M.V.Ramana on the Future of Nuclear Energy in India – Part 1 of 2

Chrestomather | October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

On December 3, 2011 I wrote, in a post on this site: ‘I met M.V. Ramana in 1998 when I was writing Countdown, my essay on the nuclear situation in the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the most knowledgeable of the many experts I sought out (he has a PhD in physics from Boston University and has devoted many years to nuclear issues)… Ramana is associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. His forthcoming book  “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” is sure to be the definitive study of the subject: I can’t wait to read it.’

Ramana has since sent me the book (or rather the manuscript, which is soon to be published by Penguin India). I have just finished reading it and it is indeed the definitive work I had thought it would be.

Ramana has been working on nuclear issues for a long time and The Power of Promise is the summation of decades of research. This is not to say that it is a daunting tome, either literally or metaphorically: at a mere 241 manuscript pages (not including notes and appendices) it is actually surprisingly concise.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about the book is that it is not primarily about nuclear weapons. Its subject, as the subtitle states, is nuclear energy and the claims that are being made for it, in India and elsewhere – that it can feasibly meet the world’s expanding energy needs and that it is a relatively safe and economical alternative to fossil fuels.

This is how Ramana describes The Power of Promise: ‘This book is an attempt to assess the success or failure of the nuclear programme according to the terms it set itself. Rather than deal with these topics in the abstract, I focus on the concrete: on specific facilities, the technologies used, the materials involved and the economic performance of reactors that have been built and are being contructed… The aim of my exercise at the very minimum is to deepen the debate about whether India should indeed embark on a massive nuclear programme. I have tried to do so by uncovering and presenting technical and historical information and analysing it.’ (14§)

This makes the book sound more technical than it is. The Power of Promise certainly does not lack for technical detail but it is still an absorbing read. The writing is one of its pleasantest surprises. Ramana shows himself to be one of those rare writers who can make science interesting: his prose is crisp, he has an eye for telling details and apt quotations, and he has a remarkable facility for narrative. He is evidently fascinated by history and the characters who shape it. Homi Bhabha, who brought the Indian nuclear programme into being, is inevitably a large figure in this story.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is devoted to Bhabha’s clash with the physicist Meghnad Saha, who was from the other end of the country in every sense. This is how Ramana sums up their struggle: ‘Saha and Bhabha differed in their notions about the goals of science and technology, and the means for achieving these goals. Saha ‘emphasized judicious and equitable distribution and advocated participatory democracy even in engineering projects that involve highly technical information’ … But such an approach was not the one adopted in India after independence. Despite the deep political roots in the Indian nationalist movement that Saha had, Bhabha’s more élitist approach prevailed over Saha’s more open and democratically disposed approach.’ (25-6)

Bhabha’s personal personal charm had a great deal to do with the extraordinary influence he came to wield. Among his many friends, as Ramana writes, ‘was the man who was to become India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru and Bhabha met for the first time on a ship in 1937 and seem to have hit it off right from the beginning… This was hardly surprising for they had much in common. Both were born to wealthy parents, had been educated in Cambridge, and were deeply interested in arts and music. Over the years, a deep friendship developed between the two … As Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was to reminisce years later, ‘The life of a politician lacks many of those warm moments of sensitivity that other people take for granted in their everyday life … I know that Homi Bhabha opened one such “window” for my father … he always found time for Dr Bhabha, not only because the problems which Dr Bhabha brought were important and he wanted to give them urgent attention, but because he found at the same time it was relaxing and it was an entirely new world’. (21)

It was Bhabha who first articulated the claims that are made for the nuclear energy programme today. The most important of these are the following: that only nuclear energy can feasibly meet India’s expanding energy needs; that in comparison with other sources nuclear energy is cheap and plentiful; that it is relatively safe; and that it is far less destructive to the environment than energy generated by fossil fuels, especially coal (which provides most of the electricity that is consumed in India and China today).

Ramana tackles each of these arguments in turn. Can the nuclear programme really provide as much energy as it says it will? Through a detailed empirical analysis Ramana shows that the nuclear establishment has consistently over-stated the amount of electricity it can feasibly generate in the near future: ‘In 1984, a decade after the 1974 nuclear weapon test, the DAE drew up a new atomic energy profile that envisioned setting up 10,000 MW of nuclear power by the year 2000.’ (45). But an audit in 1998 found that ‘’the actual additional generation of power under the profile as of March 1998 was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5291.48 crore’… Nil, as in zero. In the words of Polonius from Hamlet, ‘…’tis true ’tis pity; / And pity ’tis ’tis true.’ (46)

Ramana notes: ‘Even without the wisdom of today’s hindsight, it should be obvious to anyone who knew the history of construction of the operating reactors… that the projected growth in nuclear capacity was highly improbable if not impossible. But such comprehension was not to be found within the Department of Atomic Energy’s leadership.’

The feasibility of generating enormous amounts of nuclear energy is not limited by technology alone. There is a human constraint as well. As Ramana shows there has been massive public opposition to the siting of nuclear reactors across the country (the demonstrations in Ratnagiri and Kudankulam are merely the latest manifestations of a long series of protests). Several sites have had to be abandoned because of public opposition. Where then are all the promised new reactors to be located?

Is nuclear energy really as cheap as its advocates say? Ramana shows that this claim is an illusion conjured up creative accounting – that is by hugely underestimating costs, by hiding subsidies, and perhaps most signficantly by limiting liabilities in the event of catastrophic accidents. At the end of this exercise he asks: ‘If nuclear power is uncompetitive, then why do many people believe that it is cheap? In part, this is because, at every opportunity, the nuclear establishment keeps repeating the claim about the competitiveness of nuclear power. It also tries to substantiate it through ‘calculations’. These calculations, however, are flawed. Typically, they are based on estimated costs of future facilities rather than actual costs of facilities already constructed. Given the huge cost overruns at most facilities, as documented in Chapter 3 on Power Reactors, the distortion due to this practice is significant. Then, it makes assumptions about other cost components, with no support from data of any sort. For instance, the operations and maintenance cost is merely pegged at a specific percentage of the capital cost, with no basis for arriving at it. The costs of decommissioning a reactor are accounted for by periodically adding a set amount of money, called a decommissioning levy, into a fund … But there is no clear idea of how much decommissioning a reactor will cost, and the few examples in other countries that have decommissioned reactors have invariably cost much more than expected. Similarly, the cost of radioactive waste management is completely arbitrary (typically, Rs 0.05 per unit).’ (174)

In sum: ‘The result has been to bear out I.M.D Little’s prognosis from 1958: ‘As Dr Bhabha says, electricity is in short supply in India. It is likely to go on being in short supply if one uses twice as much capital as is needed to get more’ (Little 1958, 1486).’ (176).

 

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§ References are to manuscript pages.

 

 

 


One Response to “M.V.Ramana on the Future of Nuclear Energy in India – Part 1 of 2”

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  1. Comment by vijeeOctober 21, 2012 at 1:13 pm   Reply

    Recently I met Abha Sur author of Dispersed Radiance — she has delved into the papers of Meghnad Saha & has presented him as an anti-thesis of C.V.Raman. Raman’s adversary had consciously changed his name to Meghnad (son of Ravan) from Megnath :-).

    And she had written about how Homi Bhabha, 17 years Saha’s junior was able to shape the nation’s nuclear energy program because of his charisma and personal equation with Nehru instead of poor Saha .

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