The Sunday Observer, June 20-26, 1993
Our lonely nuclear high priests
In a ceremony at Trombay on January 20, 1957, to name the first swimming pool type reactor, APSARA, Jawaharlal Nehru made some perceptive remarks. “I am happy to be here,” he said “not because I know very much about atomic energy or reactors, in spite of the numerous attempts Dr Bhabha and Dr Krishnan have made to educated me, but without understanding the intricacies of these mysteries, I hope I have some conception of the importance in this world of ours, of the release of this great power.”
“In the old days, the men of religion talked about mysteries. In ancient Greece, there were the mysteries. High priests who apparently knew about these mysteries exercised a great amount of influence on the common people who did not understand them. In every country that was so. The high priests in those days possibly dominated the thinking in many countries with their mysterious functions, ceremonies and rituals.”
“Now we have these mysteries, which these high priests of science flourish before us, not only flourish but threaten us with; and at any rate make us full of wonder or full of fear. Whatever it is, we have got these new mysteries of science, and of higher mathematics, which are unveiling various aspects of the physical world to us. No one knows where this will go.”
In a flash of brilliance, Nehru had captured the predicament of the common man when faced with the mysteries of nature and high priests of science –feeling both wonder and fear.
Our atomic scientists, who best represented the growth of science and technology in modern India, are no longer the unalloyed heroes they were in the fifties and sixties in the public perception. Why is this so? Have we come half circle from wonder to the fear that Nehru perceived?
From the euphoria of the fifties to anti-nuclear agitations and litigations of the eighties and nineties, a section of our intelligentsia seem to have made an about- turn. Some even sound like anti-science mystics. This phenomenon is worth investgating seriously. Otherwise, we will be lost in pro-nuclear, anti-nuclear dogma and rhetoric.
Pro- nukes call the anti-nukes irrational, stubborn, callous towards mass poverty-alleviation, radical chic and even agents of western imperialism who are trying to force India to go slow on its nuclear programme and eventually sign the hegemonistic nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The anti-nukes call the other side ivory-tower technocrats, science fundamentalists, reductionists (a new abuse), brainwashed by western concept of material progress etc. it is clear that the dispute has crossed limits of decency and has become a them and us confrontation
A good example is that of Dr Shivaram Karanth. More than four decades ago he compiled and published, at his own cost, a beautifully illustrated and lucidly written three-volume children’s encyclopedia called Bala Jagattu in Kannada and a two-volume science encyclopedia called Vijnana Prapancha .
It was a pioneering effort in popular science writing in Kannada. Today, Karanth, a Gyanpeeth laureate and a nonagenarian intellectual, is fighting a prolonged battle in the Supreme Court against the nuclear power plant at Kaiga, 60 Kilometeres from Karwar, in Karanataka.
These developments appear to have demoralized nuclear scientists and engineers. They have not come to terms with their transformation from heroes to villains, from nation builders to potential destroyers. I have seen bewilderment expressed in numerous conversations. More than the resource crunch, what seem have hit them is this fall from grace.
The Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor that is being installed in Kaiga has been developed by Indians and is a credit to their skills, it is much safer than the type that was used in Chernobyl. It uses natural uranium as against the enriched uranium that Western nation have refused to sell to India if it does not sign the NPT.
The Kaiga plant will produce 440 Mw of electricity to begin with and ultimately 1,400 Mw, shoring up the infrastructure in power-hungry Karnataka. The plant has enough in-built safety devices. Of course accidents can happen any were. The rain forest cut to clear the land for the project has been adequately compensated by reforestation both in Kaiga and in distant Chamarajnagar and Mandya. It is to be noted that the forest cleared is about five percent of what has been destroyed in 1,200 Mw Kalinadi hydroelectric project.
Taking note of all these factors, the Supreme Court in a recent judgment clubbed all the petitions filed against the Kaiga project together and dismissed them. The court has advised the Department of Atomic Energy that if it so desires, it can give a hearing to the petitioners’ grievance. The department has given the petitioners opportunity to prepare a brief using the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute(NEERI) report on environmental impact of the project if necessary and submit it for discussion.
Clearly, the Supreme Court verdict is a vindication of the stand of the nuclear scientist and not that of the anti-nuclear movement that had concentrated on the safety aspect and destruction of the rain forest in Kaiga. Has the issue been settled? It is doubtful. There may be agitation again. “Why is it that issues, which can be explained with facts and figures and reasoning are not understood by some of our intellectuals?” asked an exasperated nuclear scientist.
It could be pointed out to him that issues regarding waste disposal and even closing down the reactor after its useful life –normally 25 years- are still to be solved satisfactorily. Moreover why should people blindly believe the high priests of science? For example, did our framers know about the use of chemical pesticides for thousands of years? Then came the Green Revolution in the sixties and our agricultural experts from universities and agro-corporations taught our farmers the new technology.
About two decades later, a factory manufacturing pesticides in Bhopal leaked deadly methyl iso-cyanate and killed thousands in their sleep. Now how can you expect the common man to take your word for it? There is bound to be adverse reaction against science and technology. Some of it may be justified and a lot of it may be irrational fear. But the science establishment has not yet learnt to deal with it.
There are basically two reasons for this development and they have to be dealt with separately. One is the lack of information about science and technology among laymen, which naturally means increased effort in popularizing science. A number of organisations are finally realizing this.
The establishment of the Directorate of Environment and public Awareness within the Nuclear Power Corporation is an example of this. But the second reason is more complex and needs to be dealt with at different levels. That has to do with the alienation of the state and governance from the people. The marginalization felt today is so acute that anything that has to do with the government and comes from some office in New Delhi or a state capital immediately raises the hackles of many people.
The corruption, arrogance and later brute violence that is increasingly being associated with the state, repels many Indians. Scientists working with the government are tainted, by association with such an apparatus.
The solution is not within the ambit of scientists alone. It is an urgent national problem that requires effort from all of us. But scientists working in the government have to be more responsive to public opinion and do their best to win over their opponents. The haughty style of innuendo and ridicule and answering questions only when they are asked in the Lok Sabha has to change.
For example when I asked our nuclear scientists why they do not meet Dr Karnath and others and win them over, they had no answer. Their approach was limited to a few pamphlets, press statements and a debate five years back in Bangalore.
I think they should read Nehru’s speech carefully and emerge from their ivory towers.