Understanding the Empty Promises of Nuclear Energy

Nityanand Jayaraman | Kafila

Narayanasamy’s monthly promises of power from the Koodankulam nuclear plant may be something of a joke in Tamil Nadu. But the periodic promises served a function. They kept one section of Tamil Nadu hopeful that commissioning Koodankulam will solve the state’s power crisis, and therefore resentful of the agitators who were seen to be putting their own lives, livelihoods and safety over the needs of the state.

In late 2012  Penguin published the first solo book by Princeton University-based physicist M.V. Ramana. The book is titled The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.

downloadRamana’s commentary is witty, articulate and rich with anecdotes. He makes a solid case for his central thesis – that delivering on the promises of power or security were never the actual goal of India’s nuclear program, and probably never will be. Rather, promises are the engines that power the program, he argues. By holding out the twin ideals of unlimited electricity and infallible security in the form of a credible nuclear deterrent, India’s nuclear establishment has carved for itself an enviable position. It is answerable to no one but the Prime Minister, and can spend billions over decades with nothing to show for the expense.

As Ramana points out in the introduction to his book, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes it seem as if “India’s nuclear programme is an absolute necessity for the country’s technological, economic and social development.” It is made to appear desirable also on environmental grounds, not just for India but for the world as a whole.

In 2009, Dr. Singh proclaimed that nuclear will contribute 470 gigawatts (470,000 MW) of electricity capacity by 2050. This fantastic declaration carries with it the promises of plentiful electricity and of a “clean” way out of the impending climate catastrophe.

But neither promise is likely to be fulfilled, according to the book. “[T]he current nuclear capacity in the country – more than sixty years after the atomic energy programme was established – is just 4.78 GW,” Ramana argues. “The projected capacity in 2050 would represent an increase by a factor of hundred, and would exceed the global nuclear power capacity today.”


Anti-nuclear protestors laying ‘siege’ to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNP) by placing over 1200 fibre boats in the sea in October 2012

Thus, he concludes that “While the Indian nuclear establishment’s arguments might provide a case for rapidly increasing the nuclear power capacity, they do not in any way lend support to the supposition that it can increase rapidly.” [Emphasis in the original] Averting climate change, if at all that is possible at this late stage, cannot depend on a technology whose hallmarks are cost overruns and inordinate delays.

The book amply illustrates that Dr. Singh is merely the latest in a long list of tellers of tall tales. Indeed, “The Power of Promise” is a veritable history of tall claims by people ranging from Homi Bhabha and Sethna to Kakodkar.

In chapter after chapter, Ramana meticulously unravels one incredible nuclear yarn after the other sparing no icons or iconic statements in the process. Quite early in the book, he demolishes India’s self-congratulatory declarations of having developed its nuclear program entirely indigenously. To demonstrate his point, he presents historical data to recount the dialogues with US, Canadian, UK, French and Russian nuclear technologists.

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Demonstration in Paris, 2008


One anecdote involving British scientist John Cockcroft is worth mentioning. Cockcroft, a Cambridge colleague of Bhabha’s, responded to the latter’s request for assistance to set up India’s first “atomic pile” (a simple reactor). He offered “detailed engineering drawings, technical data, and enriched uranium fuel rods for a ‘swimming pool reactor.’” Speaking in the Lok Sabha in 1957, the year that the pile was inaugurated, Nehru said that the reactor was put up “entirely by Indian scientists and builders.” Ramana then seeks out and reports Cockcroft’s reaction to this inaccurate assertion. “Did you see the press release from Delhi? . . .[It] seems rather ungracious in view of the advice and help we have given and are asked to give. Presumably, detailed plant designs and drawings do not constitute outside help,” Cockcroft is reported to have said.

In another instance, Ramana notes with thinly veiled bemusement how the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research claimed that its Fast Breeder Test Reactor in Kalpakkam “successfully demonstrated the design, construction and operation of a FBR under Indian conditions.” He contrasts that claim with Department of Atomic Energy figures that indicate that “Over the first twenty years of its life, the FBTR has operated for only 36,000 hours or 75 days a year.”


Anti-nuclear demonstrators in Cologne, Germany, 2011

Touting safety glitches, untested technologies and the unfavourable economics plaguing thorium and fast breeder reactors, Ramana’s book argues that the much-vaunted three-stage program, of which the fast breeder reactor represents the second stage, is not likely to go far. The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor being built in Kalpakkam is currently in its ninth year of construction. Originally scheduled to be commissioned in 2010, the new extended date for commissioning is sometime in 2014. Dealing with the breeder project in different chapters, Ramana explains that cost considerations have led to serious technological and safety compromises in the design of the inherently hazard-prone breeder. Most countries, including France, which had a full-scale commercial breeder plant, have abandoned the breeder program despite incurring huge costs. Ditto with thorium. As Ramana and his physicist colleague Suvrat Raju write elsewhere, “India is a leader in this field by virtue of being one of the only participants.”

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Protests against nuclear power in Taipei

Curiously, “The Promise of Power” devotes 40 pages to the chapter on economics, as opposed to only 30 and 20 for safety, and environment and health respectively. Reading through the economics chapter, though, one finds that this partiality is well warranted. From exposing Homi Bhabha’s cost comparison of nuclear and coal as exercises in creative economics, to highlighting the limitations of traditional economics in adequately costing waste disposal liabilities that stretch out into eternity, economics is central to Ramana’s argument about the unviability and undesirability of nuclear power.

“The Power of Promise” may be the first Indian book on nuclear power to discuss the oft-neglected issue of worker safety in the nuclear establishment. The subject rightly occupies centrestage in the chapter on environment, although the discussion on the topic is scant. According to Ramana, that is a reflection of the opacity of the nuclear establishment, and the paucity of verifiable data on the issue available in the public domain.

Ramana is essential reading for anyone that is curious about the Indian nuclear program’s claims of being safe and hazard-free. The chapter on “Safety” documents safety compromises, near-misses and failed learnings that range from seemingly mundane to totally outrageous, and concludes that the greatest threat to safety is the assumption that nothing can go wrong. The hard-nosed documentation of the nuclear establishment’s failures to put in place safety mechanisms, to maintain stand-by units in working condition, to adhere to site-selection criteria, to ensure use of quality material, to open themselves up for independent scrutiny or regulation, or just learn from past mistakes certainly vindicate the fears of people protesting the Koodankulam plant.

Indeed, now as before, with Koodankulam, the nuclear establishment is threatening to commission first and implement the AERB’s post-tsunami safety recommendations later.


Sayonara Nukes! Anti nuclear rally in Tokyo, September 2011

Ramana’s footnotes are specially recommended. These neglected outposts in conventional book writing has been transformed into a valuable space for snippets, factoids, stories, explanations to help lay people understand what a megawatt actually is, or sometimes just a meticulous acknowledgement to a source whose phrase Ramana may have borrowed. The choice of what to include in the main text and what to move to the bottom of the page has been done without compromising the flow of either commentaries.

Ramana has relegated technology and engineering to their rightful places in the middle to back rows. Drawing liberally from sociology, political science and theory, and even literature, and moving effortlessly between Lewis Carroll, Marx and Engels, and Shakespeare to Adam Smith and sociologist Charles Perrow, he squarely places nuclear energy in context to explain its performance.

One other gem to look out for are the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. My favourite one by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek reminded me of the Koodankulam debate: “It is indeed true that we live in a society of risky choices, but it is one in which only some do the choosing, while others do the risking.”


For anyone wishing to stand in judgement about Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Gorakhpur or Kovvada, Ramana’s book is a must-read.


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