Inside India’s WoRld of Nuclear Failures #DAE

[Mail Today (India)]

Al Bawaba Ltd. Tomes on India’s nuclear establishment are seldom racily written or free from rhetoric. Here’s anotable exception from aPrinceton scholar

NNUCLEAR- RELATED issues have dominated public discourse in the country with varying intensity since 1998, when the second set of nuclear tests were conducted at Pokharan.

A few years later came the Indo- US civilian nuclear deal which shook the very foundations of UPA- I, and follow- up actions such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group ( NSG) waiver and nuclear liability law continues to be in a limbo.

In the past two years, protests against the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, have grabbed headlines and eyeballs. It is interesting how the debate pendulum has swung from the bomb, which symbolised national security, to nuclear power, which is claimed to signify energy security.

It is equally interesting to note that both the developments are functions of a single wing of the government — the Department of Atomic Energy ( DAE). There is nothing wrong with this arrangement, but for the fact that this wing of the government is steeped in unbound secrecy even in this age of transparency and RTI. There is very little known about how it works, but for its sanitised ( and often self- contradicting) annual reports, glossy publicity literature and occasional institutional biopics penned by serving or retired nuclear scientists. Kudos to M. V. Ramana, an Indian scholar working at Princeton University, for putting together a critical history of India’s nuclear power prorgramme, despite such handicaps.

The Indian nuclear establishment over the decades has successfully earned political patronage and has crafted a glorified public image by projecting itself as the pride of Indian science. An entire generation of Indians has grown with this establishment’s self- congratulatory claims, such as: ” it was the genius of Homi Bhabha that laid the foundation of nuclear programme”; ” India has developed and mastered nuclear power technology indigenously”; ” the nuclear programme is mainly for power development and not for making nuclear weapons”; ” nuclear is the only viable source of cheap and clean electricity”; the nuclear safety record of India is exemplary”, and so on.

Ramana has busted all such myths with surgical precision and through scholarly collation and analysis of publicly available information, data and scanty archival material. There is no rhetoric. The book’s strength lies in the way the author has used DAE’s own The links Bhabha in Delhi wing atomic could include Saha.

Bhabha secrecy right modelling yardsticks and promises made to the nation to judge its performance.

For a student of science and nuclear policy making in India, the book reads like a racy novel. It is an eye- opener.

The most revealing part of the narrative is the historical perspective relating to seeding of the nuclear power programme and its early growth under Bhabha, and the political patronage provided by Nehru.

The book shows how personal links with Nehru helped Bhabha work his way through Delhi and have a dedicated wing in the government for atomic energy that nobody could question and did not include critics such as Meghnad Saha.

Bhabha deliberately built secrecy into the programme right at the beginning by modelling the Atomic Energy Commission and the atomic energy after the British Atomic Energy Act. Though Nehru publicly defended the need for secrecy, it worried him privately as reflected in of his letters where he says, ” The work of AEC is shrouded in secrecy. I try to keep in touch with from time to time. … I do not know how else can proceed in this matter.” Not much changed since the times of Nehru. Ramana repeatedly denied information about economic costs of fast breeder reactors, among other things, under the Act.

DAE’s obsession with secrecy understandable when one looks at its dismal performance on every count — design and development of nuclear reactors, power generation, functioning of heavy water plants, reprocessing plants, uranium mining, and so on.

It begins with claims made by Bhabha and Nehru about Apsara — the much- acclaimed swimming pool reactor — being an indigenous effort, whereas it was completely based on the design and technical data that Bhabha got from his colleague from Cambridge, Sir John Cockcroft.

The first unit of electricity from a nuclear plant came from the Tarapur reactor, which was supplied by General Electric, was erected by Bechtel and funded by USAID. Ramana, using authentic data and examples, also exposes the half- truths about indigenous development and growth under the technology denial regime post- Pokharan I. The most glaring part of the Indian progeramme and duplicity of its leaders are the claims made from time to time about the promise of nuclear energy. In the 1980s, DAE claimed it would generate 10,000 MW of nuclear power by 2000. In the 2000s, it changed the goal post to another rhythmic figure — 20,000 MW by 2020. To justify the civilian nuclear deal, it came up with another magical figure of 275,000 MW by 2052.

All these promises have been made by DAE fully knowing that it neither has the necessary knowhow, fuel and technology, nor the money to achieve even a fraction of it. Despite gobbling up thousands of crores over half a century, the DAE has an installed capacity of just 4,780 MW, compared with 22,333 MW of renewable power installed capacity achieved with a tiny budget. The jugglery of figures also continues when it comes to calculating costs of nuclear power.

The book is highly recommended for policy makers and energy policy planners as well as anyone who is interested in an independent view of India’s nuclear power programme. It is a valuable addition to the growing literature on this subject.

It was Homi Bhabha who started the tradition of hiding the DAE behind an iron veil of secrecy



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