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India: Our Atom State

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    South Asians Against Nukes - Year 11 December 5, 2009 http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SAAN_/message/1323 ... The Telegraph, December 5 , 2009 OUR ATOM STATE -
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 4 9:34 PM
      South Asians Against Nukes - Year 11
      December 5, 2009



      The Telegraph, December 5 , 2009

      - India’s nuclear industry is neither profitable nor accountable

      by Ramachandra Guha

      The most secretive institution in India is the Atomic Energy
      Commission. Although its power plants profess to produce goods for
      the benefit of the public, they are not judged by the standards of
      profitability and accountability that the market imposes on other
      industries. Nor, like other government-owned and managed firms, do
      they have to report to the parliamentary committee on public
      undertakings. In fact, by an act of Parliament they have been made
      exempt from the scrutiny of the Parliament itself.

      No ordinary citizen can get anywhere near an atomic installation, and
      even the most well-connected historian cannot get anywhere near the
      records of the AEC or its associated bodies. But by a stroke of luck
      I once stumbled upon snatches of correspondence connected with this
      otherwise closed and inward-looking organization. When I found these
      documents, a decade ago, I xeroxed and filed them away. They bear
      exhuming today, since they speak directly to the controversy relating
      to the recent leak in the Kaiga nuclear plant.

      The documents date to the year 1967, when the Congress had just won
      its fourth general elections in a row. Among the new entrants to the
      ministry was M.S. Gurupadaswamy, who was appointed the minister of
      state for atomic energy. Gurupadaswamy had previously been a member
      of the Praja Socialist Party, an organization known for cultivating
      both intelligence as well as independence of mind. In keeping with
      this tradition, he took his new job rather seriously.

      He visited the plants then in operation, and spoke to a cross-section
      of scientists and staff. What he found was not altogether to his
      liking. He wrote to the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, that the work
      of the AEC “appears to be on [a] low keel”; that there were serious
      delays; and that there was a loss of morale among the staff. He
      recommended that a set of procedures “be evolved to achieve greater
      accountability [as] to the time-schedule, production, cost, technical
      performance, etc” of our nuclear power plants.

      Having alerted the prime minister to the deficiencies within the AEC,
      the new minister of state then took up the matter with the chairman
      of the commission, the physicist, Vikram Sarabhai. He asked him to
      supply details of project costs, expenditure incurred over the past
      few years including the foreign exchange component, the reasons for
      delays, and the impediments faced in the execution of their work.
      These details were important in themselves, but Gurupadaswamy further
      added that they might be used in “a comparative study of the Atomic
      Energy Commission, the Railway Board, and the P&T Board”. (That he
      thought of these comparisons is testimony to the minister’s
      intelligence, for the railways and postal service were the two
      government agencies that provided tangible and mostly positive
      services to the citizens of India.)

      These (very reasonable) suggestions provoked panic and paranoia in
      the AEC. The chairman wrote to the prime minister insisting that he
      report only to her, since there was “no provision in the constitution
      [of the AEC] for a Minister of State for Atomic Energy to concern
      himself with the formulation of policy or with the implementation of
      decisions”. He believed that “it would be most unfortunate” if the
      “existing relations between the Commission, its Chairman and the
      Prime Minister” were to be altered “through the nature of information
      and consultation that is required at the Ministerial level and the
      frequency of reporting” that Gurupadaswamy had asked for.

      In a handwritten note to her secretary (a copy of which I possess)
      Mrs Gandhi enclosed this correspondence with the comment: “Shri
      Gurupadaswamy is full of zeal. Dr Sarabhai thinks it is misplaced
      zeal!” Four decades on, I think that we can safely conclude that the
      zeal was in fact well directed. For studies by independent
      researchers strongly suggest that our atomic energy programme is an
      economic failure as well as an environmental disaster. Nor does the
      charge-sheet end here, for, by the very nature of its functioning,
      the AEC has undermined the democratic ideals of the nation.

      Take the environmental question first. The construction of nuclear
      installations often involves the loss of green cover — in the case of
      Kaiga, the loss of some of the best rainforests in the Western Ghats.
      In the extraction of thorium and uranium, health hazards are imposed
      on the communities which live near the mines. In the normal
      operations of these plants further health costs are borne by
      surrounding communities. (A study by Sanghamitra and Surendra Gadekar
      demonstrates that those living near nuclear installations in India
      are exposed to very high levels of radiation.) Then there is the ever-
      present threat of nuclear accidents. Finally, there is the question
      of the disposal of the wastes, which remain radioactive for thousands
      of years.

      On the economic side, work by the distinguished energy scientist,
      Amulya Reddy, has shown that nuclear power in India is more costly
      per unit than coal, hydel, solar or other available options (see
      http://www.amulya-reddy.org.in/Publ_427_E_NE.htm). Reddy based his
      calculations on official statistics, those contained in the annual
      reports of the AEC (the only information about the organization that
      ever becomes public). However, if one was to take into account the
      hidden subsidies that the commission enjoys, the comparison would be
      even more damaging to its interests. Remarkably, despite contributing
      a mere three per cent of the country’s energy needs, more than 60 per
      cent of the total research budget on energy goes to this sector. How
      much better served would we and the nation be if the priorities were
      reversed, with clean technologies like solar and wind power provided
      the assistance that nuclear energy currently obtains?

      Finally, nuclear energy is a technology that is inherently anti-
      democratic. It erects a wall of secrecy between itself and the
      ordinary citizen. It is not subject to the scrutiny of elected
      legislators. It refuses even to submit itself to the peer-review of
      the scientific community. In response to public pressure exerted over
      a number of years, the government set up an Atomic Energy Regulatory
      Board, only to staff it with former employees of the AEC. No credible
      or independent scientist serves on it. Naturally, the AERB sees its
      job as merely being to whitewash the errors of its paymasters.

      To these very serious limitations has now been added a new and
      perhaps still more serious one — that the industry is peculiarly
      vulnerable to terror attacks. In seeking to deflect criticism of the
      recent accident at Kaiga, the chairman of the Nuclear Power
      Corporation of India Limited told a television channel that this may
      have been sabotage by a “foreign hand”. The claim only dropped more
      egg on his face, for if, despite all the secrecy and security, the
      AEC or NPCIL cannot prevent contamination of a single water tower,
      who is to say that they can ever thwart a suicide bomber or a plane
      flying low into one of their plants?

      The Atomic Energy Commission in India is both a holy cow as well as a
      white elephant. Because it can, in theory, deliver atomic weapons to
      the State, successive prime ministers are loath to interfere with its
      workings. As a result, the taxpayer has been forced to sink billions
      of crores into an industry that has consistently under-performed,
      that after six decades of pampering still produces a niggardly
      proportion of our energy requirements, and this at a higher cost and
      at a far greater risk than the alternatives. It is past time that the
      industry and those who control it were made to answer for their
      actions. The Kaiga accident may yet help in reviving, albeit 42 years
      too late, M.S. Gurupadaswamy’s public-spirited demand that we seek to
      “achieve greater accountability [as] to the time- schedule,
      production, cost, technical performance, etc” of our much cossetted
      and grossly overrated nuclear industry.


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