Nuclear India: Proudly Marching on the Wrong Side of History

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Even as the global decline in the fortunes of nuclear industry sharpens as we approach the 7th year of the ongoing accident in Fukushima, the nuclear industry is still desperate to see a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in progress. While very few new reactors are being built in the West, largely due to the non-competitiveness of nuclear power in free-market but also due to stronger safety, liability and environmental norms as well as relatively better public awareness, the nuclear lobbies are looking at newer countries in Asia and Africa as attractive destinations. As reflected in the IAEA-organised events and announcements at the recently-concluded COP23 in Bonn, the pro-nuclear cartels are eying ‘emerging countries’[1] - countries such as Turkey, Bangladesh, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Bolivia and Philippines. Leading the pack of is India, which has announced the largest nuclear expansion plans[2], to scale up from the current 5,780 Mwe (1.8% of total electricity) to 63,000 MW (7-8%) in 2032 and aiming at generating a whopping 275 GW by the year 2052, which would be 25% of its total electricity needs.

The Indian nuclear ambition is huge not just in terms of aimed capacity. The country is developing diverse and full-spectrum nuclear capabilities – from new mines to fuel processing units and uranium enrichment facilities, reprocessing plants, new designs of reactors such as European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs), AP1000, VVER1200 and indigenous PHWR-700s. Although India’s Department of Atomic Energy remains in denial of nuclear waste problem and hence the need for a burial facility, it has been looking for a deep geological repository as well. Also in terms of its international linkages, the current nuclear intentions of India are ambitious. Over the past decade, it has signed nuclear supply agreements with most member-states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group – with the US, Russia and France for new reactors and with Japan, Korea, UK, Germany, Canada etc. for required equipments and technologies, as well as with uranium supplying countries such as Australia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Namibia and Niger. India is also slated to play key facilitating role in the upcoming nuclear programs of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in its neighbourhood.

India has all that the nuclear lobbies require to salvage itself – land, water and other resources, support from nuclear power among the decisive middle classes owing to their zeal for rapid GDP growth at any cost as well as general lack of awareness about safety and environmental implications, and a government that is more than willing to clear way for it by setting aside all norms and brutally repressing grassroots protests.

However, meeting the country’s energy requirement and ensuring access to electricity for its largely poor population is not why the Indian government has embarked on this path notwithstanding the official rhetorics. India was barred from international supply of nuclear technology, material and know-how after it conducted nuclear tests in 1974, using the material that it acquired under the rubric of ‘atoms for peace’ in 1950s and 60s. Ever since this embargo was ended in 2008, thanks to its grand bargain with the United States, India is on a veritable nuclear shopping-spree. Most of these nuclear purchases were actually announced in return for the favour of ending India’s isolation – a country that tested nuclear weapons again in 1998 and has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). A number of countries and the international disarmament community was strongly opposed to India’s inclusion as it creates a wrong precedent of rewarding a proliferator, in a world that is grappling with the challenge of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually abolishing them. Also, several independent experts have cautioned that India’s massive purchases[3] of uranium since 2008 might indicate that it is preparing to have enough nuclear fuel to run its nuclear reactors in the event of further nuclear tests in future that will invite isolation.

The current party in power – the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – is the same political party that conducted nuclear weapons experiments in 1998 and in the previous elections its manifesto pledged to forgo nuclear restraint measures like the No-First-Use posture for nuclear weapons and the ‘credible minimum doctrine’. Indian nuclear program has a distinct military side to it. India developed nuclear technology under the peaceful guise and introduced nuclear weapons to South Asia, and is driving the nuclear race in the subcontinent of course with the help of equally jingoistic ruling elite of Pakistan. Although India would not be able to use the foreign-imported nuclear technology and fuel for making more weapons, nuclear imports do serve in freeing up the domestic uranium reserve to be exclusively dedicated for military purposes.

Precisely because this ‘civilian’ nuclear ambition has a strategic side to it, the nuclear expansion continues unabated – in brazen violation of basic concerns about safety, economics, and impacts on fragile ecologies and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. The Indian nuclear establishment, operating primarily under the government and completely insulated from public scrutiny since its inception as it produced the bomb for the country, enjoys patronage from top the country’s leadership and a near consensus across political spectrum. It has layers of hidden and stated subsidies for the nuclear projects and the government has been bending the liability law mandated by the parliament to ensure foreign and domestic suppliers a playing field free of compensation woes in case of a future nuclear accident. The government response to questioning by common people and affected communities invariably starts with calling them irrationally fearful and superstitious and ends up in unspeakable violence including indiscriminate firing on protesters and leveling of repressive colonial-vintage charges against them of being anti-national and waging war against the state. Independent activist groups, NGOs and experts have been labeled ‘threat to India’s national economic security’ by the intelligence bureau of the current government and routinely face criminalisation and stigmatisation.

The nuclear supporters must reckon today that this technology, celebrated in the past centuries for heralding a new era of scientific and modern temper, is able to find feet today only in the countries where it is promised huge state subsidies and a favorable environment based on denial of democratic questioning. Past 8 decades of human experience with nuclear power cannot function where it healthy competition, open discussions and effective regulation. Indian people cherish their freedom and democracy that they fought from the colonial powers. Today, besides other forces like neo-liberal orthodoxy and institutionalising bigotries, the unchained nuclear obsession is unleashing an onslaught precisely on those values.

Needless to add, it is also endangering millions of people in densely populated hinterlands of India, exposing them to unsafe nuclear plants being set up in denial of crucial risks – earthquake fault lines, faulty designs, inadequate cooling water, non-independent safety regulator, totally non-transparent nuclear establishment and the generally corrupt and irresponsible administrative structure that can be relied upon for leaving the vulnerable people in lurch if an accident happens.

This December 3rd, 2017 will mark the 33 years of the Bhopal chemical industry disaster where victims are still struggling for meagre compensation, relief and decontamination. As India’s former nuclear regulator has warned quite recently[4], in the current situation, nuclear expansion in India would be an invitation to several nuclear Bhopals.

Kumar Sundaram
The author is founding editor of