No. 48, January 2010
India’s Atomic Energy Programme: Claims and Reality
[Note: 'crore' = 10 million; 'lakh' = 100,000]
These two themes were strongly revived in the debate over the nuclear deal. For example, when George Bush visited India in 2006, the Times of India ran a prominent interview with him.2 About a quarter of the front page was taken up by a single question: “TOI to Bush: Do you consider India a responsible nuclear nation?” The reply — “I Do”3 — was typeset to be about four times as large as the other headlines on the front page! Undoubtedly, it also sent the TOI editors and parts of the Indian establishment into paroxysms of pleasure.
However, the Congress leadership recognized that great-power arguments were insufficient to win broad political support. So, it claimed the deal would not only end ‘nuclear apartheid’ but was necessary for ‘development.’ While laying the foundation stone for a coal power plant in Jhajjar, Sonia Gandhi explained that electricity was required for development and the nuclear deal was required for electricity. Consequently, opponents of the deal were “enemies of progress and development.”4
This thread was also prominent in the Lok Sabha debates on the nuclear deal. In a major debate (on 28 November 2007), Jyotiraditya Scindia, the first speaker from the Congress, said that for growth at the “grass root level,” the “civilian nuclear option” was necessary, and claimed that by 2020, India would have a nuclear power-generating capacity of 30,000–40,000 MW. For Scindia, though, it was “far more important [that] the Deal ... raised the stature of India.”5 Pranab Mukherjee, opening the debate for the Government in the confidence motion (on 21 July 2008), explained that “power is needed for everything” and pointed to the grim danger that, by 2050, without nuclear power, “our energy deficit would be 4,12,000 megawatts.” Nuclear power would “reduce the deficit ... to only 7000 megawatts” and hence solve the energy crisis.6
These figures originate with the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), but are they realistic? This question remains important even after the political victory of the Congress. First, the change in the American administration has slowed down nuclear negotiations between India and the US; more than a year after the nuclear deal was actuated, these negotiations have not concluded. In fact, one of the focal points of Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US in November 2009 was to resolve differences over the reprocessing of spent fuel of American origin.7 Separately, the Government has already signed nuclear pacts with seven countries. Companies from the US, France and Russia have been allocated land for setting up nuclear plants.8
It is imperative, in this context, to review the hopes for atomic energy that are projected by the Government. What is the history of atomic energy in India and is it likely to play a major role in India’s energy-basket in the near future? What is the link between the civilian and military programme and how does the nuclear deal bear upon weaponization? If the Government does go ahead with massive nuclear expansion, will this necessarily make India dependent on imperialist powers? We discuss some of these questions below.
2. Atomic Energy Projections
In 2004, the DAE, surveying various studies, estimated that India would need 8 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year by 2050.9, 10 The DAE study mentioned that electricity generation in 2002– 2003 was about 0.6 trillion kWh; it projected that this would grow about 13 times. After factoring in the increase in population (which was projected to stabilize at about 1.5 billion) the DAE projected that per capita electricity consumption would rise about nine times — from about 614 kWh to 5305 kWh.
The study argued that it would be very difficult to meet these great demands without nuclear power, and estimated that atomic energy would meet about 25 per cent of the total demand by 2050. This translates to about 2 trillion kWh of electricity per year with an installed capacity of 275 GW.
However, this initial study was published in 2004, before the nuclear agreement between Bush and Manmohan Singh was signed. During the debate on the nuclear deal, these projections were revised upward. The figures that are quoted today come from these new projections.
Anil Kakodkar, the head of the DAE till November 2009, in a talk given at the Indian Academy of Science11 (on 4 July 2008, just after the Government decided to break with the Left parties and push the nuclear deal) and a similar talk given at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (in June 2009) retained the electricity demand projections, but increased the projections for the total installed nuclear capacity by almost 250 per cent. Kakodkar claimed that if the nuclear deal went through and India was allowed to import a specified number of light-water reactors (LWR) and fuel, then the recycling of fuel from these reactors would lead to an installed capacity of 650 GW! These are the figures that were used by Pranab Mukherjee in the parliamentary debate about two weeks later. So, Kakodkar predicted that nuclear energy would provide more than 50 per cent of India’s power generating capacity by 2050. Note that this is about 150 times the current nuclear power capacity of 4.12 GW that provides 2.64 per cent of the country’s power generating capacity!12 We reproduce two key graphs from Kakodkar’s talk in Figure 1.
Similar figures have been repeatedly mentioned at the highest levels of the Indian government. The Prime Minister recently predicted13 that atomic power could generate 470 GW of electricity by 2050. The exact origins of this figure are unclear, but this might be related to a second possibility, corresponding to a different import-pattern for LWRs, mentioned by Kakodkar in his talk.
3. A Brief History of Atomic Projections
This failure is sometimes explained away by noting that foreign cooperation in civilian nuclear energy declined after the 1974 Pokhran explosions. However, in 1984, the DAE announced, through a nuclear power “profile,” that it would set up a power generating capacity of 10,000 MW by 2000. In 1989, a DAE- appointed committee reviewed this, found that the target continued to be feasible, and even increased the projected capacity slightly. This figure was repeatedly quoted publicly. For example, the chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission wrote in 1989 that “while ... nuclear energy constitutes about 3% of the country’s total electrical power generation, work is on hand to increase it to about 10% by the year 2000, by implement ing the 10,000 MWe nuclear power programme.”18
Almost 15 years after the profile was launched, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reviewed its progress and concluded 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”!19 (emphasis added) Moreover, even in 2009, nuclear energy continues to account for only about 3 per cent of India’s total electricity generation.
The DAE has been unable to meet targets even over the very short run. For example, in 2003, Kakodkar predicted that “in about four years from now, DAE will reach an installed capacity of 6800 MWe.”20 Six years later, nuclear capacity is only 4120 MW.21
4. The Three-Stage Nuclear Programme
The DAE’s projections are based on a three- stage nuclear programme first proposed by Bhabha in 1954. We review this programme in greater detail below, but the essential facts are as follows. Of the three planned stages, only the first stage comprises conventional nuclear reactors that use uranium as a fuel. The second and third stages were to consist of fast breeder reactors and thorium reactors. Of these three stages, only the first stage has been implemented, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully, after more than 50 years.
The second and third stages use technology that is not used commercially, on a large scale, anywhere in the world. Fast breeder reactors were tried and abandoned in several countries. Thorium reactors, of the kind envisioned in India, have never been used commercially at all.
However, in the energy projections above, the contribution of the first stage is very insignificant. About 90 per cent of the power-capacity projected is to come from the second and third stages of the nuclear programme. So the DAE’s energy projections are based overwhelmingly on technology that either does not exist or has been abandoned in favour of more conventional nuclear technology!
This leads to another issue. The three-stage programme was envisioned at a time when self-sufficiency was considered exceedingly important. India’s uranium resources are very poor both in quantity and quality. Since uranium is what is used in nuclear reactors worldwide, it is impossible for India to sustain a large indigenous atomic energy programme. The second stage of the programme was designed to squeeze the maximum possible energy from this low-quality fuel while the third stage focused on thorium, which is widely available in India.
However, uranium is available plentifully in the world and so these other technologies were not pursued elsewhere. In fact, it is unlikely that these technologies will come to prominence in the near future. The MIT study cited above emphasized that “over at least the next 50 years, the best choice ... is the open, once-through fuel cycle” i.e conventional uranium reactors.
Since India has failed to develop the second and third stages indigenously, it is safe to say that the three-stage programme has failed. However, what is more important is that the three-stage programme is not relevant to policy-makers any more. This is because the emphasis on self-sufficiency has been extensively diluted in the past two decades.
In fact, one of the major consequences of the nuclear deal was to allow India to participate in international uranium trade and import nuclear reactors from abroad. Since energy produced this way (even though imported) is likely to be cheaper than energy from fast breeder reactors or thorium reactors, it is quite likely that India will quietly abandon the focus on the three-stage programme.i
Nevertheless, we discuss the three stages of the Indian programme below.
An excellent review of the idea behind this programme can be found in the book by Venkataraman.24 Another review may be found at the website of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).25 We summarize this very briefly here. The first stage of the nuclear programme involves the use of pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWRs). Naturally occurring uranium contains about 0.7% uranium-235 (U235) with the restii being U238. The fissile fuel is U235, and often naturally occurring uranium is enriched (via centrifuges for example) to separate the U238 and increase the percentage of U235. A PHWR can use this fuel directly, without enrichment. This saves some expense, but the disadvantage is that this kind of reactor uses heavy-water, which is expensive, as a moderator. Bhabha chose these reactors because some of the U238 is transmuted to plutonium-239 (Pu239) in the operation of the reactor.
The third stage involves another kind of breeding. The core of the FBR can be wrapped with thorium-232 (Th232). In the operation of the FBR, this undergoes transmutation to U233 (another isotope of uranium! ) which is fissile. This starting stockpile of U233 is fed into the third stage. This third-stage U233 reactor is also wrapped in a thorium blanket, and so the operation of the reactor produces more U233. Bhabha suggested that this three-stage process would allow the utilization of India’s extensive thorium resources.
It is clear, in hindsight, that Bhabha’s proposals for the three-stage programme were premature and impractical. Fifty-five years after these proposals were made, the programme is still stuck at the first stage.
5. The First Stage
Nevertheless, the first stage of the nuclear programme is the only stage to have been commercially implemented. As we described above, and will discuss in more detail below, this is likely to continue being the case. So, in effect, the practical debate on nuclear electricity production in India is confined to the first stage of the nuclear programme. Since this stage uses conventional technology (as opposed to the second and third stages), this debate meshes with the worldwide debate on nuclear energy.
We consider the following key questions:
5.1 The Nuclear Renaissance
While these arguments have been widely discussed over the past few years with concomitant changes in policy, the much- touted nuclear renaissance is fast running into severe problems. Areva, the French company that is supposed to build a reactor in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, is also building a reactor in Finland — the first generation III plant in the world. However, this plant is now expected to be three years late and is 60 per cent over budget.In Britain, the construction of new plants by Areva and Westinghouse (an American company that is also expected to build a plant in India) has run into regulatory difficulties. The British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently issued a report on the construction of proposed plants by these companies. The HSE was dissatisfied with both designs stating, in similar reports, that “we have identified a significant number of issues with the safety features of the design ... If these are not progressed satisfactorily then we would not issue a ‘Design Acceptance Confirmation.’ ”28, 29 (A summary of these reports was carried by The Guardian.30)
The argument that nuclear energy is the best way to fight climate change has also been vigorously challenged. For example, Lovins and Sheikh argue in favour of alternative sources of energy, including wind and small hydro-power projects.31 In spite of all this, it appears likely that, barring an accident or a technological breakthrough in a different field, the nuclear industry will build several new nuclear reactors in the next few decades.
So it is important to ask, first, whether nuclear energy is cost-effective and safe; and second, how the global debate over nuclear energy appl ies to India. India’s obligations under climate treaties are likely to be different from those of developed countries, at least over the next few decades. Second, given India’s poor uranium resources, a large- scale nuclear programme would make the country dependent on imperialist countries for fuel; this is evidently not desirable. We discuss this and some other issues below.
5.2 Economics of Nuclear Power
where Ct is the total expenditure incurred (whether in construction, maintenance, fuel or otherwise in year t, Et is the electricity generated in year t, n is the lifetime of the plant and r is called the discount rate.
The idea here is simple. The capital invested in the nuclear plant could have been used elsewhere. Hence, operating costs must be cheap enough to account for the return that could have been earned on this capital. This rate of return is captured by the discount rate.
A simple example might help to elucidate this concept. Say that a coal-plant costs Rs. 100 to construct and Rs. 10 to run every year while a nuclear plant costs Rs. 150 to construct and Rs. 5 to run. Furthermore, let us assume that both plants are constructed overnight and run for 15 years after that, producing the same amount of electricity each year. Now, in absolute terms, more is spent on the coal plant (Rs. 250) than on the nuclear plant (Rs. 225). However, this ignores the fact that the additional Rs. 50 spent upfront on the nuclear plant could have been used elsewhere. With a discount rate of 10 per cent, as the reader can check with the formula above, the energy produced by the nuclear plant is more expensive, while with a discount rate of 5 per cent, the coal plant is more expensive. The crossover occurs at a discount rate of 5.56 per cent.
5.2.1 Economics of Nuclear Power in India
The economics of nuclear power in India is particularly complicated by two factors. First, it is hard to obtain an accurate estimate of the subsidies that go into various aspects of nuclear power, including heavy-water production.32 Second, the DAE uses a so-called “closed cycle,” where the spent fuel is reprocessed. This reprocessing is very expensive, but is not included in the official estimation of the cost of power. The reasoning behind this is that the reprocessed fuel will eventually be useful in the second stage of the nuclear programme; since this second stage has not yet become operational, this is rather specious.
It is sometimes argued that nuclear power is cost-competitive with coal.33, 34 Under reasonable assumptions for the subsidy that goes into heavy-water production, nuclear power is not cost-competitive with coal even for (real) discount rates as low as 3 per cent. This conclusion holds even if the costs involved in reprocessing are completely neglected.35,36
This is consistent with the international pattern that we describe below.
5.2.2 Economics of Nuclear Power Internationally
As the Economist summarized: “Since the 1970s, far from being “too cheap to meter” — as it proponents once blithely claimed — nuclear power has proved too expensive to matter.”42 It is as a result of this that no new applications for plant-construction were made in the US for almost three decades.
The other question is whether putting a price on carbon emissions would change these calculations. Here, the Economist points out: “The price of carbon under Europe’s emissions-trading scheme is currently around €14 per tonne, far short of the €50 that power-industry bosses think would make nuclear plants attractive.43
So, there is a wide consensus, internationally, that nuclear power is more expensive than coal.v India conforms to this pattern. While this has dampened the growth of the nuclear industry, it has not stopped new nuclear plants from being constructed. To the contrary, at times, the fact that nuclear power is more expensive has been seen as a rationale for futher policy assistance and subsidies!
5.3 Safety and Environmental Impact
Nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste, some of which remains hazardous for a very long time. For example, Pu239 (which is produced in nuclear reactors) has a half-life of 24,000 years (which means that the radioactivity from a lump of this material decreases by half every 24,000 years).
Unfortunately, there is no established technique of disposing this waste. In the long run, there is some agreement, among nuclear planners, that the waste should be put into a stable geological repository. Only one such repository — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the US — exists, but operates only with military waste. The US plans to dispose of some of its radioactive civil waste in the Yucca mountain repository, but this has not yet been constructed. A discussion of the logistics of these programmes can be found in the Nuclear Engineering Handbook.44
In India, the spent fuel from reactors is reprocessed. However, this process still produces dangerous radioactive waste. This volume is currently small. In 2001, it was estimated45 that about 5000 m3 of “high-level-waste” had been generated in India (this is about two Olympic size swimming pools). However, this is likely to go up sharply. In 2004, the DAE estimated that, by 2011, it would produce about 700 m3 of high-level waste every year . Although the DAE claims that it will finally dispose of this waste in a deep geological repository, it is forced to admit that “demonstration of feasibility and safety of deep geological disposal is a major challenge ahead.”46
Another concern regarding nuclear energy is the safety of nuclear plants. The 1986 accident at Chernobyl (in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union) sent up a huge amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere. This radioactive material carried across the Soviet border into other countries and as far north as Sweden. In 2006, the WHO estimated that there would be “about 4000 [excess] deaths ... over the lifetimes of the some 600,000 persons most affected by the accident” due to cancer caused by exposure to radiation. Beyond this, over the lifetime of the population of the more than 6 million people in “other contaminated areas,” it estimated that there would be about 5000 excess deaths. (Table 12 of the WHO report47) However, as Greenpeace pointed out48, with a disaster of this magnitude, “any description which attempts to present the consequences as a single, ‘easy to understand’ estimation of excess cancer deaths ... will ... inevitably provide a gross oversimplification of the breadth of human suffering experienced.”vi
The accident at Chernobyl probably happened because of poor design and operator error. In particular, the reactor was not enclosed within proper containment. Also, at the time of the accident, it seems to have had a positive void coefficient,49 which meant that the escaping coolant increased the intensity of the reaction which in turn caused more of the coolant to escape, thus leading to catastrophic positive feedback. Newer reactors seem to be better contained and designed. One can only hope that the nuclear industry has learned its engineering lessons well.
As we have described above, nuclear power is inherently hazardous. However, in any discussion about the safety of nuclear plants, there is a point made by proponents of nuclear energy that cannot be overlooked. Nuclear energy is most commonly compared to coal, as we have also done above. However, coal is also hazardous.
This is because thousands of people lose their lives in coal-mines every year. China is the most egregious example. According to official statistics, there were 4,746 fatalities in China in 200650 and 3,786 fatalities in 2007.51
Coal mining affects hundreds of people in India also. Statistics on coal mining in India are somewhat problematic. According to the Ministry of Coal, coal-mining in India is so safe that fatalities per man-shift are considerably lower than in the US and about as low as they are in Australia.52 This is not entirely believable. However, even taking the ministry’s figures53 at face value, there were 128 fatalities and 966 serious injuries in coal-mining in 2006. In 2007, there were 69 fatalities and 904 serious injuries.vii
This is partly a result of the tremendous inequality that exists in our society today. A nuclear meltdown would be catastrophic and would affect everyone. So, a great amount of attention is paid to safety in nuclear installations. However, hundreds of people lose their lives in coal-mining around the world each year. Since these people are overwhelmingly poor and dispossessed, this does not attract anywhere near the same level of protest or attention.
5.4 Factors Specific to India
The first factor has to do with the poor uranium resources of the country. As we have already mentioned, uranium deposits in India are not only rare, they are of poor quality. The report of the Kirit Parikh- led expert committee on energy policy, appointed by the Planning Commission, pointed out that “India is poorly endowed with Uranium. Available Uranium supply can fuel only 10,000 MW of the Pressurised Heavy-Water Reactors (PHWR). Further, India is extracting Uranium from extremely low grade ores (as low as 0.1% Uranium) compared to ores with up to 12-14% Uranium in certain resources abroad. This makes Indian nuclear fuel 2–3 times costlier than international supplies.”54 It is evident then that a large nuclear programme can only be sustained on the basis of imported fuel. Of course, this makes nuclear energy more expensive. However, more seriously, importing fuel will make India dependent on imperialist countries for fuel supplies. After the nuclear tests in 1974, the US stopped fuel supplies to the Tarapur plant. Last year, India was given a waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group,viiiallowing it to engage in nuclear trade, only because it was strategically allied with the US. A large scale nuclear programme, relying on imported fuel, would make it difficult for any future government to extricate itself from this relationship.
The second important issue in India is the lack of a strong regulatory framework. Once again, this poor institutional design can be traced to Bhabha and Nehru. In 1948, Bhabha wrote to Nehru stating that “the development of atomic energy should be entrusted to a very small and high-powered body, composed of say three people with executive power, and answerable directly to the Prime Minister without any intervening link ... this body may be referred to as the Atomic Energy Commission.”55 (emphasis added) Evidently, Bhabha was no great believer in democracy. In this case, as in many others, he used his personal closeness to Nehru to free himself of even the minimal checks and balances that existed in other parts of the Government. The AEC was set up in 1954 and 55 years later, this small opaque clique of bureaucrats continues to oversee all aspects of atomic energy in the country.ix
In fact, for decades, the atomic energy establishment did not even see the need to have an independent regulatory body. The DAE was in charge of both the construction and regulation of nuclear power plants. It was only after the serious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, US) in 1979 that the DAE started the process of setting up a separate Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).57 However, the AERB, which was set up in 1983 with the mission of ensuring the safety of atomic energy, reports directly to the AEC, which is chaired by the head of the DAE! This makes its claim of being independent of the DAE somewhat specious.
In 1995, the AERB, under a proactive chairperson, A. Gopalakrishnan, compiled a report citing 130 safety issues in Indian nuclear installations, with about 95 being top priority. It is unclear what, if any, action was taken on the AERB report.
Later, after leaving the AERB, Gopalakrishnan wrote that “the safety status in the DAE’s facilities is far below international standards.” Further, he said that “the lack of a truly independent nuclear regulatory mechanism and the unprecedented powers and influence of the DAE, coupled with the widespread use of the Official Secrets Act to cover up the realities, are the primary reasons for this grave situation.”58 In its response, the Nuclear Power Corporation dismissed these concerns as “alarmist” and expressed its sorrow that Gopalakrishnan was “tilting at windmills.” Moreover, it stated that “we do not consider the AERB ... as being adversaries. We are all part of a single scientific fraternity that has been mandated by the founding fathers of the nation to develop and deliver the numerous benefits of nuclear energy to the nation in an economical and safe manner.”59
While this evocation of fraternal cooperation is undoubtedly touching, it is somewhat problematic for the regulators and builders of a hazardous technology like atomic energy to be so cozy. In fact, as Gopalakrishnan points out, this is in violation of the international convention on nuclear safety that asks every contracting party (including India), to take “appropriate steps to ensure an effective separation between the ... regulatory body and ... any other body ... concerned with the ... utilization of nuclear energy.”60
Nuclear accidents are a low-probability event. So it is often possible to get away with violations of safety norms, as the DAE has been doing. However, the reason these low probabilities are taken so seriously is that the consequences of a single nuclear accident can be disastrous. The current regulatory framework is clearly broken, and this makes the planned expansion in the atomic energy programme particularly alarming.
6. The Second and Third Stages
The technology for the second stage is somewhat more developed than the technology for the third stage. Several countries did build prototype fast breeder reactors but soon abandoned them. Nevertheless, India is now building its own prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam. No one has even tried to build a thorium reactor of the kind envisaged in the third stage. To implement the thorium fuel cycle commercially would require a massive research effort and, without technological breakthroughs, a thorium reactor would be considerably more expensive than a conventional uranium reactor. Given that uranium is available plentifully in the world (although not in India), there is no worldwide economic impetus for this. India is one of the only countries in the world that has continued to pursue research into a thorium reactor programme.
The DAE portrays this state of affairs by stating that the first stage involves “World Class Performance,” the second stage involves “Globally Advanced Technology” and the third stage is “Globally Unique”!
6.1 The Second Stage
In fact, even this deadline is unlikely to be met since, true to form, this project is delayed and heavily over budget. In March 2009, the Ministry of Programme Implementation summarized that the PFBR project was on schedule for completion in September 2010 and within the allocated budget of Rs 3492 crores.62 However, a few months later, the 2009 annual report of Bhavini (the public sector corporation set up to oversee this project) was forced to state63 that “the revised project cost is estimated to be of Rs. 5,677 crores.” This is more than 60 per cent above the original budget. Moreover, this annual report also states that “as on 31 May, 2009 the overall physical progress achieved by the Project is 45% as compared to 35% progress achieved on 31 May 2008.” Extrapolating from here it is safe to predict that the project will not be completed by September 2010. It is useful to review the history of fast breeder reactors in other parts of the world. Several countries have built prototype fast breeder reactors. The fast reactor database of the IAEA64 helpfully reviews this history. France, Germany, UK, US, Soviet Union and Japan started building commercial size prototype fast breeder reactors in the eighties. Each of these programmes failed. The French reactor was shut down in 1998 after popular protests. The German reactor was completed but, despite the large expense involved in construction, it was never made operational! The Japanese reactor suffered a serious accident in 1995 and has been shut since then. The American programme also petered out, and a 30- year -old Russian reactor is now the only commercial fast breeder reactor in existence. The IAEA summary is forced to state that “it has to be admitted that there simply was no economic need for fast breeder reactors.” The PFBR, at Kalpakkam, was not expected to be an economical source of energy, even with the original cost estimates for the project.65 The revised cost estimates above only serve to exacerbate this state of affairs.
There are very serious issues about the safety of the PFBR. Kumar and Ramana argue that the DAE has designed the PFBR with a weak containment wall to save money.66 According to their calculations, the containment of the reactor could be breached in the event of a severe accident, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere. A very serious problem, that these authors discuss, is that the PFBR has a positive void coefficient. As we described above, this was one of the characteristics that led to the Chernobyl explosion. The DAE, in its design statement,67 claims that “voiding of the core is highly improbable” and states that this “is of concern only in the case of hypothetical core disruptive accident.” Given that this “hypothetical” case could be catastrophic, one would expect that great care would be taken in analyzing it. The DAE merely states (citing unspecified “studies”) that the “positive void coefficient ... is considered admissible.”
We should emphasize that the second stage of the nuclear programme is meant to provide most of the energy -generating capacity projected by the DAE. It is probably clear to the reader, by now, that this should not be taken too seriously. However, even if one were to believe the DAE, Ramana and Suchitra argue that their predictions are simply inconsistent.68 Briefly, the DAE’s estimates for the growth of fast breeder reactors are based on the notion of a doubling-time. As described above, these reactors breed their own fuel; so, after a while a breeder reactor produces plutonium that can be used to fuel another reactor.
However, what is important is that the process above (doubling) involves a delay. The plutonium for the first reactor must be set aside some time in advance. Second, only after the reactor has operated for a while can the plutonium from its core be extracted. This must then be reprocessed for use in another reactor. The DAE seems to have neglected this delay, and the paper above points out that if the DAE’s projections were to come true, they would “result in negative balances of plutonium”! Ramana and Suchitra argue that the DAE cannot achieve possibly achieve more than 40 per cent of its projections; of course, the other factors discussed above imply that this too is extremely unlikely.
The fast breeder reactor programme also has an important link with the weaponization programme that we discuss below.
6.2 The Third Stage
Given these facts, it is not surprising that no other country in the world has an active programme to utilize thorium. What is surprising is that India has steadfastly continued to pursue this path. As the World Nuclear Association points out, “for many years India has been the only sponsor of major research efforts to use it [thorium].”69
The DAE claims that it has made some progress on the issues described above70 and it is now planning to build an advanced heavy-water reactor (AHWR) to gain experience with the thorium cycle. Nevertheless, it is clear that surmounting all these difficulties will require a massive and very expensive research effort; the uranium fuel cycle was developed only after the Manhattan project.
It is quite unclear whether, at the end of this research, thorium-based power will ever be economically competitive. Is the massive expense, involved in developing the thorium fuel cycle indigenously, justified? Unfortunately, given the lack of transparency and democratic debate in India, it seems unlikely that this question will be asked or debated openly.
Nevertheless, for four decades, successive Indian governments sought to publicly maintain this distinction. In 1974, at the time of the first Pokhran nuclear test, the Indian government argued that it was testing nuclear explosives for possible civilian uses. This is why this explosion was called a “peaceful nuclear explosion.”x “Absolutely categorically, I can say we do not have a nuclear weapon,” Rajiv Gandhi declared in 1985 (p . 26773). This ended with the 1998 Pokhran blasts. Pramod Mahajan, a representative of the “future government” of the time, clarified that that nuclear weapons were “not about security”; rather, the significance of the Pokhran blasts was that “no Indian has to show his passport [since] the whole world now knows where India is.”74
The research for both the “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974 and the later atomic tests of 1998 was largely performed at BARC. In fact, as P.K. Iyengar, a former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission, helpfully explains,75 “the exercise of detonating a nuclear explosive was ... a small deviation from the normal work carried out by many scientists and engineers at Trombay. This was the reason ... the whole project remained a secret.”
As we described above, Pu239is produced even in electricity-generating reactors when U238 absorbs a neutron. However, when a reactor is meant to generate electricity, the uranium fuel-rods are kept in for a long time to use up as much of the uranium as possible. In this time, other nuclear reactions happen and the spent fuel in reactors ends up also containing other isotopes of plutonium, including Pu240. The presence of these other isotopes makes it difficult to make bombs with this kind of reactor-grade plutonium. (See pp. 37–39 of a U.S. Department of Energy declassified document for a discussion on this.76)
However, research reactors, in which the fuel-rods are pulled out after low-burnup, can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The fissile material for the 1974 Pokhran explosions came from the research reactor, CIRUS. The history of CIRUS is quite interesting. CIRUS stands for “Canadian Indian reactor, U.S.” because the design was Canadian, the heavy-water used was American and the fuel was Indian. The Canadian negotiators imposed no explicit conditions on how the fuel from this reactor could be used. In fact, an Indian commitment that the fuel would be used peacefully was placed in a secret annex to the treaty! Furthermore, while the initial idea was that the fuel would be supplied by the Canadians, the Indian side pre-empted this and succeeded in fabricated indigenous fuel rods in time for use in the reactor. This allowed India to argue that it could do as it wished with the spent fuel from the reactor because the fuel, after all, was Indian.
This use of the plutonium from CIRUS is often discussed in the context of proliferationxi caused by the supply of peaceful nuclear technology. Some accounts, such as that of Abraham (cited above), portray this sequence of events by suggesting that the well intentioned but somewhat injudicious Canadians were outman oeuvred by the nefarious Indians. This conclusion arises from the axiom that Western countries are always well-intentioned.
These narratives need not be taken seriously. The Canadian technology transfer was undoubtedly done with the full knowledge that it would help India produce weapons- grade fissile material. A more pertinent question to ask is: “What were the calculations that led the imperialist world to encourage India to arm itself with nuclear weapons? ”
In fact, a few years later, the Americans almost directly provided India with a nuclear bomb! Perkovich describes (pp. 90– 93) that in 1964, the US defense department conducted a secret study examining the “possibilities of providing nuclear weapons under US custody” to “friendly Asian” military forces for use against China. At the same time, the US Atomic Energy Commission was independently exploring the possibility of helping India conduct nuclear explosions for ‘civilian’ purposes. While neither of these two initiatives w as brought to fruition, this goes to show that the commonly made assumption that the US ruling elite is uncomfortable with Indian nuclear weapons is incorrect. There are opposing forces within the American establishment and, as we will discuss below, very similar tensions continue to operate today. In 1985, India built a companion to CIRUS called Dhruva. Dhruva adjoins CIRUS but is significantly larger, and can also be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. A study by Mian et al.77 estimates that India has built up a stockpile of 500 kg of weapons- grade plutonium from CIRUS and Dhruva. This is enough for more than a hundred nuclear warheads.As we mentioned above, it is hard to build nuclear weapons with the plutonium that is produced in power-reactors. However, this is not impossible; bombs using reactor-grade plutonium can be built. In fact, there is some evidence that in the 1998 blasts, reactor-grade plutonium was used. If this is true, then the amount of fissile material available to the Indian government is considerably larger than the estimate above, since large stockpiles of spent reactor fuel are available. The fast breeder programme, which constitutes the second stage of the three-stage programme, is quite important here. As we mentioned, fast breeder reactors work with a fuel core and also a blanket of uranium. This blanket breeds weapons-grade plutonium. Glaser and Ramana estimate78 that the PFBR under construction at Kalpakkam might itself allow India to produce 140 kg of plutonium every year. This would allow the Indian government to greatly increase its nuclear arsenal. In this context, it is relevant to note that one of the key initial disagreements between the US and India was over whether the FBR programme would come under IAEA safeguards.79 When asked whether the breeders would be put under safeguards, Kakodkar replied, “no way, because it hurts our strategic interests” and suggested that he would rather have the deal sink.80
In the final deal, breeder reactors were kept out of IAEA safeguards. Once again, it is somewhat naive to attribute this to India’s negotiating skills or American innocence and simple-mindedness. There was evidently disagreement between different sections of the American ruling elite. Stephen Cohen, from the influential Brookings Institution, claimed that “we [the U.S] probably could have put more restraints on the fast breeder reactor program.” However, “Bush stopped the negotiations.”81 Hence, this was a political decision. As in the case of CIRUS, a section of the imperialist ruling-class seems to have decided that it was in its interests to allow India to arm itself with nuclear weapons. In both cases, it is quite plausible that this was intended to build India into a nuclear armed regional counterweight to China.
Highly enriched uranium can also be used for military purposes. India’s facilities to enrich uranium are somewhat poor. India has two gas centrifuge enrichment facilities. One is at BARC and the other is at Rattehalli, near Mysore. According to Mian et al. India could have built up a stockpile of about 400–700 kg of 45–30 per cent enriched uranium. Another study estimated that India might have 94 kg of 90 per cent enriched uranium.82 This enriched uranium was undoubtedly used in India’s nuclear submarine project and can also be used to make bombs. To summarize this section, it is clear that the Indian atomic energy programme has had a major weapons component. In some cases, like the fast breeder reactor, the objective of the reactor seems to be, not to produce energy, but rather to use energy as a veneer to cover up a weapons- making factory. More broadly, it is quite possible that, despite the failure to produce electricity, the atomic energy programme has received state patronage because of its contribution to India’s nuclear bomb. An unconfirmed anecdote might be relevant here. Ashok Parthasarathi an adviser to Indira Gandhi at the time of Sarabhai and Homi Sethna claims that he repeatedly brought up the DAE’s failure to produce atomic energy and objected to its plans for future expansion. He claims that he was finally overridden by P.N. Haksar who explained to him that “there are larger objectives to our nuclear programme than nuclear power and those objectives cannot be compromised at any cost.”83 (emphasis in the original)
Nevertheless, the Government seems determined to invest heavily in atomic energy. The DAE claims that the nuclear expansion will be through a three-stage programme but this is very unlikely. A far more likely scenario is that nuclear energy will develop through conventional indigenous and imported reactors using uranium as a fuel.
Although there has been a partial revival of interest in nuclear energy worldwide because of concerns about climate-change, it remains more expensive than comparable sources of energy like coal. Since India’s uranium resources are very poor, a large scale expansion of atomic energy in India will necessarily lead to dependence on imperialist countries. Furthermore, safety considerations in India are exacerbated by the absence of a proper regulatory framework.
The civilian and military aspects of the nuclear programme have always been linked, and weaponization is an extremely important aspect of the planned nuclear expansion. The new prototype fast breeder reactor and the increased availability of uranium after the nuclear deal will allow India to build up a large weapons stockpile. The US has actively encouraged this weaponization programme, and this holds the danger of setting off a weapons-race in Asia.
We should emphasize that our discussion of atomic energy here has been almost entirely within the framework of the current system. In particular, liberal capitalist development requires ever increasing amounts of energy. While energy is required to meet many human needs, the current model of development extrapolates this to infinity; this should be challenged vigorously. Unfortunately, even within this framework, the planned nuclear expansion makes for poor policy.
We emphasize that this discussion must be placed in its proper context. When the Government decided to go ahead with the nuclear deal (in mid-2008), this precipitated a political crisis because the Left parties withdrew their support to the UPA government. While the Congress eventually emerged unscathed from this crisis and even returned to power with an enhanced majority, this was not at all clear at the time; the Government could well have fallen. Moreover, the time was hardly propitious for elections. Among other things, inflation was at a 13 year high!85 Surely, it was suicidal for the Congress to destabilize its government in such a scenario? What were the strong forces that impelled it to undertake this bizarre behaviour?
As we saw in Section 1, the Government argued that the nuclear deal was necessary for energy security. However, from the analysis above it is quite clear that atomic energy is rather unimportant for India’s energy needs and is likely to remain so. The nuclear deal was not even critical for the weapons programme. While the availability of international uranium will free domestic resources for use in weapons, the primary buildup in fissile materials is likely to come from indigenous fast breeder reactors.
One argument is that the Government was taken in by its own propaganda. However, the data presented above is so public and well known that this seems unlikely. Moreover, even going by the DAE’s figures, atomic energy will not contribute significantly to India’s energy mix for many years to come. So this argument leads to the conclusion that the Congress was so perspicacious that it was willing to sacrifice its government for a small gain in India’s energy-security several decades later. Evidently, the argument is incorrect.
Another argument is that the nuclear deal was pushed by the Indian atomic energy establishment which desperately required a lifeline for its civilian energy programme.86 While this might have been a factor, it seems unlikely that a major political decision of this sort was taken under the influence of technocrats.
A far more believable answer was given by Ashley Tellis,87 an important adviser to the Bush administration. Tellis noted that the deal was “extremely important.” He went on to say: “It is the centerpiece of everything ... for the simple reason that it goes fundamentally to the President’s and the prime minister’s efforts to build a new sense of trust ... In my view, this is the ultimate reason why it cannot fail, why it must not fail, because both leaders have staked a lot in trying to do something really important — something that implicates issues of credibility, issues of commitment, and finally issues of confidence for the future of the relationship.”
Credible governments are those that do not allow domestic political compulsions to prevent them from adhering to American interests. This is extremely important. The American ruling elite does not enjoy dealing with the vagaries of third world denizens. A ‘trustworthy ally’ is a country that manages domestic politics well and keeps its ‘international commitments.’ As Chomsky pointed out,88 “attitudes toward democracy were revealed with unusual clarity during the mobilization for [the Iraq] war.” Even old Western allies like France and Germany were pushed off to “Old Europe” because domestic considerations prevented them from supporting the Iraq war. Chomsky noticed that “the governments of Old and New Europe were distinguished by a simple criterion: a government joined Old Europe in its iniquity if and only if it took the same position as the vast majority of its population and refused to follow orders from Washington.”
Influential figures on both the American and Indian side were in agreement on this issue. Ronen Sen, India’s ambassador to the US, explained89 that the failure of the deal would leave India with “zero credibility.” He pointed out that the despite having “revolving door” governments, “one thing that distinguishes India ... is that we have always honoured our commitments ... not just that it is a democracy.” He regretted that at the state level, this had not always been true and that in “one instance ... after an election a state government changed one contract, and that is Enron”! Evidently, according to Sen, elections and the wishes of the people should not come in the way of fulfilling obligations, however onerous or unjustified, to multinational corporations or the U S government. Ashton Carter, a member of the Clinton administration, explained90 to the US senate that “India’s bureaucracies and diplomats are fabled for their stubborn adherence to independent positions regarding the world order, economic development, and nuclear security.” He lamented that the fact that “India ... is a democracy” meant that “no government in Delhi can ... commit ... to a broad set of actions in support of U.S. interests.”
The Indian ruling elite was very unhappy with this fact also. When the Left parties stalled the nuclear deal, Chidambaram went on record91 stating that “Indian ... democracy has often paralyzed decision making ... this approach must change.” Manmohan Singh was so upset that he began to question the efficacy of a multi-party system itself. In a conference on federalism, he asked,92 “does a single party state have any advantages” and wondered whether “a coalition ... [was] ... capable of providing the unity of purpose that nation-states have to often demonstrate.”
What is almost conclusive is that, after a long stalemate, the Congress chose to precipitate a showdown with the Left parties exactly a week before Manmohan Singh was to attend a G8 summit in Japan. As the Times of India explained, “ the prime minister has consistently cited the possibility of an embarrassing loss of face with the international community to lobby the Congress leadership.”93 Evidently, the reason that Manmohan Singh was desperate to pass the nuclear deal had nothing to do with electricity, but was related to maintaining his credentials as a reliable imperialist ally.The Indian parliamentary system, for all its iniquities, is based on the notion that governments privilege their survival over all else. The fact that the Congress was willing to violate this tenet and imperil the existence of its own government to fulfill commitments made to the US is a revealing indicator of the strength of its ties to imperialism.
*Suvrat Raju is a physicist and an activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (back)
i. Fast breeder reactors (from the second stage) continue to be of importance for India’s weapons programme, as we describe below. So apart from the prototype reactor, currently under construction, it is possible that a few others will be built. This is not of much relevance to the energy projections above. (back)
ii. These are two common isotopes of uranium, i.e. they have identical chemical properties but different physical properties. The number in the superscript gives the total number of protons+neutrons in the nucleus. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient for the reader to know that U235 is the form that is useful as fissile fuel. (back)
iv. The Chicago study used data from an OECD estimate of electricity generation costs from 1998.38 By 2005, the OECD estimates had changed and its report on projected electricity generating costs found nuclear power to be cheaper in several countries!39 The OECD bases its conclusions on questionnaires sent to different countries and the data used in the 2005 report is rather suspect. For example, on page 43, the overnight construction cost for a nuclear plant in Finland is taken to be about 2000 USD/kW. The Areva plant current under construction in Finland is expected to cost more than USD 6 billion40 and provide 1600 MW of power41 leading to a cost per kW that is almost twice as large as the cost used by the OECD. (back)
v. However nuclear power does continue to be considerably cheaper than some alternative forms of energy, like solar power. (back)
vi. The same report also suggests a significantly higher death-toll for the Chernobyl accident. However, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus experienced a sharp increase in mortality and decrease in life-expectancy after 1991 unrelated to Chernobyl, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of the original studies cited in the Greenpeace report are not available to us but at times it seems possible (as in the discussion on page 25), that these effects have not been distinguished. (back)
vii. Of course, uranium mining is also hazardous. However, because it is carried out on so much smaller a scale than coal-mining, accidents are fewer. (back)
viii. A cartel, dominated by the US and other imperialist countries, that controls international nuclear trade. (back)
ix. The AEC has since been somewhat enlarged. As of December 2009, it had 12 members including the chairperson, who is the head of the DAE, and one MP — Prithviraj Chavan — the minister of state, in the PMO, for science and technology.56 (back)
x. Contrary to a widespread belief, this oxymoronic term was not invented by the Indian government. The American government had for long argued for the use of nuclear devices for civilian purposes such as broadening canals. Bhabha simply adopted the terminology from an American study on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Explosions.73 (back)
xi. The word “proliferation” is, of course, problematic because it is applied only to the spread of weapons of mass destruction outside the control of imperialist governments. (back)
Where possible, we have provided Internet links to the references below. After some time, we expect that some of these links will change or stop working. If a ‘Google search’ does not reveal the information elsewhere on the World Wide Web, the reader may be able to obtain an archived copy of the page via the Web Archive: http://www.archive.org.
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