Thursday, June 13, 2013

Does Nuclear Power Have a Future in India?

(A talk by former Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC on June 12, 2013)

Dr. Ashley Tellis,

Ambassador Teresita Schaffer,

Prof. Stephen Cohen,


I am happy to be at the Carnegie once again on the invitation of my friend, Ashley Tellis. Ashley occasionally asks me to participate in Carnegie activities and it is a pleasure each time.

The development of nuclear power in India is driven as much by fantasy and romance as by scientific and strategic calculations. Like its foreign policy, planning and scientific temperament, Pandit Nehru bequeathed nuclear policy to India, on which there has always been a national consensus. Homi Bhabha is a national hero and his tragic death in an air crash is considered part of a conspiracy against India. Extreme secrecy surrounds nuclear policy and programs in a country, which is brutally open about other matters of national importance. Even when prophecies and projections are proved wrong and official actions become inexplicable, no system exists to explain the unforeseen developments, which may have altered the course. Sanctity is attributed to policies formulated and projects launched many years ago and course correction, even when it is made, is projected as business as usual. Much has happened in the nuclear arena, but India is, by and large, committed to its nuclear future.

A quick and direct answer to the question that we ask ourselves today is, therefore, yes, India will have nuclear power for the foreseeable future. It will certainly grow despite dire predictions to the contrary and the fact that public opposition is growing both on account of safety considerations and new scientific information, which calls into question the feasibility, the cost effectiveness and the wisdom of long term reliance on nuclear power. The way India has dealt with the issues arising out of the India-US nuclear deal, Kudankulam and Fukushima confirms that its faith in nuclear power still abides. The three-stage nuclear power development program, adopted more than half a century ago, is alive and well, though the pace of progress from the second to the third stage has been slow and the envisaged use of thorium has not become viable as yet.

Many of us in this room have been champions of the India-US nuclear deal and some, like our moderator today, Ashley Tellis, are its architects. The bewildering twists and turns in the negotiations and the political storm it created in both countries are evidence of its complexity. The steadfast pursuit of the deal on the part of President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was admirable. For diplomats like me, who worked at the IAEA, with just Pakistan and partly Israel for company, it was a dream come true. India emerged out of its isolation in the nuclear community and it became possible for India to import nuclear fuel and other materials for its nuclear power industry. We paid a heavy price for it, but it was considered small to usher in a brave new world of international nuclear cooperation. But as of today, no new imported reactor has been commissioned, no dramatic increase has been achieved in power generation and our non-signatory status in NPT and CTBT regimes is still an impediment, when it comes to bilateral agreements or membership of bodies like the NSG. Some frontiers of nuclear science are still closed to us. No nuclear trade has started with the US, the prime mover and an intended beneficiary of nuclear trade with India.

Indeed, everyone knows that the villain is the Indian liability law, which makes the supplier liable to damages in the event of an accident, in contravention of the existing international practice. In reality, the opponents of the nuclear deal, particularly its provisions for trade with the US, achieved with the liability law what they failed to achieve by opposing the deal. They created an aura of sentiment around the issue by invoking the plight of the Bhopal victims and got the law passed. It is arguable that the existing laws were quite sufficient to deal with the liability issue, if it ever arose.

I suspect that there may be other reasons for the nuclear deal not being able to deliver the deliverables. In August 2009, after a visit to Washington, I wrote an essay for Rediff. Com, with the title, “The US may not have nuclear trade with India.” I quoted unnamed sources, which told me then that the US had no intention to export nuclear reactors and technology to India. The US had not developed a reactor for more than thirty years and India had nothing to gain by such trade. The US would be quite happy to see India securing energy security, but it would not want to be party to India developing technology that might directly or indirectly support its nuclear arsenal. I was told hat President Obama was not willing to dilute his commitment to non-proliferation for the sake of commercial benefits. The quid pro quo that the US expected for the deal was purchase of defence equipment, not nuclear trade, I said. Except for some bewildered enquiries from US companies, I saw no attention being given to such straws in the wind. Today, neither side has disavowed nuclear trade, but no way has been found to get around the Liability Law and other issues.

The story of Kudankulam has demonstrated the perils of setting up an imported nuclear power plant. The signing of the Kudankulam agreement with the Soviet Union barely two years after Chernobyl had raised eyebrows and finding a location for it was not easy. Subsequent developments, particularly Fukushima, have added fuel to the fire. Today, after years of planning and huge expenditure, Kudankulam stands uncommissioned even after the Supreme Court decreed that the project should go ahead. Dismissing a petition challenging the Madras high court's earlier order in favour of the plant, the Supreme Court termed the operationalization of Kudankulam nuclear power plant as necessary for the country's growth. The court stressed that development of nuclear energy is important for India and said, "While setting up a project of this nature, we have to have an overall view of larger public interest rather than smaller violation of right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution."
The court dismissed the risk element by stating that we have to balance economic and scientific benefits with that of minor radiological detriments on the touchstone of our national nuclear policy. "Public money running into crores and crores of rupees has already been spent for the development, control and use of atomic energy for the welfare of the people and, hence, we have to put up with such minor inconveniences, minor radiological detriments and minor environmental detriments," the court said.
The delays, allegations of corruption in Russia and the local protests have combined to make the future of the Kudankulam plant uncertain. But the Government is committed to commission the plant and expand it further as soon as the technical hitches are removed. It is imperative at this point of time that the trust deficit is tackled in some way or the other. Apart from an international inspection of the safety features of the plant, adequate provision should be made for medical facilities, evacuation areas and disaster management. The situation will be replicated in other locations of new nuclear power plants and delays will be inevitable in the nuclear program.

The crippling effect of the Fukushima disaster on the future of nuclear power has not been fully comprehended in India. Fukushima has dealt a severe blow to the nuclear renaissance envisaged in the IAEA 2020 report. The responses have ranged from outright rejection of nuclear power to uneasiness and delays. Reduction of reliance on nuclear power has been felt globally and even countries, which swear by nuclear power would not remain unaffected and India will be no exception. The initial official reaction in India that Fukushima would be forgotten like Chernobyl, where there were many more deaths and greater devastation, is giving way to anxiety and efforts to find alternatives.

According to the Nuclear Intelligence Weekly of May 31, 2013, the renewables program is rapidly overtaking nuclear power generation in India, with renewables generating 72 % more electricity than nuclear plants. The Weekly avers that India is unlikely to attain the goals set out in 2005. Nuclear power still accounts for just 2% of India’s total installed power generation capacity. The latest data covering April-August 2012 shows nuclear power at 13.72 billion Kilowatt-hours, compared to 23.6 billion Kilowatt-hours for renewables. The slow growth in nuclear power is attributed to the Liability Law, the protests and administrative delays. It also makes a big difference, as nuclear power is in the hands of the Government, while renewables attract a high level of private investment, lured by tax holidays and other incentives. But renewable energy is still priced higher than nuclear energy in India as the investments in nuclear energy is not fully taken into account, while calculating costs.

M.V.Ramana argues in his significant, but combative book, ‘The Power of Promise’, “projecting nuclear capacity has always been easy. Translating those forecasts into reality, however, proved impossible and the installed capacity in 2000 was only 2720 MW. Understanding the reasons for this enormous gap between achievements and projections is crucial for judging whether the setting up of hundreds of GW of nuclear power capacity by mid-century is feasible.”

India cannot but be affected by the gloomy nuclear energy scenario around the globe. It is becoming increasingly clear that targets cannot be achieved, the anti-nuclear lobby is gaining strength and the cost of nuclear energy will be higher if all the hidden costs are taken into account. The costs of waste disposal and the clean up costs in the event of an accident are enormous. Indian public opinion is divided between a majority that has abiding faith in nuclear power and a minority, which opposes it. In my view, which does not seem to have any takers now, is that we should gradually alter our energy mix to reduce our dependence on nuclear power for generation of electricity with the long-term intention of eliminating it. As of now, India cannot abandon nuclear power as a means of production of electricity as the policy followed so far cannot be reversed. But if greater attention is given to research and development of alternate sources, it should be possible for us to make a transition within a time frame. This will mean freezing the use of nuclear power at the present level and reducing it gradually, as we develop alternatives. For the small component of nuclear power that we envisage in our energy mix, we should find viable alternatives, which are already available. More than anything else, such a step will remove the fear that, for generations to come, India will face the danger of nuclear accidents, a fear that fuels the agitation against nuclear plants in India.

Indeed, the policies of every Government that has come to power in India and the popular sentiment in India have coincided in favour of nuclear power being an important part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. In fact, the global trend against nuclear power has presented opportunities for India in terms of prices and availability of nuclear plant and material. But the nuclear power scene in India cannot but be influenced by new scientific research on nuclear power, including its costs and dangers, as well as on availability of safe and efficient alternatives.

Thank you.

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