Why are we still at it ?

Surendra N Gadekar

(From Vol 1 Issue 2, October 1987)

India was the first third world country to em-bark upon a fullscale nuclear programme. In early 1940’s even before the horrors perpetuated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the power of the atom a tangible reality to everyone, Bhabha had envisag-ed nuclear power as the
vehicle to launch a newly emergent India into the ‘modern age’. Bhabha’s dream was shared by Jawaharlal Nehru. Clothed in eloquent prose by him, it captured the imagination of many. The country bid goodbye to Gandhi and marched down the nuclear path.

In the last forty years much has changed. The world today is a very different sort of place from what it was then. People’s expectations
and aspirations have changed. The path marked ‘development’ no longer looks as rosy as it did then. The jargon too has changed from
‘modern age’ to ”21st century’. During the same time there has been a revolutionary change in science. Splitting of the atom no longer seems the Mt. Everest of scientific achievement as it did then.  In this changed context, when the whole concept of ‘development’ is being
challenged by many, it might be worthwhile to reexamine the nuclear energy programme. However, it would be futile to engage in this
exercise without first understanding the historical and politico-economic framework within which the nuclear enterprise was undertaken.

It was decades of exploitation of the agricultural, mineral and forest wealth of this country that had been the driving force which
had sustained the industrial revolution in England. This exploitation had conditioned the thinking of many who were soon to become leaders in independent India. They were determined to prevent exploitation by foreigners and for this the country had to become ‘strong’ and take its ‘rightful place’ in the comity of nations. However, to become strong, the only way known to them — the prevalent development paradigm — (Gandhi then as now was good only for lip service) was the very same exploitation and industrialisation.

Hence the great stress laid on self reliance and on the core sector of basic heavy industry and the great effort spent in trying to acquire
mastery of various modern technologies. In the nuclear field this meant gaining control over all the phases of the entire fuel cycle. The objective was to develop indigenous capability to locate minerals useful for nuclear power and to exploit them in a planner in confirmity with the national interest.

What was true of materials was even more true of knowhow. Modern science was the base for Western technological advancement and the consequent Western domination. Therefore, mastery over technical sophistication was considered essential if we were not to be
subjected to manipulation by the ‘big brothers’. As Nehru said, “The future belongs to those who make friends with science”. Another facet of this reluctance to be pushed around was to acquire the capability of building a nuclear arsenal if desired — “Keeping the nuclear option open”.

There were other secondary factors too in our decision to trudge the nuclear path. Cheap reliable and abundant electricity was seen as a
vital element for development. Nuclear power was perceived as one of the answers to meet this massive expected electricity demand. There was also the expectation of ‘spin off effects.(e.g. food irradiation technology, advances in metallurgy of rare earths etc.) The thinking went that if we could ‘deliver the goods’ in such a complex enterprise, it would increase confidence in indegenous capability and
allow us to do less sophisticated tasks with ease.

A climate of distrust and mutual suspicion between us and the nuclear ‘haves’ has prevailed during the post independence era. The policies persued by all the nuclear haves throughout this time have only served to reinforce this distrust These policies have swung from total denial of access to nuclear technology in the supersecret early days, to the commercial hustle of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ era and back to denial as signified by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the ‘Club of London’. Nuclear suppliers have abrogated existing commercial contracts with impunity, (e.g. U. S. enriched uranium for Tarapur) Their behaviour can be characterised as trying to impose a new set of rules midway during the game.

With this perspective let us see where does the Indian nuclear programme stand in todays world context. The primary original objectives of self reliance have already been met and have become non-issues. The country has control over nuclear raw material and an indigenous capability is now present able to deal with them. Similarly a large scientific and technical base is already in existance some of it quite capable of carrying out ‘frontline’ research. So much so, that the country’s continuing poverty and backwardness can no longer be explained away by reference to its scientific unsophistication. Today, when a graduate student can make a plausible bomb design as part of a self study project, becomming a nuclear weapons state too, is no longer a technical but rather a political problem.

Thus todays nuclear objectives are far removed from those which motivated us four decades ago. Today nuclear power is just another way of boiling water to run the turbines. After twenty years of doing just this, nuclear technology can no longer claim indulgance due to a new technology Failures can no longer be airily dismissed as ‘teething troubles’.  However it is precisely in the field of electricity
generation that the nuclear Napoleon has met its Waterloo.  Bhabha in 1962 had projected a figure of 20000 M\V to 50000 M\V for 1987 nuclear electricity production. Well, it is 1987 now and we fall short of producing even a 1000 MW. Which other industrey can get away with such unrealistically massive overprujec-tion and such an abysmally poor performance? Now a days the DAE is all set on the figure of 10000 MW by the dawn of the 21st century. Each passing day pushes this pie a little further in the sky.  In despair the high priests of the nuclear order have performed an astonishing summersault. They have given the go bye to self reliance and the country is again out, begging bowl in hand, asking our good ‘friends’ the Russians for VVER plants.  These VVER type reactors have an appaling safety record (see news item) and besides they use entriched uranium as fuel. As yet, India has no fuel enrichment facility. We would thus be supplicants of enriched uranium suppliers for the lifetime of the plants. We seem all set for a reenactment of the Tarapur drama of the seventies, when the U. S. kept us on a tight ‘leash’ by releasing small driblets of fuel every few months in an effort to force us to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

India’s nuclear programme has thus come full circle. We started with the objective of being independent, masters of ourselves, free of
domi-nation and manipulation by forigners. It is strange to see us willing to fritter away these hard won gains today just to achieve a
target. Of course, all this is one of a piece with the rest .of the ’21st century’ thinking.

The current of science in the last forty years too has been somewhat unkind to the nuclear enterprise which has been consigned to the
back-waters. Giant nuclear plants, with all their attendent risks, inflexibilities, capital intensites, vulnera-bilites, environmental
hazards and other ills are beginning to look like dinosaurs at the dawn of the age of mammals. Todays ‘breakthrough’ areas from high
temperature superconductors to genetic enginnering, from high speed computation to designer drugs all involve manipulation at the
molecular level requiring very little energy.

The time is thus ripe even within the Nehruvian developmental framework to ponder over the title question. Why are we still at it?
Isn’t it time we placed the national interest above the vested interest of the nuclear mandarins and their political masters?


This paper has borrowed extensively from a paper by J. A. Sabato and Jairam Ramesh which appeared in the March 1980 issue
of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

S. N. Gadekar