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Book Review: The Power of Promise - Examining Nuclear Energy in India by M V Ramana

An elaborate charade rationalises the economic and political investment in nuclear power

by Praful Bidwai, 10 February 2013

print version of this article print version - 11 February 2013

(an edited version of the below book review has appeared in "Outlook" magazine )

The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India
By MV Ramana
Penguin/Viking/366 pages/Rs 699

Review by Praful Bidwai

How should one describe an industry that promised abundant, safe, and environmentally benign energy which would be “too cheap to meter”, but has delivered only one-tenth of the projected electricity, caused catastrophic accidents, contaminated millions of square miles and poisoned lakhs of people with radioactivity, and proved “too costly to matter”? Nuclear power has globally inflicted an estimated loss exceeding one trillion dollars—in subsidies, abandoned projects, cash losses and other damage. No bank will finance it. It has been termed the “the biggest managerial disaster” and “the greatest failure” in industrial history, and a “menace” to the public. It inspires fear and loathing. In most countries it can only be imposed undemocratically.

Nuclear power is in global decline. The number of reactors worldwide peaked in 2002 and their generation in 2006. Generation has further fallen by 4.3 percent since 2010. Nuclear power’s contribution to world electricity supply has declined from a peak of 17 percent to about 11 percent, and to final energy consumption to just 2 percent. After Fukushima, it stands irredeemably discredited and is probably moribund.

In India, however, the elite treats nuclear power as the technology of the future, an icon of modernity that promises it unbridled consumption, and a precondition of progress—just as the state considers peaceful anti-nuclear protests seditious. In Koodankulam, for instance, it has filed chargesheets against 120,000 people, including attempt to murder (18,000) and waging war against it (13,000), among other crimes. It wants to multiply India’s nuclear capacity a hundred-fold to 470 gigawatts (thousands of megawatts) by 2050. Forgotten is the Department of Atomic Energy’s abysmal failure to deliver. It projected 43.5 GW for 2000, but achieved a pathetic 2.7 GW. It has since missed every target. Also erased is its appalling record on safety, health, transparency, accountability and technology absorption, besides routine 200 percent-plus cost-overruns.

This excellent book explains why official India remains obsessed with nuclear energy and the DAE politically powerful despite this. The two pillars of the DAE’s power, Ramana argues, are the promise or future projection of limitless energy, and the deadly attraction of the power to annihilate contained in nuclear weapons. The state seeks legitimacy through these two intimately connected parts of the nuclear programme. An elaborate charade rationalises its economic and political investment in nuclear power: vanishing fossil fuels, unviability of renewable sources, imperative of “development” (read, consumption-led growth), and nuclear’s claimed advantages in low costs, energy security, abundance of domestic thorium, and potential for “decarbonising” the economy.

The book subjects these claims to a politely worded, but devastating, critique. It exposes Homi Bhabha’s fantasy of a three-stage programme: heavy-water reactors and plutonium reprocessing at the first stage; fast breeders at the second, which generate more plutonium than they consume while using thorium in their blanket to produce a new fuel (uranium-233); and burning that in the third stage to convert yet more thorium to generate virtually limitless power. The DAE, Ramana shows, has grievously miscalculated plutonium production and consumption; the projected breeder growth is both theoretically and practically unachievable.

Even assuming breeders are viable, this knocks the bottom out of the DAE’s mid-century target. But these ultra-high-risk accident-prone reactors have been abandoned worldwide, and uranium-233-thorium reactors haven’t been industrially proved. India’s 12 MW Fast-Breeder Test Reactor has worked at only one-fifth its capacity amidst numerous accidents. But the DAE declared it a “success” and is building a 500 MW breeder!

Ramana shows how the DAE was crafted and run as an institution unanswerable to Parliament and the public. It abuses its power to mess up everything from uranium mining to spent-fuel reprocessing, violates its own safety norms, makes extravagant claims about developing technologies indigenously while importing/borrowing them, and hides major elements of generation costs through cheap accounting tricks. Nuclear power in India, like elsewhere, is far costlier than electricity from fossil fuels, and increasingly, from truly abundant, benign, safe, renewable sources. The French EPR, proposed for Jaitapur, is the world’s most exorbitant reactor, which has suffered an unconscionable 265-percent cost escalation in France. It will haemorrhage India’s power sector.

One of the book’s best chapters analyses the DAE’s safety, health and environmental record and failure to learn from accidents. The DAE gets away because there’s no independent safety regulator and no real obligation to disclose relevant information. One wishes Ramana had addressed the Koodankulam and Jaitapur reactors’ safety issues at greater length, evaluated Fukushima’s long-term global impact, and discussed alternatives to nuclear power including decentralised renewable energy. Nevertheless, this seminal book demystifies atomic power and will contribute significantly to the cause of halting the nuclear juggernaut.