Nuclear El Dorado only a promise

MV Ramana’s The Power of Promise shows how India’s nuclear energy programme remains a pipe dream

Drink from this chalice,

And this I promise,

You’ll see wonders

Like had been seen by Alice.

That’s the promise of the nuke advocates, the promise of wonderland. The point of Ramana’s malice, however, is that this promise leads to wonders, not to wonderland. The nuclear programme has always been touted as a panacea for the energy problems by the governments of India, but it’s remained an expensive exercise in alchemy, where El Dorado eludes us. And where the Midas touch is a looming threat, the threat of radioactive leakages and accidents.

Ramana indulges in rigorous historical enquiry to show how the old promises have remained undelivered, and how the new ones will remain promises to be delivered in some mythical future. The Prime Minister promised in 2009 that by 2050, India will produce 205GW of nuclear power. Ramana contends that given the current production of 4.78GW, it is unlikely that this dream will be accomplished. He says that it’s not his pessimism but physics which tells that this isn’t possible. Reactors will generate “spent fuel”, to process which new reactors will have to be built, and they can be installed only after the spent fuel is ready to be used, and so forth. The time lag involved in the processes have not been accounted for. He is also of the view that the ‘breeder technology’ is just not viable. Even developed nations like the US and the UK have given it up, given the risks and the costs involved. India is still going ahead with it.

The writer also examines the nuclear zeal right from the time of Independence. Homi Bhabha divided history into three epochs – the advent of civilizations, industrialisation, and then nuclearisation. Nehru and Bhabha created an atmosphere where it would be anti-national to leave this bus, this miracle for the energy crisis. There was utter secrecy around the programme and the Atomic Energy Council was supposed to report directly to the Prime Minister. Bhabha invites scathing criticism from Ramana for the secrecy, authoritarian behaviour and personal ambitions which compromised the position of other scientists like Meghnad Saha who wanted debates and openness around the policies. Bhabha’s three-phase nuclear programme also comes under attack, for his vision to use thorium, which is more abundantly available in India than uranium. To process thorium is more risky, and less cost-effective, and the thorium project has been abandoned by most nations. The writer, in delineating the history of the reactors,  contends that the “reactors took longer to build, lost more, performed worse”.

In jingoistic zeal, India has always claimed nuclear technologies to have been built indigenously, but Ramana shows how it’s always been foreign aid, in terms of money, designs, material that helped India reach as far as it has. There was a spate of propaganda with documentaries and official statements covering up the fact that there was a need for democratic debate on secrecy and expenses. Asked in Parliament if the secrecy act would cover research for peaceful purposes also, Nehru confessed, “I do not know how to distinguish the two [peaceful and defence] (p9).

The book also shows how political exigencies compromised safety concerns, like the malfunctioning Tarapur grid had to be run to counter the blackouts in the Western grid. It shows the communities living around the reactors have been compromised, how there is a history of displacement, accidents and police firing around it. In an embarrassing incident, the Kalpakkam plant tripped just when Indira Gandhi was going to dedicate it to the nation in 1983.

The book, despite its tremendous and meticulous technical detailing, is a good read for any lay reader, for it reads like a narrative, and is peppered with literary and philosophical musings. Not just good, but a must to bust the myths built around the nuclear dream. Ramana says in an interview that nuclear power has gone from being “so cheap that it doesn’t need to meter, to so expensive that it doesn’t matter”. Nuclear energy as of now, and of distant future, is not cheap, thorium is not viable, it is far from safe, and is shrouded in secrecy.  C Rajagopalachari had argued that nuclear power was “comparable to a hypothetical case of using the thunderbolt to cook our breakfast.” (p xxi). It’s not easy to manufacture a thunderbolt in one’s backyard.

If one is not exceeding the strong statement of Ramana, the promise of nuclear power in India is like self-help books that promise weight loss in seven days, and fortune in a fortnight.