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 face value.
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 catastrophe.
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 mega projects.