his personal blog HERE.

M. V. Ramana is a physicist associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

His latest publication, POWER OF PROMISE: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, will be released soon. It is listed on Penguine’s website.

On December 3, 2011 I wrote, in a post on this site: ‘I met M.V. Ramana in 1998 when I was writing Countdown, my essay on the nuclear situation in the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the most knowledgeable of the many experts I sought out (he has a PhD in physics from Boston University and has devoted many years to nuclear issues)… Ramana is associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. His forthcoming book  “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” is sure to be the definitive study of the subject: I can’t wait to read it.’

Ramana has since sent me the book (or rather the manuscript, which is soon to be published by Penguin India). I have just finished reading it and it is indeed the definitive work I had thought it would be.

Ramana has been working on nuclear issues for a long time and The Power of Promise is the summation of decades of research. This is not to say that it is a daunting tome, either literally or metaphorically: at a mere 241 manuscript pages (not including notes and appendices) it is actually surprisingly concise.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the book is that it is not primarilyabout nuclear weapons. Its subject, as the subtitle states, is nuclear energy and the claims that are being made for it, in India and elsewhere – that it can feasibly meet the world’s expanding energy needs and that it is a relatively safe and economical alternative to fossil fuels.

This is how Ramana describes The Power of Promise: ‘This book is an attempt to assess the success or failure of the nuclear programme according to the terms it set itself. Rather than deal with these topics in the abstract, I focus on the concrete: on specific facilities, the technologies used, the materials involved and the economic performance of reactors that have been built and are being contructed… The aim of my exercise at the very minimum is to deepen the debate about whether India should indeed embark on a massive nuclear programme. I have tried to do so by uncovering and presenting technical and historical information and analysing it.’ (14§)

This makes the book sound more technical than it is. The Power of Promise certainlydoes not lack for technical detail but it is still an absorbing read. The writing is one of its pleasantest surprises. Ramana shows himself to be one of those rare writers who can make science interesting: his prose is crisp, he has an eye for telling details and apt quotations, and he has a remarkable facility for narrative. He is evidently fascinated by history and the characters who shape it. Homi Bhabha, who brought the Indian nuclear programme into being, is inevitably a large figure in this story.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is devoted to Bhabha’s clash with the physicist Meghnad Saha, who was from the other end of the country in every sense. This is how Ramana sums up their struggle: ‘Saha and Bhabha differed in their notions about the goals of science and technology, and the means for achieving these goals. Saha ‘emphasized judicious and equitable distribution and advocated participatory democracy even in engineering projects that involve highly technical information’ … But such an approach was not the one adopted in India after independence. Despite the deep political roots in the Indian nationalist movement that Saha had, Bhabha’s more élitist approach prevailed over Saha’s more open and democratically disposed approach.’ (25-6)

Bhabha’s personal personal charm had a great deal to do with the extraordinary influence he came to wield. Among his many friends, as Ramana writes, ‘was the man who was to become India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru and Bhabha met for the first time on a ship in 1937 and seem to have hit it off right from the beginning… This was hardly surprising for they had much in common. Both were born to wealthy parents, had been educated in Cambridge, and were deeply interested in arts and music. Over the years, a deep friendship developed between the two … As Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was to reminisce years later, ‘The life of a politician lacks many of those warm moments of sensitivity that other people take for granted in their everyday life … I know that Homi Bhabha opened one such “window” for my father … he always found time for Dr Bhabha, not only because the problems which Dr Bhabha brought were important and he wanted to give them urgent attention, but because he found at the same time it was relaxing and it was an entirely new world’. (21)

It was Bhabha who first articulated the claims that are made for the nuclear energy programme today. The most important of these are the following: that only nuclear energy can feasibly meet India’s expanding energy needs; that in comparison with other sources nuclear energy is cheap and plentiful; that it is relatively safe; and that it is far less destructive to the environment than energy generated by fossil fuels, especially coal (which provides most of the electricity that is consumed in India and China today).

Ramana tackles each of these arguments in turn. Can the nuclear programme really provide as much energy as it says it will? Through a detailed empirical analysis Ramana shows that the nuclear establishment has consistently over-stated the amount of electricity it can feasibly generate in the near future: ‘In 1984, a decade after the 1974 nuclear weapon test, the DAE drew up a new atomic energy profile that envisioned setting up 10,000 MW of nuclear power by the year 2000.’ (45). But an audit in 1998 found that ‘’the actual additional generation of power under the profile as of March 1998 was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5291.48 crore’… Nil, as in zero. In the words of Polonius from Hamlet, ‘…’tis true ’tis pity; / And pity ’tis ’tis true.’ (46)

Ramana notes: ‘Even without the wisdom of today’s hindsight, it should be obvious to anyone who knew the history of construction of the operating reactors… that the projected growth in nuclear capacity was highly improbable if not impossible. But such comprehension was not to be found within the Department of Atomic Energy’s leadership.’

The feasibility of generating enormous amounts of nuclear energy is not limited by technology alone. There is a human constraint as well. As Ramana shows there has been massive public opposition to the siting of nuclear reactors across the country (the demonstrations in Ratnagiri and Kudankulam are merely the latest manifestations of a long series of protests). Several sites have had to be abandoned because of public opposition. Where then are all the promised new reactors to be located?

Is nuclear energy really as cheap as its advocates say? Ramana shows that this claim is an illusion conjured up creative accounting – that is by hugely underestimating costs, by hiding subsidies, and perhaps most signficantly by limiting liabilities in the event of catastrophic accidents. At the end of this exercise he asks: ‘If nuclear power is uncompetitive, then why do many people believe that it is cheap? In part, this is because, at every opportunity, the nuclear establishment keeps repeating the claim about the competitiveness of nuclear power. It also tries to substantiate it through ‘calculations’. These calculations, however, are flawed. Typically, they are based on estimated costs of future facilities rather than actual costs of facilities already constructed. Given the huge cost overruns at most facilities, as documented in Chapter 3 on Power Reactors, the distortion due to this practice is significant. Then, it makes assumptions about other cost components, with no support from data of any sort. For instance, the operations and maintenance cost is merely pegged at a specific percentage of the capital cost, with no basis for arriving at it. The costs of decommissioning a reactor are accounted for by periodically adding a set amount of money, called a decommissioning levy, into a fund … But there is no clear idea of how much decommissioning a reactor will cost, and the few examples in other countries that have decommissioned reactors have invariably cost much more than expected. Similarly, the cost of radioactive waste management is completely arbitrary (typically, Rs 0.05 per unit).’ (174)

In sum: ‘The result has been to bear out I.M.D Little’s prognosis from 1958: ‘As Dr Bhabha says, electricity is in short supply in India. It is likely to go on being in short supply if one uses twice as much capital as is needed to get more’ (Little 1958, 1486).’ (176).

The most disturbing sections of M.V. Ramana’s  Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India are those that relate to safety. Ramana describes two incidents that came fearsomely close to disaster. One occurred at the Narora reactor in Rajasthan on March 31 1993: ‘Early that morning, two blades of the turbine of the first unit at Narora broke off due to fatigue. They sliced through other blades, destabilizing the turbine and making it vibrate excessively. The vibrations caused the pipes carrying hydrogen gas that cool the turbine to break, releasing the hydrogen, which soon caught fire. Around the same time, lubricant oil too leaked. The fire spread to the oil and throughout the entire turbine building. Among the systems burnt by the fire were four cables that carried wires and electricity, which led to a general blackout in the plant. One set of cables supplied power to the secondary cooling systems, and when it got burnt those cooling systems were rendered inoperable. To make things worse, the control room was filled with smoke and the operators were forced to leave it about ten minutes after the blade failure. Prior to leaving, however, the operators manually actuated the primary shutdown system of the reactor… Fortunately, the reactor shutdown systems worked and control rods were inserted to stop the chain reaction. The problem then was something that was on display at Fukushima: the reactor went on generating heat because the fuel rods in a reactor accumulate fission products which continue to undergo radioactive decay.’

The situation was saved by some workers who ‘climbed on to the top of the reactor building, with the aid of battery-operated torches, and manually opened valves to release liquid boron into the core, further absorbing neutrons. Had these workers not acted as they did, it is possible … that there would have been a local core-melt and explosive fuel-coolant interaction… The names of those heroic workers have never been made public.’ (185)

But for a stroke of luck, another major disaster would have occurred at Kakrapar in Gujarat: ‘On 15 and 16 June 1994, there were heavy rains in South Gujarat and the water level of the lake began to rise. That resulted in the ducts that were meant to let out water becoming conduits for water to come in. Water began entering the turbine building on the night of 15 June … There were no arrangements either for sealing cable trenches and valve pits, both of which also allowed water to enter the reactor building. By the morning of 16 June, there was water not only in the turbine building but also in other parts of the reactor complex. The workers in the morning shift had to swim in chest-high water, and the control room was reportedly inaccessible for some time…  No action was taken till 11 a.m. on the 16th, when a site emergency was declared and workers were evacuated… [T]he gates of the Moticher Lake could not be opened, even after the … management requested help from the district and state authorities. Fortunately, villagers from the area, who were worried about the security of their own homes, made a breach in the embankment of the lake which allowed the waters to drain out.’

Fortunately ‘the reactor had been shut down for over four months at the time of the flooding [and] there was no great danger of an accident. Had it been functioning and there had been reason to issue an off-site emergency, the situation would have been desperate. In the words of Surendra and Sanghamitra Gadekar: ‘The scene … was one of utter devastation. A thousand houses were demolished in Bardoli alone, and many more elsewhere were damaged. Whole sections of roads, railway lines and bridges vanished into oblivion. Trees were laid low and farms turned into ponds. We were caught 100 km from home and had to trudge back through rivers and streams and making long detours’ (Gadekar 1994b). There was simply no way that people could have been evacuated on time.’ (188-9)

It is interesting to note that in both cases these great ‘temples of modernity’ owed their salvation to ordinary people, who remain unnamed.

Ramana’s review of preparedness training and safety precautions at the major nuclear sites leaves no doubt that it is luck alone that has spared India from a major accident. He concludes with this chilling passage: ‘There is one obvious question that this constellation of hazards—physical and institutional—provokes about nuclear power around the globe: Why are there not more accidents? One part of the answer is that, while the nature of the technology implies that there will be failures, there is nothing that determines the rate of failure as such. Therefore, the chances of an accident on any given day may be small but, sooner or later, there will be one. This parallels what happens in a lottery: ‘the odds of any given person winning are extremely remote, but the likelihood that someone is going to win, sooner or later, is certain’ (Chiles 2001, 286).’

Yet, the question remains: if not nuclear power, what?

This intractable issue has forced many environmentalists and climate activists to embrace nuclear technology as the last, best hope for cutting back on carbon emissions. James Hansen, the pioneering scientist who was among the first to alert the world to climate change, is one of them. In his book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity he makes a strong case for ‘fast-breeder’ nuclear reactors. ‘Fast reactors can burn about 99 percent of the uranium that is mined, compared with less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors. So fast reactors increase the efficiency of fuel use by a factor of one hundred or more… Fast reactors also produce nuclear waste, but in volumes much less than slow (thermal) reactors. More important, the radioactivity becomes inconsequential in a few hundred years, rather than ten thousand years. The waste from a fast reactor can be vitrified – transformed into a glass-like substance – placed in a lead-lined steel casket and stored on-site or transported elsewhere. Plus, this waste material cannot be used to make explosive weapons…’[i]

These claims, if true, would amount to a compelling case in favour of fast-breeder reactors. But are they true?

After reading Hansen’s book I wrote to Ramana (I hadn’t yet read his Power of Promise): ‘I’ve been thinking of you recently while reading James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. He, like many other serious environmental scientists, makes the case that fast-breeder nuclear reactors are the only hope for the planet in the sense that they alone can replace coal-burning power plants. I’d be interested to know your views on this.’

This was Ramana’s reply:

Dear Amitav,

I have two responses, at different levels. In my ms, I argue against relying on nuclear power, especially fast breeder reactors, in India, not on ideological or moral lines, but based on an evaluation of the costs and the benefits. (I hope that comes through in my writing.) To some extent, that argument carries over globally, but I am uncomfortable making strong statements about other countries that I haven’t examined even cursorily, let alone at the level of detail I have done in the case of India.

The technical response is that while there may be a case for nuclear power as a means to mitigate climate change, the case for fast breeders doing that is weak. This is for two reasons. First, the type of FBRs that Hansen talks about (and I may be wrong because I haven’t read his book, but have heard him elsewhere on the subject), the integral fast reactors, have never been built. They involve not just a new kind of reactor, but also an associated new type of reprocessing technology called pyro-processing. Both breeders and reprocessing plants have been notoriously problematic, much more so than nuclear power in general. So any strategy based on rapid construction of these untested technologies is very likely to suffer from setbacks. Second, the problem that these breeders are meant to solve is an imagined one. The main case for breeders is that uranium is likely to run out. There is plenty of evidence from around the world that this is unlikely to happen for decades at the very least. In that case, even if one were to advocate nuclear power, it would be much better to rely on the relatively more proven light water reactors.

The sociological(?) response is that I have been thinking about climate change and attending many meetings and so on related to the subject for about a decade now. My sense is that many of the scientists who are involved in studying the subject are a depressed lot. (Of course, I use depressed in a loose sense rather than in a clinical diagnostic sense.) This is but natural, for every conference they attend and every paper they read, offers more evidence, not just of an inexorable descent into the abyss, but also of their sheer powerlessness to stop this descent. And one response that many of them have adopted is to put their hopes on some technological miracle, clutching onto such hopes in the face of all evidence. In that sense, I don’t consider that aspect of their argument as serious science, even though they may be completely rigorous in their analysis of, say, ice core data or hurricane intensity.

In The Power of Promise Ramana makes a persuasive case against pinning our hopes on fast breeder reactors. In sum ‘The bottom line on breeder reactors, therefore, is that they cannot be constructed at the pace envisioned by the Department of Atomic Energy, they will be susceptible to catastrophic accidents, and they will produce very expensive electricity.’

What then is the solution?

It has become customary nowadays for environmentalists and climate scientists to end their books on an upbeat note by suggesting various ‘fixes’. Not Ramana. He mentions the ideas of a few visionaries, like Amulya Reddy, but he does not suggest any ‘solutions’ as such. Why? Possibly because there are no quick fixes, no magic bullets. I suspect that Ramana knows that his arguments lead to a conclusion that is too bleak to be put into words.

The Power of Promise is as timely as it is important. I have no doubt that it will come to be regarded as a landmark, not only in the debates on nuclear and energy issues, but also in the history and sociology of Indian science.


[i] Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth of Our Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Bloomsbury (references are to the Kindle edition), location 3553.


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