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"India should choose Iran, not US" - An Interview with Arjun Makhijiani

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    rediff.com December 28, 2005 The Rediff Interview/Dr Arjun Makhijiani India should choose Iran, not US Dr Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 28, 2005
      December 28, 2005

      The Rediff Interview/Dr Arjun Makhijiani

      India should choose Iran, not US

      Dr Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and
      Environmental Research and one of the leading technical nuclear experts
      in the United States, believes that even if India gets everything it
      wants under the US-India civilian nuclear agreement signed by President
      George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 18, it would
      still be only a tiny fraction of the oil and gas it could obtain from
      Iran to meet India's growing energy needs.

      It is not, Dr Makhijani argues, therefore worth jeopardizing India's
      relationship with Iran by voting with the United States against Tehran
      at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

      Dr Makhijani, a PhD specialising in nuclear fusion, has since 2004
      served as one of the principal members of a team providing technical
      support to the President-appointed Advisory Board on Radiation and
      Worker Health. He has also served on the Radiation Advisory Committee of
      the US Environmental Protection Agency from 1992 to 1994 as well as
      several other scientific advisory committees.

      He has authored, solo or as part of a collaborative effort, numerous
      reports and books on energy and environmental issues. He was principal
      author of the first study of the energy efficiency potential of the US
      economy published in 1972, and principal editor of Nuclear Wastelands: A
      Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and
      Environmental Effects, published by MIT Press in July 1995, which was
      nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by MIT Press.

      He has also on numerous occasions testified before the US Congress, and
      has appeared on ABC World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, National
      Public Radio, CNN, BBC, C-SPAN, and CBC.

      You and your organisation have done extensive technical research on
      nuclear energy and civilian nuclear reactors. What is your take on the
      US-India civilian nuclear agreement?

      First of all, it is not as yet an agreement, since there will be many
      obstacles in the US Congress as you know. Secondly, even if it is
      approved by Congress, it is not going to make a material difference to
      India's electricity scene.

      If you look at India's electricity goals, which is 20,000 megawatts by
      2020, the whole of the nuclear energy sector will at best contribute 10
      to 12 percent of the total requirement even if everything goes as planned.

      For this, India seems to be giving up, or at least jeopardising, a much
      larger and more sure source of energy, one that could provide
      electricity more competitively than nuclear, which is natural gas from
      Iran. So it (the US-India nuclear deal) does not look like a very good
      deal, even just on economic terms, never mind the other political or
      strategic considerations.

      'National interest is at stake'

      You said nuclear energy will by 2020 fill maybe about 12 percent of
      India's energy needs. Currently, the nuclear component contributes three

      It is about three percent now, (but) in fairness, in the first few
      decades, India's nuclear energy sector had many serious problems leading
      to chronic underperformance and high cost. In the last few years, the
      performance of the nuclear energy sector has considerably improved. But
      it still remains -- for the effort, economic as well as political that
      has been put into it -- a very low figure. The damage from
      under-performing nuclear plants in the electricity sector has not been
      properly assessed in India.

      Can you give me concrete examples of under-performing nuclear power plants?

      For example, the Rajasthan nuclear power plants, which were chronically
      under-performing in the 1980s and 1990s, were in the context of the
      electricity sector overall, quite weak. And so when you have important
      power plants that go down or offline most of the time or much of the
      time, what happens is that it has a disproportionate impact on industry.

      It's not like a light going off in the house when the electricity goes
      out, and when it comes back on the light just comes on. These plants
      have to be started up very carefully, and with a certain procedure that
      is very costly and lengthy. So the impact of an under-performing and
      unreliable nuclear energy sector on Indian industry has been very

      The most important thing in the electricity sector in India is not the
      cost of electricity -- it's the unreliability of electricity. And, the
      fact that power is unreliable in India is one of the reasons that China
      gets a lot more investment despite higher costs. If you look at where
      corporations invest abroad, they don't invest in the cheapest labour
      places or even necessarily in places where they have more skilled labor,
      they invest in places where they can surely perform their jobs.

      That is why Indian software is not a very big deal -- they can invest
      there because the performance of the software sector does not depend
      that much on large scale electricity supply. You can have emergency
      generators; it's not costly to do that. But the performance of a heavy
      industrial sector does depend on large scale supply of electricity. So
      it's very damaging to have the kind of lackadaisical approach to
      electricity that we have in India.

      But isn't this an argument that the Indian government itself is making,
      that it has to get the power sector going if the economic growth rates
      are to be maintained? And that in order to do that, addressing the acute
      energy needs is imperative and one way of doing it is to generate
      nuclear energy?

      The power sector is much more than a set of generating plants. You have
      to look at the whole sector. The sector has four different pieces in it.
      It has a generating side of course, without which there is nothing --
      you have to have generation. But it doesn't have to be all centralised

      Some of it can be medium-scale and some of it can be small-scale, and it
      has to be connected together in a sensible way. The second thing is the
      transmission infrastructure.

      The third thing is the distribution infrastructure, and the fourth thing
      is the consuming equipment -- and they are all integral to the power sector.

      I'll give you an example. I was part of the US Presidential Energy
      Mission to India in 1994, as an adviser, because I know the Indian
      energy sector as well as the US energy sector. I had no business
      interests. I was just invited, and I saw the Enron project as a looming
      disaster even at the time. But of course, who was listening?

      I visited power plants of the National Thermo Power Corporation of India
      at the time and was quite impressed by how well it was run, except one
      thing -- and it was not a problem in the power plant. It was a problem
      in the power sector. I noticed that something called the power factor
      was very low, which means that you are not using your generating
      capacity very well.

      You get a low power factor if your transmission and distribution
      infrastructure is weak and more importantly, if your consuming equipment
      is of poor quality, specially your fluorescent lamps and your
      electricity motors.

      So I pointed out that improving power can be done relatively cheaply and
      easily, and instead of rushing to import more generation at very high
      prices from contractors like Enron, why not first improve the power
      factor and increase India's effective generating capacity by 5 percent
      -- for a couple of hundred dollars a kilowatt, instead of a couple of
      thousand dollars a kilowatt, which is what nuclear energy will cost. But
      no one was interested.

      It's much more sexy and attractive to invite foreigners to build power
      plants than it is to do it with domestic resources that are easily
      available within India's own infrastructure. By the way, I also found
      that the National Thermo Power Corporation was doing a great job, and I
      did not see why India necessarily needed to import so much equipment
      when there is so much domestic industrial capacity -- Bharat Heavy
      Electricals -- and the capacity to build power plants in the National
      Thermo Power Corporation.

      I was very impressed with the laboratory as well as the industrial
      infrastructure in India, but it is not used well.

      So what are you suggesting in lieu of nuclear reactors?

      If there were standards for electric motors in terms of their
      performance, if there were standards for fluorescent lamp ballasts -- if
      we attended to the power factor, then we would be in a better position.
      The other thing is, we have large transmission and distribution losses.
      Some of it is theft, but I think less of it is theft -- theft has also
      become a convenient excuse for bureaucrats. I believe a lot of it is the
      poor infrastructure.

      Because of unreliable electricity, a lot of people buy their own
      generator sets. This is very, very wasteful of capital. The local
      generation should be tied up to the grid and if that is done, our
      transmission and distribution losses would go down quite a bit. So India
      must adopt a grid approach, and Western countries will move there

      It is very costly to do it here because the infrastructure is so big
      here. So instead of importing larger and larger power plants -- nuclear
      power plants, which are the largest of all power plants, which puts a
      strain on the transmission infrastructure -- India would do well to have
      100 and 200 megawatt natural gas-fired power plants which would
      strengthen the infrastructure and reliability, apart from cost

      So I don't believe the power sector has been well thought through. There
      is an ideological commitment to nuclear energy and this is an expression
      of ideology, not an expression of power sector interests.

      Are you totally against nuclear energy and India's efforts to enhance
      its output in cooperation with the US?

      I believe you have to evaluate every technology on what it is going to
      give you. There is a case to be made for nuclear energy in large
      countries like the US or India or any other large country. In small
      countries, there is not so strong a case -- nuclear power plants are
      just too big.

      But you must ask yourself why you want a particular type of power plant
      and where it fits into your infrastructure.

      I believe in a situation like India's, there are a number of
      disadvantages. I don't like nuclear energy from a number of difference
      points of view. The first is that it is relatively high cost. I would
      like it because it has zero greenhouse emissions at first approximation,
      and that's a very big advantage of nuclear energy.

      But for a country like India, there are a number of disadvantages even
      if you disregard proliferation. The most important consideration is

      If you build a 100 megawatt power plant and have too many of them, when
      one of them goes offline, the reliability problems ripple through the
      infrastructure and your power sector will tend to go down, your
      electricity supply will tend to go down more often. This is the
      calculation that is not being done in India.

      Reliability is not in the centre of Indian power centre considerations,
      and surprisingly so, because reliability is the number one problem in India.

      You spoke about the quest for nuclear energy in India being part of an
      ideological drive. Is it, in your opinion, an ideological drive that
      spans the whole gamut of the overall US-India strategic partnership?

      I don't believe it is ideological in terms of the US-India relationship,
      because that is what India wanted to do -- cement the US-India
      relationship, and it seems to have given up quite a lot in the process.
      I think India wanted two things from the US -- nuclear power and support
      for a UN Security Council seat. I don't think the US is ever going to
      support another Security Council member with a veto.

      The nuclear energy deal itself is going to be very tough and many of
      India's friends in the US Congress are asking questions.

      The ideological commitment to nuclear energy goes back to a different
      era. It goes back to two things -- one of which was a kind of
      ideological disease that was pretty much global, centred in the United
      States and the Soviet Union, which is that nuclear energy is going to be
      a magical energy source that is going to solve all of mankind's problems.

      So the ideological commitment, vis-Ă -vis India, goes back to the 1940s
      with Homi Bhabha and (Jawaharlal) Nehru who wanted India to be among the
      leaders in industry, in science, technology and they, like in many
      developing countries, many newly independent countries, felt that the
      prestige associated with the symbols of modernity were going to put
      countries on the map.

      India, of course, had global ambitions in this regard and there was no
      technology that was more a symbol of modernity than nuclear energy.

      'We made it very clear we are not going to sign the NPT'

      So there has been a kind of glamour about being like the Americans and
      the British, and I understand that. But this idea of technological
      imitation as a road to greatness… I believe it is the root of this
      ideological problem. It is actually leading India down the wrong road
      and compromising India's future as an industrial power.

      'Even if the nuclear deal were to be deferred, US-India relations will

      You have said that even if the agreement is ratified by Congress,
      nuclear power will provide only a tiny fraction of India's energy
      requirements. You've also made the argument that in the final analysis,
      India would be giving up so much. What would India be giving up?

      India has jeopardised its relationship with Iran. And not only that --
      you know, Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar has been making great
      efforts, and I believe rightly so, throughout the West Asian and Central
      Asian region for India to make agreements on the energy questions, that
      will ensure long-term oil and gas supplies to India.

      I believe the Iranian natural gas deal -- both the liquefied natural gas
      and the pipeline -- are linchpins of this whole strategy, partly for
      geographical reasons and partly for strategic and economic reasons,
      because they are the closest and cheapest deals. Iran, I believe, has
      the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Natural gas, in my
      opinion, should be a priority fuel for two things -- for electricity
      generation and for transportation.

      As we know, the cities of Mumbai and Delhi have been transformed in
      terms of pollution by the use of natural gas in buses, taxis and so on.
      And, beyond that, I believe if India took some leadership in the
      transportation area, instead of thinking that nuclear energy is going to
      give it technological leadership, India could truly become a
      technological leader in the world, say in various approaches to magnetic
      levitated trains, advanced hybrid car technology that is powered by
      natural gas, things like that.

      I believe India could have a transportation sector that would be much
      more economical of oil and gas if it went to hybrid natural gas powered
      vehicles. For this as well as for the electrical sector, Iranian gas
      supplies would create a potential much larger than 20,000 megawatts of
      electricity India requires, not to talk of the 5,000 to 7,000 megawatts
      the Indian government may get from the United States. So the natural gas
      quantities available from Iran are much, much larger in terms of energy
      supplies than nuclear power would be from the United States.

      So your argument is jeopardising this relationship with Iran for the
      sake of US nuclear power reactors is too great a sacrifice?

      There is also a strategic consideration that India should have learnt
      from the Tarapur experience, which is that Tarapur was in the context of
      another period in which India and the United States were supposedly
      sweethearts, and fuel was promised for this.

      Then India did something that the United States did not like, though we
      know that what India did in 1974 was triggered by something the US did
      -- the US sent the aircraft carrier Enterprise, armed with nuclear
      weapons, to the Indian Ocean during the India-Pakistan war in 1971 and
      threatened India.

      I believe this was one of the factors that led to the Indian nuclear
      test (in 1974). But in Washington, not only did it never enter the
      debate, many of the leaders in the nonproliferation community are not
      even conscious of the fact that India's decision to go nuclear was in
      good part prompted by a US nuclear threat to India. They have never
      taken any responsibility for it, and they have never, therefore, taken
      any responsibility for cutting off the fuel supply to Tarapur.

      'India should be a partner, not a target'

      It is said there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests, and
      this certainly applies to all of the great powers. The Indian leadership
      is now behaving as if this sort of cozy sweetheart relationship is going
      to go on forever and that the Americans are going to be in some way a
      reliable partner, more reliable than the Iranians.

      I would say if you strip away all of the ideological considerations and
      ask yourself who has a greater interest in making sure that India gets
      what it wants, I believe today, among all of the actors, there is no
      party with a greater interest in making sure that India gets what it
      wants than Iran.

      The plans that Mr Aiyar has been putting into place are very visionary
      and they are being, I would say, grievously compromised by things like
      the IAEA vote. Specifically, if India votes with the United States to
      refer Iran to the UN Security Council, I believe it will kill the
      India-Iran deal.

      Leave the politics aside for now; in tangible terms, how does the supply
      of natural gas from Iran compare with nuclear energy generated in India
      with the help of US-supplied nuclear reactors?

      Currently, the spot market prices for natural gas are $13 to $14 per
      million BTU (British Thermal Unit). Iranian gas by pipeline via Pakistan
      would be delivered to India in the vicinity of $3.5 to $4 per million
      BTU. This is not only much less than world prices, but at that price you
      can generate electricity more cheaply and that will create a much more
      reliable power sector in India than through nuclear power plants.

      It is not that all the natural gas should be used for electricity, but
      just making a comparison on that basis alone -- leaving aside the
      consideration that it would promote peace with Pakistan - the Iran deal
      could be the centrepiece of a very large project that I believe India
      needs to lead in, which is the economic integration of West, Central and
      South Asia.

      Could you speak about the safety factor of nuclear reactors? Do you
      believe India has taken the required protections against the possibility
      of nuclear accidents and disasters, in light of investigative reports of
      problems at some of India's nuclear plants?

      Those kinds of investigative reports do make one very uneasy. I have not
      independently investigated them, but I do believe that many of these
      reports should be given more credence from official authorities than
      they have been. Fortunately, India has not had a major accident, even on
      the scale of Three Mile Island which was much, much less than say Chernobyl.

      I can say from the US experience that the safety in the US nuclear
      sector has depended very critically on how open it is to outside
      intervenors -- that is, in the 1960s, the power plants that were being
      built here were not very safe. Many did not have secondary containment,
      their emergency core cooling systems were not very well designed.

      Three Mile Island could have been a much worse disaster had there not
      been whistle-blowers and hearings in which the Union of Concerned
      Scientists, an independent non-profit, was very critical of how the
      emergency core cooling systems were designed. As a result of that, the
      whole thing was revamped

      There has been some openness in the Indian nuclear energy sector in the
      last few years. They do publish some environmental information prior to
      projects. But I have been dismayed by three things.

      First of all, the amount of information is sorely deficient. Much more
      details need to be available to the public. The idea that the public
      cannot discuss atomic energy issues, which is in the Indian laws, is
      obsolete and detrimental to safety. It's not like publishing bomb
      designs, which is proper to be kept secret.

      The second thing is, this kind of information should be thoroughly
      integrated into the environmental assessments. I looked at the
      environmental assessment of the Breeder Reactor Project, which is being
      built at Kalpakkam, and I found it was very thin.

      And in the third sector, the Indians are learning an unfortunate lesson
      from the Americans, in that we have an environmental impact process
      here, but for the most part it has been perverted over the years -- the
      establishment decides what it wants to do and the environmental impact
      statement becomes pro forma.

      However in the US system, there is some check on that, because the
      public can take the government to court. I believe the environmental
      impact process in India should be deepened with a much greater
      commitment to taking independent steps.

      India has a great tap of technical and engineering and scientific
      expertise. It should take advantage of that and encourage independent
      thought to make whatever is done -- whether it is in coal or gas or oil
      or nuclear -- as safe as it can possibly be made.

      There is always a resource constraint, but within those constraints, it
      has to be open to independent criticism. We (the Institute for Energy
      and Environmental Research) produce technical studies all the time, and
      we have a very good record because we send our reports for review to
      people we know may not agree with our conclusions and then we take their
      criticisms very seriously.

      This is what is needed in the Indian energy sector as a whole, not just
      in the nuclear sector. India has, for many decades, paid an extremely
      heavy price for a wrong-headed development of the power sector that is
      focused on more centralised generation to the exclusion of the other two
      pieces -- strong emphasis on the consumption and distribution side. Not
      that we don't need more centralisation -- we need large-scale power
      plants in India.

      I am not saying small is beautiful. (But) India should have a mix of
      large, medium and small plants that are integrated. Indian electricity
      planning overall, I believe, has been far too focused on large-scale
      generation and on imported generation, neither of which I believe are
      strategically very good as the basis for planning.

      With regard to the requirement by the US that India separate its
      civilian and military nuclear facilities in a credible manner and put it
      under international safeguards, do you think this is viable?

      I believe for the Indians to have submitted to this with the United
      States at this time is not very strategically or politically
      appropriate, specially if India aims to continue as a leader in the
      non-aligned world. It would be throwing away that leadership for
      something I don't believe it's going to get from the United States.

      In recent years, the United States has given up its own leadership in
      regard to civilian facilities and nuclear weapons materials because it
      is currently making Tritium for its nuclear weapons program in civilian
      reactors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Moreover, the United States
      is not itself open to IAEA inspections.

      India should exercise its leadership to make the nuclear playing field
      level for everybody. I am not particularly for nuclear development in
      Iran or the US or anyplace else because of all the reasons I've told
      you. However, I believe it is very corrosive for India to be promoting
      what it not so long ago called nuclear apartheid.

      'The US is perceived as hypocritical'

      I was very saddened to read a comment from some official, a year or two
      ago, that Indians no longer talk about nuclear apartheid because India
      is now part of the club. This is a very, very corrosive idea.

      India should talk about nuclear apartheid with the idea of getting rid
      of it, and leading the way in its best traditions; India should be
      pressuring the nuclear weapons states to get rid of the bombs.
      Unfortunately, the present direction of leadership in this arena, I
      believe, is going to be very detrimental for the country.

      What India should do is publish a strict set of criteria, which will
      make the nuclear energy field in regard to proliferation equal
      throughout the world. If there are going to be inspections, then let
      them be universal. If there are going to be Additional Protocols of the
      IAEA inspections, let them also be universal.


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