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Nuke nastiness
Sankar Ray
February 23, 2013

The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India
MV Ramana
Penguin Viking
Rs 699  pp400
What do you have to dispose of except night soil?" retorted Satyendranath Bose reacting to a paper on the disposal of nuclear waste by Homi Sethna
at a conference on the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes in India in 1954. But the nuclear bureaucracy, scientists and technologists present at the event paid no heed to the jibe. Rather, Sethna was kicked upstairs and was chairman, Atomic Energy Commission(AEC), during the 'nuclear explosion' at Pokhran in 1974, having claimed that the test explosion had an yield between 8-12 kilotonnes.  US technical analyses estimated it at anywhere between 4-6 KT. He was also crowned with the Padma Vibhushan award - all this for colluding with the nuclear establishment (NE) comprising the AEC and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Also awarded for dancing to the tune of the NE were former AEC chiefs like PK Iyengar and Anil Kakodkar.
MV Ramana deserves thanks for sequentially and dispassionately bringing together history and information on power reactors, uranium, plutonium, heavy water, economics, and safety over five decades of India's nuclear power development in a 295-page narrative (excluding notes and references).

The Power of Promise is an inch-by-inch striptease of the NE and pliant scientists and technologists right from the Nehru era. If sustainability is to be regarded as a must for any success story, success is a mirage for defenders of nuclear power. Failures have been, for the NE, an alibi for secrecy which has done no good for the country or its people. N-power units have experienced high cost over runs, operational troubles, cracks and leaks.

For instance, the construction cost of Kakrapur I and II ( 1993-95) went up from Rs. 383 crores to Rs. 1367 crores ( 257 per cent). About breeder reactors, the less said, the better. Globally, their failures are so obvious, that OECD countries have abandoned them, including the technology-hyped Superphenix in France. Ramana has illustrated with several examples that the safety record is disturbingly poor. These include the collapse of the inner containment dome at Kaiga in 1964, 'unprecedented in the annals of nuclear energy history', the high turbine-vibrations at Narora in 1993 and RAPS I in 1998, and the unavailability of primary coolant pumps at MAPS II in 2004 forcing shutdowns.

But it would seem that it is fruitless to tell this to NE mandarins. For the NGOs and anti-pollution activists, however, this treatise fulfils high expectations.

Sankar Ray is an analyst on the environment and Left politics