Nuclear Power at What Cost?

Manu V Mathai

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAManu V Mathai researches at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. He is the author of Nuclear Power, Economic Development Discourse and the Environment: The Case of India (Routledge). He can be contacted at

Article courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly

The environmental movement, as it increasingly grapples with the ecological impossibilities posed by the commitment to open-ended economic growth, needs to move beyond its general silence in matters of realpolitik and engage more concretely in that sphere. The ongoing contests in India over the future of nuclear power – seen in Jaitapur and Koodankulam – are part of a fight over two broad visions of the future.

A widespread assumption in the current debate on nuclear power is that a rational decision is within reach, if only everyone had access to and was able to understand the science. This approach holds that opposing arguments can be presented, and out of that discord, a rational view validated by scientific understanding and technical soundness would emerge. The ongoing discussions about the safety of nuclear plants or impacts of radiation on human health or the lack of transparency of the nuclear establishment, illustrate this approach. However, it is worth asking whether the debate on nuclear power can be circumscribed by terms alone. What if the science is less than forthcoming with “certainty” and that catastrophic but minuscule risk is normal? What if the commitment to nuclear energy is a predetermined outcome of a particular arrangement of values, visions and ideological preferences? And what if these are less than ideal commitments for living in a shared and finite biosphere?

Much is known about the technical, scientific and economic aspects of nuclear power. We can surmise that nuclear power is abundant, immensely powerful and expensive to build and insure. We know that it is not immune to accidents, which are rare, but impose multi-generational costs when they do occur. We know that the connections between radiation and public health are complex and scientists struggle to furnish results that are beyond debate. It has been understood, especially by early proponents that the safe operation of nuclear power demands “eternal vigilance” (Weinberg 1972: 34). Yet human institutions, even in relatively regimented social milieus such as Japan, have fallen short on this score. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the “argumentative” (borrowed from Sen 2005) and far more spontaneous attitude that populates the Indian milieu is a suitable contender to deliver such vigilance. The absence of transparency and instances of incompetence (e g, the collapse during construction of a part of the inner containment dome at Kaiga unit one) that afflicts the atomic energy establishment serve to further erode confidence in nuclear power.

Why then, despite such reasons that would urge a precautionary approach towards a policy of expanding India’s atomic energy infrastructure, does the government go to great lengths to dramatically expand its commitment to nuclear power?

Playing Catch-Up, Forever?

verdict-on-nuclearA reason for this adherence to nuclear power is the development-energy treadmill that India is committed to. A function of the economic development model that has been institutionalised over six decades, an early impetus for such a treadmill, to borrow Prime Minister Nehru’s words, was to “catch-up as fast as we can with the Industrial Revolution that occurred long ago in western countries” (quoted in Chatterjee 1993: 201-02). Curiously, such an economic policy was not justified as needed to deliver the kinds of economic growth that Indians in their diverse socioecological contexts across a vast subcontinent needed. It assumed instead that centralised wealth production was more efficient and that a well-meaning state would redistribute that surplus for the welfare of all Indians. The Indian economy with the state and private sector, sequentially at the helm, has indeed caught up with the west in terms of the economic growth path it is on. It is now less a question of direction than of distance. And nuclear power is offered as a technology to help power that model of centralised open-ended economic growth, which crucially, is yet to clearly link up with a multi-dimensional understanding of human well-being. The dominance of growth for its own sake remains largely ascendant and a powerful technology like nuclear power is seen as a logical choice.

Additionally, the need for normative and empirical richness in discussions of energy and development policy and for establishing interconnections between them is evident in the stagnation of our development discourse as it relates to energy policy. In 1942, the National Planning Committee observed that at an average electricity availability of about nine kWh per capita per year, electricity availability in India was “nearly 15 times less than the standard for civilised countries” (NPC, 1949: 24).

It is remarkable that the level of being civilised could be measured in terms of per capita electricity availability. Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that this narrative has remained frozen in time. After seven decades, in 2012, the former chairman of the AEC, Anil Kakodkar, observed in an interview to The Hindu about dealing with plutonium produced by nuclear power reactors, that India’s “per capita electricity use is ‘15–20 times lower’ compared with industrialised countries” (Kakodkar 2012). As such, Kakodkar asserted that the question of what to do with the plutonium was a non-issue for India – meaning that it could be processed for use as fuel for power generation. Not only does nothing appear to have changed in seven decades, such reasoning reveals the limited engagement between influential voices shaping energy policy and the rich and textured discussions taking place in the field of human development.

They fail to notice that targets for installed power capacity and a rationale for energy policy based on energy consumption in industrialised countries have little to do with enabling lives and livelihoods of well-being and dignity for the people of India. The causes for persistent and devastating deprivation in India, or elsewhere, are often, various types of institutional failures and individual malfeasances that disempower individuals and communities. Additionally, the general lack of clarity on a publicly reasoned goal about what development ought to be exacerbates the above failures. In this context offering the rationale that nuclear power and more importantly and implicitly, the abundance it connotes, as a central element of energy policy options to alleviate destitution, endorses a casualness about addressing structures of disempowerment that are the bane of most Indians.

One could still, for the sake of argument, say on one possible reading of the so-called “right to develop”, argue that India ought to catch up with the Industrial Revolution of the west. But then we ought to also remember that the countries that perfected this model of economic growth during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were also the pioneers of forcible enclosure and appropriation of others’ resources, the colonisation of vast regions of the world, the externalisation of social and ecological costs and eventually the advent and entrenchment of today’s ecological crises. We also know that the immense and historically unprecedented wealth that it has produced is yet to satisfactorily assuage poverty and disempowerment in those countries.

For instance, vanguards of this west, the United States and European Union, continue to have tens of millions of people living below their poverty lines and at the risk of falling into poverty. The recent financial-economic crisis has obviously exacerbated this situation. But it is still remarkable that despite a combined annual GDP of some $31 trillion (over $15 trillion each in 2012) produced at immense social and ecological costs, these regions have not eliminated destitution or contained inequality. In a world now confronting ecological limits, one is forced to ask: if this much has not, how much will? It is evident today that this model of economic growth has not dematerialised as the ecological modernisers promised it would, and neither has wealth and dignity trickled down, as many economists predicted they would.

This reality urges us to reconsider the commitment to catching up with the west. Asserting nuclear power as a purportedly green technology that obviates this model’s ecological contradictions does not hold water. Instead, it plasters over a failure to engage the ecological crisis and its lessons for informing energy and economic development policy.


A second and related justification for nuclear power that is more obviously beyond any one country’s jurisdiction must be reckoned with. Prime Minister Nehru observed in his autobiography, while underscoring his case for centralised, energy-intensive economic policies, that any country that is not “highly industrialised and not developed its power resources to the utmost” (Nehru 1945: 407) risked its political and economic sovereignty. It is moot whether his assessment is universally applicable, but it seems relevant to many, including a country of the size and scope as India. This reasoning offered by Nehru appears to be a rational reaction to the norms of international relations that he seems to have correctly perceived. However, it is now incumbent on us to ask whether this larger structure of “realism” that pervades international relations is a rational stance or a dangerous illusion. A finite biosphere cannot possibly sustain the economic and military power (both of which are causally correlated) that countries strive to accumulate as they try to one-up each other on the world stage.

By not engaging this question and being held hostage to the realpolitik of international relations, nuclear power is rationalised as an important option for long-term energy security to fuel economic growth, high levels of which are an implicit prerequisite for negotiations of power and influence on the world stage. The force with which the Government of India has pushed nuclear power, I believe, derives some of its rationalisation from this implicit dynamic. There is also, quite evidently, the more obvious and widely discussed entrenchment of nuclear weapons in geopolitics.

Assuming that the above argument holds up to scrutiny, the likelihood that a lead in making changes from the status quo will emerge from one of the big powers is small, although smaller countries such as Costa Rica, which unilaterally disbanded its military are helpful, albeit perhaps unique examples. Such changes seem to require an international effort built on collective wisdom. They require eschewal of the status quo of “seeking peace, but preparing for war”. Such a turn is predicated on letting go of superpower privileges, a litany of historical grievances, rabid nationalisms, suspicions and similar pathologies. It is obvious that this is a very tall order in our world, but it is also obvious that this is a conversation that cannot be postponed any longer. It is also evident that the full spectrum of the environmental movement, as it increasingly grapples with the ecological impossibilities posed by the commitment to open-ended economic growth, needs to move beyond its general silence in matters of realpolitik and engage more concretely and audibly in that sphere.

The Hope

The ongoing contests in India over the future of nuclear power are part of a fight over two broad visions for the future. One is to continue along the path that was enabled by the fleeting (in geological terms) fossil fuel era of unprecedented wealth married to institutionalised belligerence, widespread disempowerment and environmental destruction, and the other that is possible within a more distributed economic framework of decentralised renewable energy generation of, perhaps, less overall affluence, but created more widely and with significantly less ecological impacts.

In India, the public debates triggered by the resistance to reactors at Koodankulam and Jaitapur embody these choices and unresolved questions with which nuclear power is intertwined. They ask whether catching up with the west and pursuing the great game are possible without violating the rights of people to decide their own fate. These questions must be directed at not just the Government of India but also to the governments of its neighbours and many dominant or aspiring powers on the world stage. They tend to find louder expression in India because the country is unique in seeking to rapidly industrialise within a framework of deep-rooted, albeit imperfect, democratic norms and practices. Such was not the case for much of western industrialisation, nor is it the case today in a country like China. Industrialisation in democratic India is thus forced to face these contested visions of the future. They ought to be recognised as an opportunity to foster “public reasoning” (Sen 2009) for charting new visions, ideas and practices of more sustainable and equitable human development in India, and around the world.


Chatterjee, P (1993): The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Kakodkar, A (2012): “Consuming Plutonium for Producing Energy Is the Superior Option”, Anil Kakodkar interviewed by R Prasad. Retrieved 30 May 2012 from:

Nehru, J (1945): The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund).

NPC (1949: 24): “Report of the Power and Fuel Sub-Committee”, National Planning Committee Series (Bombay: Vora & Co Publishers).

Sen, A K (2005): The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

– (2009): The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin Books).

Weinberg, A M (1972): “Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy”, Science (New Series), 177 (4043), 27-34.

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