India should deprioritise Nuclear Energy

MV Ramana tells Forbes India that despite the Indian leadership being committed to nuclear energy, he is not optimistic about its future in the country

Published: Aug 31, 2012
India should deprioritise Nuclear Energy

MV Ramana
Designation: Researcher at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program in Science and Global Security at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and member of International Panel on Fissile Materials and Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Education: PhD in Physics, Boston University; IIT-Kanpur;  post-doctoral fellow, University of Toronto and Center for International Studies, MIT
Career: Author of ‘The Power and the Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India’
Interests: Food, South India classical music

Q. You have a book on India’s nuclear energy prospects coming out this year. What’s the argument you’re making?
The book looks at the history of nuclear power in India. The Department of Energy had made a series of projections for how much nuclear power would contribute to India’s energy production over the past 60 years. These projections have not come through. I look at why projects have been delayed, what are the economics of nuclear power in India, the safety record and impact on health and the environment. It’s an assessment of how the nuclear program has fared so far.

Q. India’s leadership has said it is committed to nuclear energy despite Fukushima, and has set pretty lofty targets for making nuclear power a major source of India’s energy: 470 gigawatts by 2050. Do you think they’re likely to follow through?
No. The leadership is committed, but that’s been the case since the 1950s. Every group of leaders has been committed to nuclear power, given it unlimited budget allocations, and yet it hasn’t happened. There’s no reason to expect it will happen in the future.

Kudankulam is a good example, and something to learn from. If there is to be an expansion of nuclear power, there will have to be many new sites and reactors, which will come at a cost of land and water for other purposes. Since the 1980s, each new site has met with protest, and it is likely to become more intense.

Many of the projections of future nuclear capacity are based on a technology called breeder reactors, which has been pursued by many countries since the 1950s, and in each it’s been a failure. There is no reason to expect India will be different. This is an additional reason why achieving the nuclear power generation goals is unlikely.

The cost of generating nuclear power is higher than other energy sources. Historically, the nuclear establishment tried to compare itself with coal, and said that if you set up a power plant far from the coal mines, then you have to incorporate the cost of transporting coal. Once you do that, you find that the cost of a nuclear power is equal to that of a coal.

Initially, they said that if a coal mine was 600 km away, then nuclear plants are comparable in cost. By the 1980s, when the first plants were set up and generating, they said it would be 800 km. By the 1990s, it was 1,200 km from the coal mines.

In 2005 or so, I looked at a recently commissioned Nuclear plant and a coal plant and assumed that the coal was coming from 1,400 km away. Nuclear power still wasn’t competitive. If the challenge is providing not just power but cheap power, nuclear isn’t the answer.

Q. After Fukushima, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission chairman said reactors here are 100 percent safe. Can that be true?
It’s not a scientifically tenable statement. Heads of nuclear establishments make this kind of statements all the time, and it’s worse than propaganda. There are various statements where they say we have to be confident about safety, and this confidence is something we should instil in our workers. One of the lessons from people who look at why accidents take place — not just in nuclear plants but in all systems — is that organisations that are too confident about safety are more at risk than those that are aware of risks.

Q. You’ve said that accidents are inevitable, and happen more often than risk assessments predict. Why is that?
You can lower the risk, but you can’t eliminate it. The problem is two-fold. In the case of India right now, and the US, if the people who run and regulate plants are confident that accidents will not take place, they are unlikely to take [safety] measures.

Nuclear power plants are also extremely complex. It’s extremely complicated to predict all possible failures. In the case of Fukushima, there were multiple failures, common-cause failures. The bottom line is that in a power plant there are multiple ways in which accidents can take place, and when you try to prevent one, you might increase the risk of another. It’s very difficult to ensure complete safety.

Q. When we talk about risks, is Fukushima the best comparison? Earthquakes played a role there, as did the tsunami. Are the risks comparable for India?
It’s true that in India the chances of an earthquake are much lower than in Japan. But, if you think about the history of nuclear accidents, the two accidents before Fukushima were Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In both these cases, it was a purely internal cause. It’s the wrong lesson to learn from Fukushima and focus on tsunamis and earthquakes. They were the triggers, but you fundamentally have a system that is prone to accidents. That doesn’t mean you can’t have nuclear power, but the point is you can’t wish away the possibility of accidents.

Q. You say it doesn’t mean we can’t have nuclear power. In your opinion, should we?
There is an opportunity cost to not pursuing other technology possibilities. In India, we could have been generating a lot more power from other sources. Nuclear energy should not be a high priority; it’s time to deprioritise it to a minimum.

Nuclear power is special because of the potential for accidents. One implication of this is one should not pursue it without democratic consent, because it’s something people fear, and, to some extent, for good reason. We can’t decide on nuclear power before a national discussion or debate on how to deal with the energy crisis is carried out.

Q. Are there any signs of this debate taking place?
The debate isn’t taking place, and one reason for that is the sense of crisis. When people say we are short of power and need to generate it right away, it doesn’t give the mental space to carry out this kind of a debate.

Sadly, protests are the way in which this debate is taking place. People have to take to the streets and block entrances to the plants before they are heard. Kudankulam is a tragic illustration of how poor the democratic practices are. These people have opposed the plant from the beginning. They’ve not had a forum to express their grievances.

The one place where their voices are recorded is in the environmental impact assessment. Before a project is commissioned, they have to produce an environmental impact assessment, put it to the public for comment, and, by law, have a public meeting. The report is supposed to be used in the decision on whether to go ahead with the plant or not.

In 2007, there was a hearing that I attended, with about 7,000 people. Almost unanimously they were opposed to the project. What the Ministry of Environment did is say, ‘The project is fine, we are clearing it, we had various questions and they have answered all our questions.’ The project was commissioned without the support of the people. In the one democratic forum where people could participate, their views were not heard. They have no option but to go for this massive protest.

(This story appears in the 14 September, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Norbert G. Suchanek

    That phrase of Mr. Ramama is important and serves also for other countries like Brazil: "The debate isn'€™t taking place, and one reason for that is the sense of crisis. When people say we are short of power and need to generate it right away, it doesn'€™t give the mental space to carry out this kind of a debate." In addition I want to say, that any debate about nuclear power needs independent information. Our Uranium Film Festival that was born in Brazil in 2011 and that screens independent films about the whole nuclear fuel chain wants to stimulate the nuclear debate in our country and other countries like India.

    on Dec 10, 2012
  • Does It Make Sense To Drop Nuclear Now?

    As I understand, India has spent many years researching on nuclear power and now we are all set to be able to satisfy Homi Baba\'s vision of 3 Stage reactors. Now once we have the ability should we just drop all hard work done. This is insulting the soul of Dr. Homi J Bhaba. We unlike Europe or US make the best out by first using Uranium and then the result Plutonium and now also going to use Thorium which is in our sea sands. Yes safety is an issue, but if we drop nuclear power who will ensure us power. As Indians we have many more safety issues and nuclear power could only be a 1%. What we should do is as Dr. Abdul Kalam envisioned we should take care of our countrymen who live around and help them set up a PURA in a safer location.

    on Sep 10, 2012
  • Geoff Russell

    Excuse me, but the net benefit to human life and wellbeing of the Fukushima reactors remains huge. When the quake and tsunami hit, bridges collapsed and people died, buildings collapsed and people died, but the hundreds of people on duty at Fukushima are all alive (except for an unlucky 3). During the past decades the number of years of life saved by virtue of nuclear being clean energy rather than coal has been many thousands ... plus, nobody has died or (according to the best data) is even likely to die from radiation. Of the 100,000 people evacuated, about 40,000 will get cancer, many from things like alcohol, cigarettes and red and processed meat. But based on WHO estimates and Japanese measurements there will be no detectable increase in cancer rates as a result of the Fukushima failures. The big failure at Fukushima wasn\'t the reactors it was the politicians who collapsed before fear mongering and misinformation.

    on Sep 7, 2012
  • Shaawm

    \"Nuclear power is special because of the potential for accidents. One implication of this is one should not pursue it without democratic consent, because it’s something people fear, and, to some extent, for good reason\" ... The democratic consent author talks of will never come, even in the Western world. Human fear is all pervasive and contagious and there is no cure for it. No human mind works even half logically in such an environment. A bunch of flimsy economic, political, historical, and technological reasons for disregarding nuclear power is pretty unsound. It is unfortunate that even scientists take this path.

    on Sep 7, 2012
  • Juninho

    Nowhere does the author mention Thorium-fueled nuclear power, a proven technology which India is investing heavily in and will be a huge game changer for world energy. Thorium is a no-brainer...

    on Sep 5, 2012
  • Muhammad Sirajuddin.

    As I have mentioned several times previously also in countries like India, the H.S.E. factors in respect of nuclear power plants are always down played and I read only Germany having decided to phase out this source of energy, which is not even cost effective as pointed out by Shri M.V. Ramana. Even Japan is watching like a cat on the wall. The selection, import, sharing or collaboration in advanced technologies, facilities, or even equipment today is not merely a matter of techno-economic feasibility but also of policies both internal and external to the concerned nation. It is in the interest of all countries to enhance all possible research efforts, into development of renewable alternate sources of energy and for making them practical- economically and H.S.E. friendly.

    on Sep 4, 2012
  • Sachi Mohanty

    MV Ramana didn\'t indicate what his preferences were in place of nuclear power. Does it want us to continue to depend on dirty and old-fashioned fossil fuels. As Neil Tyson says: \"I wold be ashamed to tell any visiting alien that we still get stuff from below the Earth and burn them to generate power.\" Or does Ramana wish India to go Full Monty on the route of alternative energy? As far as popular protests go, the competition for land and for scarce habitats for humans is ever present in different forms in India. There are protests and police shootings of protesters protesting the setting up of new steel plants. What does anyone do about it? What SHOULD the government do about that? Also, I don\'t think the average villager knows about the risks/benefits of nuclear power plants versus, say, thermal power plants. It\'s for the experts to do a comprehensive weighing of risks and benefits. The anti-nuclear folks should not focus on the \'worst case\' scenarios in case of \'likely\' nuclear accidents. The worst case scenarios of course have NEVER come to pass EVER. Not in Chernobyl nor in Fukushima or Three Mile Island. And the drip-drip nature of the environmental cost of thermal power plants should not be overlooked. Go to a place in Odisha or Bihar or anywhere else where a thermal power plant is located and experience for yourself how hot and unlivable the climate there becomes. And how all the leaves in the trees turn gray. Twitter: @sachi_bbsr

    on Sep 3, 2012
  • Captd

    Why not look at Germany for Energy Leadership, instead? They are going GREEN and NoN Nuclear, If they can do it so can India IF (and it is a BIG IF) India starts doing ASAP, before China buys up all the Copper, Silver, Gold and rare earths materials that India needs to do go GREEN with... Think what could mean to not only India but the Planet... Read the book "Red Alert" for more on what delaying our conversion to Solar (of all flavors) could mean globally. ---> Nuclear "foot dragging" just ties India to the past and prevents India from LEAPING forward, and that is if everything goes OK and there are N˜ Fukushima's in the India... Remember, India cannot afford a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster on its sub-continent!

    on Sep 1, 2012
  • Captd

    For more info you need to know: Nuclear Controversies In 1995, the Director General of WHO Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, tried to inform on Chernobyl by organizing in Geneva an international conference with 700 experts and physicians. This tentative was blocked. The International Agency for Atomic Energy blocked the proceedings, which were never published. The truth on the consequences of Chernobyl would have been a disaster for the promotion of the atomic industry. This film shows the discussions at the following WHO- congress in Kiev in 2001, that lead to the fatal disregarding of internal radiation consequences throughout the nuclear world. The full transcript can be found here:

    on Sep 1, 2012
  • Captd

    For much more on nuclear corruption: SEE --> India has the land mass to go Solar (of all flavors) in a big way instead of taking the RISK of having a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster like Japan for any reason! Why give any loonies a radioactive target to exploit!

    on Sep 1, 2012
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