Nuclear deal: sin surfaces again
by Virendra Parekh on 08 Apr 2011 2 Comments

The Indo-US nuclear deal was conceived in sin, and sin has a way of surfacing in a most unexpected manner. Some recent disclosures by Wikileaks show the American hand where it should not be, while reactions of the Indian establishment to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan betray an unmistakable anxiety to protect American interests.


The Wikileaks release of a cable sent from the US embassy in New Delhi to the State Department spoke of wads of cash proudly exhibited to an embassy official by a lackey of Sonia Gandhi confidant Satish Sharma in July 2008. The ‘war chest’ was to be used to buy support of MPs of other parties to save the Manmohan Singh government in the crucial confidence vote.  Sharma et al, including MMS, have denied the contents of the cable; but anyone familiar with Congress culture will have no difficulty in believing them [the cables].


While the media has rightly focused on the cash-for-vote scandal, the American linkage with the whole episode has been (willfully?) downplayed. Actually, the proverbial foreign hand (Indira’s codename for CIA) is discernible throughout the episode.


Why was the confidence vote necessary? It became necessary when the Left parties withdrew their outside support to the government on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Reduced to a minority, the government was asked to prove its majority on the floor of the house. The confidence vote was crucial for the government’s survival. Like a smart operator, it decided to leave nothing to chance and readied itself to deploy every means at its command. It was decisive, purposeful government at its best!


But why exhibit the money before the Americans? Because the Americans had a large stake in the outcome - the future of the nuclear deal. Out of a natural affinity between two people facing a common problem, a Congressman showed the cash collected by the party to a US embassy official to reassure him that the Congress meant business. That is the essence of the strategic partnership between the two great democracies. There is a high probability that some or all the money had come from the US, originally in dollars of course. But how do we prove it?


The reactions of the Indian establishment to the nuclear crisis in Japan also carry an unmistakable stamp of the nuclear deal.  


The Japanese disaster is so powerful and far-reaching that it could precipitate a terminal crisis for the global nuclear industry. Since the Fukushima crisis erupted, several countries have announced steps to scale back or review nuclear power. Switzerland has cancelled plans to build three reactors. Germany has revoked a recent decision to prolong the phase-out of nuclear power and temporarily shut down seven of its pre-1980 plants. Even China, known for its lack of respect for safety issues, has announced that it is suspending new plant approvals until it could strengthen safety standards. China is seriously considering downsizing its massive expansion plan of nuclear plants in favour of solar energy to meet future power requirements. France, which gets more than three-fourths of its electricity from nuclear reactors, has upgraded the level of the Fukushima crisis on the disaster scale.


In stark contrast, Indian government and its nuclear establishment has done its best to downplay the nuclear crisis in Japan, to assert that India’s nuclear plants are safe, and assure foreign companies that the country would go ahead with its nuclear energy programme. The last is the crux of the matter.


On the first day, (12 March), Fukushima was dismissed as a minor accident, which would be brought quickly under control by Japan's highly advanced nuclear industry, by Sreekumar Banerjee, secretary, Department of Atomic Energy and chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. Next day, when there was an explosion in Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which had been starved of coolant water, S.K. Jain, chairman, Nuclear Power Corporation of India, called it “a purely chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some sections of media”. On the third day, when the nuclear crisis worsened irreversibly and the world was watching in horror and disbelief, we were told that the crisis would be over soon.


When the scale of the crisis could no longer be downplayed, there came the assurance: it cannot happen here. Japan-like nuclear mishaps are “most unlikely” in India, said National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon. He cited the Atomic Energy Commission and its other agencies saying, “our designs are different and we also store our spent fuel differently... The fire (in Japan) was a hydrogen fire in the area where the spent fuel is stored...They (AEC) tell us is that this is most unlikely.”


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered an immediate technical review of safety systems at India’s nuclear plants, but made it clear that its nuclear power programme was on track. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said that although India needs to learn appropriate lessons from the crisis at Japan’s nuclear plants, the country cannot give up on nuclear energy. As if on cue, the Maharashtra government announced that it would go ahead with the controversial Jaitapur nuclear power plant with additional safety measures if necessary.


India’s power deficit is cited to justify this stance. Sreekumar Banerjee reminded us that the country faces 12 per cent peak-hour power shortage and over 40 per cent of our people do not have electricity.


It is one thing to say that power shortage crimps India’s economic growth. It is another to say that we must press ahead with nuclear energy programme irrespective of what happens elsewhere and whatever other countries do. Mr. Banerjee is right in saying that apart from nuclear, none of the other types of energy, except solar, is a primary source of energy. But what about safety? And what about the cost? 


As to safety, nuclear power generation is inherently hazardous. Nuclear reactors are both systemically complex, and internally, tightly coupled. A fault or malfunction in one sub-system gets quickly transmitted to others and gets magnified till the whole system goes into crisis mode. Moreover, it is the only form of energy production that leaves a toxic trail of waste which remains hazardous for thousands (yes, thousands) of years. The half-life of plutonium-239, which is produced by fission, is 24,400 years. Till now, the world knows no way of safely storing nuclear wastes for long periods, let alone neutralising them or disposing of them.


As regards costs, it is hard to find a detailed cost-benefit analysis of nuclear power which takes into account long term environment costs and also its comparative advantage or disadvantage vis-à-vis other sources of energy. If the government were really serious about power crisis in the country, it would not have such a dismal record in implementation of power generation projects and management of the power sector in general.


The insistence on inevitability of nuclear energy is obviously meant to assure Americans that their interests are in safe hands.   


The crisis in Japan has hit the nuclear power industry worldwide, as governments worry about safety and investors have sold stocks. The industry was already in trouble earlier. The US has not had a single new reactor since 1973. The Three Mile Island (1979) led to tighter safety regulations and further raised the already-high costs of reactors, and hence of nuclear power. President George W Bush’s attempt 10 years ago to instigate a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in America by offering generous loan guarantees and other subsidies came a cropper. Chernobyl (1986) dealt a body blow to the European nuclear industry. No new reactor has been constructed in the last 25 years in Europe. The European nuclear industry has few projects on hand - all behind schedule, overshooting budget and facing thousands of safety questions from authorities.


This is the industry that is salivating at the prospect of India opting for nuclear energy in a big way. This is the industry that the Indo-US nuclear deal sought to salvage at the cost of Indian money and India’s safety.


It would be downright foolish and immoral to sacrifice safety of Indian people and environment in order to please an industry that has failed the world. India has no reason, technical, economic or strategic, for importing American water reactors over the next two decades.


Seizing the moment, India should scrap the Indo-US nuclear deal. The wisdom of a massive import-based expansion of the nuclear power programme tied to several conditions designed to “cap, rollback and eliminate” India’s nuclear weapons programme was doubtful from the beginning. The deal was designed to serve American (and European) interests - economic and strategic. It brought disgrace to our democracy by spawning the cash-for-vote scandal. Its cancellation would facilitate an objective review of India’s half-baked plans to rush into nuclear power expansion.


However, this is unlikely to happen. This government would not go beyond announcing a few safety measures for atomic plants and delaying some projects. Those who pushed the nuclear deal through (the Prime Minister who often acts like an American stooge, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and the powerful corporate lobbies in the US and India) are now too heavily invested in the deal to be able to take an objective view of cost competitiveness and long-term safety.


That brings us to a question as explosive as an atom bomb: has India become too corrupt and institutionally corroded to look after her own interests?


The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top