Thursday, December 6, 2007

Interview: Nuclear myths and half truths

11 myths that make nuclear deal an unclear one

D Murali

Chennai, 5 Dec: Intense debates have been on, about the nuke deal at the political level, generating possibly more heat than light. “Many half-truths and myths are doing their rounds,” frets Shivanand Kanavi, vice-president - Special Projects, Tata Consultancy Services, New Delhi.

A theoretical physicist from IIT Kanpur and Northeastern University, Boston, he has carried out research at IIT Bombay. After a teaching and academic career, Kanavi became an economic consultant and later turned to business journalism, before joining TCS.

Author of books such as ‘Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology’ (Rupa & Co. 2006) and ‘Research by Design-Innovation and TCS’ (2007), Kanavi is currently writing a book on India’s nuclear programme.

The first myth, according to him, is that nuclear power is expensive and, that India should build coal-based power plants, instead, as we have plenty of reserves.

“You cannot make generalisations about any source of energy,” reasons Kanavi, interacting with Business Line, over the e-mail, and expressing his personal views on the subject. “The economics of power depends on distance of raw material source, fixed costs and operating costs, gestation periods, environmental costs and social cost.”

He goes on to list ten more myths, on things ranging from gestation to safety, raw material to risk management.

Excerpts from the interview.

Isn’t the ‘coal’ option cheaper?

The answer is ‘no’ when coal has to come from more than 1,000 KM away, from the coalfields of Eastern India; coal then becomes expensive compared to other options.

Considering lifecycle issues, strip mining of coal is not environmentally friendly. Indian coal has low sulphur and high ash content; hence one has to deal with huge amounts of fly ash either in the air or in tailing ponds.

Imported coal has low ash, but produces acid rain due to sulphur and nitrogen oxides. Pithead coal-based power plants in Eastern India are a must. One needs a rational energy mix without a one-shoe-fits-all thinking.

Don’t nuclear plants take a long time to build?

This is the second myth, I’d say. Some projects did get inordinately delayed due to the fact the Canadian collaborators abruptly abandoned the projects they were involved in, after Pokharan I (1974). The Indian nuclear industry took some time to learn nuclear manufacturing; and NPC (the Nuclear Power Corporation) took time to master project management.

But now they are building nuclear power plants in a highly competitive 5.5 to 6 years time (global average is about 8 years). Let’s not forget that hydroelectric stations too take a long time to build because of dams and reservoirs.

Talking of hydro, isn’t that the most apt, as energy source?

Myth, again, is that hydro is the best suited for us since its operating cost is next to nothing and it is renewable.

While it is true that there is a lot of potential in the Sahyadris and the Himalayas for hydropower, it is not a panacea. Reservoirs lead to submergence of arable land and forestland and human habitations leading to serious ecological and social problems. In addition, the life of reservoir is limited due to silting.

What about safety in the N-option?

That nuclear power in India has safety issues for workers and waste disposal is myth four. India has a better track record than most countries like the US, Russia and Japan, where serious accidents and leakages have taken place. Remember, our atomic scientists who design and operate the plants live with their families in the same colonies as workers.

You mentioned about the raw material misconception…

Yes. Some people argue that since India has a lot of thorium, why should we go for imported uranium. There is no country that has the technology today for commercially exploiting thorium for power. In fact India is in a leadership position; however, the first thorium reactor is underway, and it will take 10-15 years more to master it.

We also hear critics wonder why India is not buying reactors or uranium from Russia and France who seem to be eager to sell, instead of getting into a conditional deal with the US.

We do hear thus; but it is based on flawed reasoning. Agreed, that France and Russia are eager to engage in nuclear commerce with India. But without the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards in place, and a lifting of the blockade by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, no country would do business with India. Which is why the Indo-US deal is the key to unlock multilateral blockade.

Some complain about the technology.

More specifically, they ask why India is keen to buy expensive reactors from the US when no new reactor has been built in the US for the last 30 years and their technology and skills are rusty. Wait. The deal (123 Agreement) does not say how many reactors we will buy from the US. In fact if the price and financing are not right, India may not buy any from the US or for that matter from other countries too. As pointed out before, the deal just lifts the embargo for nuclear trade with India.

Would the deal undermine our foreign policy?

A common grouse is that the deal will enslave India to the diktat of the US foreign policy. No, the 123 Agreement is strictly regarding conditions accepted by both the countries to resume nuclear commerce while recognising that India has nuclear weapons and might continue to make them just as the US does.

It also does not pressure India to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). The Hyde Act – an Act passed by the US Congress and not an agreement between India and the US – has sections that hope to bring alignment in the foreign policy of both the countries.

Thus, any strategic or political alignment between India and the US is a separate issue and is not part of the 123 Agreement, which is in the nature of lifting technology embargo.

At the same time since India has big power ambitions it will have to take coordinated actions with other big powers on various international issues. In other words, it will move from being an agitator to a manager. Just as China has done.

How far are valid the fears that India will lose the right to conduct another nuclear test if it signs the deal?

First of all nobody gives anybody the right to conduct a nuclear test. If India still tested in 1974 and 1998 the same were based on its own sovereign decisions and threat perceptions.

However, in both the cases, India was isolated, and almost all countries put various kinds of restrictions on high technology trade with India. It hurt India’s economic and technological development but it was a calculated risk. If India wants to test at some later date, it will once again have to take a calculated risk.

There’s a myth about risk, you said?

That’s right. “Why are we risking so much for a 3-7 per cent of our power production?” demand the sceptics. First, in an energy-starved country every percentage point, counts. Second, 3-7 per cent is the projection based on current investment plans by the Government.

We could also go the French way, who generate close to 80 per cent of their power using nuclear technology; or the Chinese, who have already started an aggressive nuclear power programme.

That makes it ten myths. What’s the last?

That India’s civilian programme has always been a cover for the weapons programme and has not produced many results.

This, an uncharitable and sweeping comment, totally ignores the achievements of our scientists and engineers under extremely hostile international conditions.

India is perhaps the only country that started both nuclear and space programmes for peaceful purposes; achieved considerable expertise; and then started its weapons and missiles programme.

For example, the Atomic Energy Commission was set up in the late forties, soon after Independence, whereas the military programme started much later, in 1970-71.

India has always been held in very high regard in the International Atomic Energy Agency and it has chaired the board as well.

There is every possibility that India will start exporting research and power reactors in the 220-500-700 MW range, fuel bundles and other accessories as well as services to operate and maintain reactors.

For example, the Rajasthan reactor’s entire core was redone at a fraction of what it cost Canada and South Korea. Similarly, India has accumulated tremendous expertise in using nuclear technology for plant breeding and medicine.