Efforts are on to squelch the
months-long peaceful movement by villagers living in the
neighbourhood of the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu which
has delayed its commissioning. What brought the people out of
their homes is the fear that the plant is a threat to their lives
and livelihood. Repeated assertions by spokesmen of the national
science and technology establishment, from former president A.P.J.
Abdul Kalam downwards, have not convinced them that the plant is
accident-proof. Instead of talking to the people and addressing
their concerns, the Government of India appears set to crush their
movement using crude force.
At the best of times, it is not easy to have open and honest
deliberations on the nuclear issue. Since nuclear technology has
military applications, all countries routinely conduct much of the
work in this area in total secrecy. The Indian nuclear programme
has been directly under the prime minister since its inception,
and Parliament does not look into the working of the Department of
Atomic Energy closely. The institutional mechanism set up to
oversee nuclear safety is under the department itself. So long as
the government fights shy of creating an independent nuclear
safety mechanism outside the department's control, its claims
about the safety of the nuclear installations cannot be taken at
The arguments advanced by the official establishment to allay
fears about the safety of the Kudankulam plant are irrational and
unscientific, not to say dishonest. How can Abdul Kalam guarantee
its safety when the Russian equipment suppliers are not ready to
do so? In a bid to belittle fears of radiation emanating from the
plant, the government points out in an advertisement placed in the
newspapers, that the people are already exposed to radiation
present in nature and used in medical treatment. It is absurd to
cite the presence of natural radiation and its use for medicinal
purposes to justify exposing the people to a possible nuclear
One factor that complicates decision making on the Kudankulam
project, the first stage of which is almost ready to be
commissioned, is that the government has already spent about
Rs.150 billion on it. When India signed an agreement with the
Soviet Union in 1988 for setting up the project, the cost was
estimated at Rs.40 billion. It shot up as a result of the
inordinate delay in starting and completing the work, occasioned
partly by the Soviet Union's collapse. But can a democratic
government approach an issue involving people's lives and
livelihood the way an auditor looks at a statement of expenditure?
That a lot of money has been sunk is no justification for
continuing with a project about which grave doubts remain in
people's minds after Fukushima.
Anti-nuclear groups, which include persons with expertise in the
area, have suggested that part of the investment in the ongoing
nuclear projects can be salvaged by converting them into natural
gas-based plants. After the Three Mile Island accident, the US had
converted the Shoreham nuclear plant in Long Island, New York, the
William H Zimmer nuclear plant in Ohio and the Midland
Cogeneration Facility in Michigan to run on fossil fuel.
The argument that India cannot ensure energy security without
nuclear power rests on questionable grounds. Currently nuclear
power constitutes only three per cent of the country's energy
requirement. Even if the projects conceived in the pre-Fukushima
period are implemented on time (which, going by the record, is
most unlikely), the expectation is that nuclear plants will supply
25 per cent of the power by 2050. This means there is enough time
to recast the energy plans in the light of current realities.
Two years ago many countries were working on new nuclear plants.
Last week the Germans backed out of a commitment to supply
equipment for two plants in Britain citing the Fukushima disaster
and the European economic crisis as the reasons. Today, India
shares with China the dubious distinction of being the only
countries determinedly pursuing the nuclear path, undeterred by
Fukushima. The ruling establishments in the two countries are
guided by visions of reaching the heights of the global economy.
As the most populous nations, it is quite legitimate for them to
aspire to be the world's largest economies. The moot question is
what route to take to reach the destination.
Currently India and China are on a track cut by the Western
countries which, having brought large parts of the world under
their heel, had access to cheap energy sources. This raises two
problems: large-scale consumption of energy and large-scale
expulsion of poisonous wastes. Neither China nor India is engaged
in scientific pursuits to find solutions to these problems.
Instead they are claiming the right to follow the disastrous path
of the developed economies. Their scientific efforts are limited
to demonstrating that they can do what the West had done.
The motivation behind India's nuclear romance is not the need for
energy security, as the ruling establishment claims, but the
overweening desire for big power status. Its achievements in the
fields of nuclear and missile technology have generated a sense of
pride not only in its scientific and technical personnel but in
the nation as a whole. This sense of pride effectively camouflages
the stark fact that very little original work is being done in the
fields of science and technology.
As a country blessed with sunshine, India stands to benefit the
most by a breakthrough in solar energy technology, which is
already available but is not cost- effective. Yet the government
has neglected this area, transfixed as it is by delusions of
nuclear grandeur. The fall of the Soviet Union, which had made
great advances in some critical areas, like space technology,
pushing the US to the second place, holds a lesson for India: big
power status built up overlooking the interests of the masses is
liable to collapse like a house of cards.
The Kudankulam line-up reveals the contours of a division within
the country. Ranged on one side are various elements of the
establishment: the central and state governments, the science and
technology bureaucracy, the political parties, etc. On the other
side are poor, marginalized people, backed by small, scattered
groups of human rights defenders. A similar line-up can also be
seen at other centres where nuclear plants are coming up as also
at places all across the country where national or multinational
corporations are trying to squeeze the poor people out to set up
is a veteran journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at