South Asians Against Nukes | July 16, 2004

India's Department of Atomic Energy:
Fifty Years of Profligacy

by S. P. Udayakumar

July 16, 2004

Odd as it may sound, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), one of the most powerful and pampered departments of the government of India, is not celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with much fanfare. Although the department has emerged as a darling child of the Indian elites and one of the "fathers" of the frightful atomic bomb has been crowned as the President of India, the mood in DAE is rather subdued.

In fact, in an interview to the Frontline magazine (February 14 - 27, 2004), Mr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary of DAE, said: "We are not in the celebrations mode." When the persistent interviewer pointed out that fifty years is an important milestone, Kakodkar reiterated: "We are in the introspection mode right now." He pointed out two elements of this introspection: "looking at how to prepare ourselves for the future" and ětrying to capture some important aspects of the history of the atomic energy programme in our country." Translation: "We need to accomplish something concrete, and we haven't been doing a good job."

Although the tentative 'Indian Atomic Energy Commission' was set up in August 1948 in the new and fledgling Department of Scientific Research, it was only on August 3, 1954 the fully-fledged Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was created under the direct control of the Prime Minister through a Presidential Order. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) itself was established in the Department of Atomic Energy by a Government Resolution of March 1, 1958. Just three months after the DAE was established, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru unequivocally declared in a conference on 'Development of Nuclear Power for Peaceful Purposes': "We want to utilise atomic energy for generating electricity because electricity is most essential for the development of the nation."

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the DAE, it is pertinent to reflect on what the Indian nukedom has accomplished in the past fifty years. Take a good look at the statistics. In 1950 India was producing a meager 1,800 MW power but in 1998-99 we generated about 90,000 MW. Almost all of this was thermal and hydropower and the share of nuclear power was an insignificant 1,840 MW -- a ridiculously low 2 per cent of the total energy production. As of today, the Indian nukedom claims, their energy output has increased to 2,770 MW. It is hardly 3 per cent even if we keep the total energy output at the stagnant level of 90,000 MW.

Although the DAE failed to achieve their target of producing 10,000 MW power by the year 2000, they are so full of pipe dreams and keep promising big things. The fact of the matter is most of the 14 units (two at Tarapur in western Maharashtra state, four at Rawatbhatta in western Rajasthan state, two at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, two at Narora in northern Uttar Pradesh, two at Kakrapar in western Gujarat and two at Kaiga in southern Karnataka) are beset with technical problems. Dr B K Subbarao, a retired naval captain who is familiar with the nuclear department, asserts that "the countryís six nuclear power plants with 14 units are operating at low capacities."

A simple comparison of nuclear power projects with hydro and thermal power projects would show that nuclear energy is way too expensive and ineffective. For the first time, on December 1, 1999 the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) presented a maiden dividend cheque of Rs 504.4 million to the prime minister. It is important to note that NPCIL itself was incorporated in 1987. You donít have to be a genius to imagine the amount of money, time, energy, human and other resources that should have gone into these nuclear institutions and their activities since 1948. Put all these facts and figures together and you get a classic picture of inefficiency and incompetence.

Nuclear power is not only costly but also deadly. Serious accidents are happening at the Indian nuclear power plants. For instance, in March 1999, there was a leak of heavy water in the second unit of MAPS reactor at Kalpakkam, near Madras. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), another wing of Indian nukedom, dismissed the incident by saying that "the release to the environment is maintained well within the limits specified by the AERB." But M V Ramana, an Indian scientist, estimated that the radioactivity released to the environment was "several times the permitted 300 curies per day per reactor and perhaps even exceeding the discharge limit of 10 times the daily quota." He further asserted that the dose to workers was likely to have been much greater than the AERB claims.

Indian government admitted in December 1999 for the first time that heavy water with radioactive tritium above limits set by the AERB got released into the Rana Pratap Sagar lake from the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station in May 1998. In December 1999 New Delhi also acknowledged that 21 issues relating to nuclear safety raised by the AERB as far back as 1996 had not yet been addressed. In December 1991 Bhabha Atomic Research Centre reactor workers discovered a big radioactive leak from poorly maintained pipelines in the vicinity of the Cirus and Dhruva reactors causing severe soil contamination.

Last year, six employees of the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant (KARP) were exposed to radiation exceeding the annual dosage limit. There was a "power rise" in one of the Kakrapara units because "the operator failed in not tripping the reactor in time." Three employees at the Waste Immobilization Plant (WIP) at Tarapur received high doses of radiation from a tiny bottle containing highly radioactive waste. We know only what they say. Protected by secrecy and opacity, the Indian nukedom has been hiding things rather efficiently.

Considering our national track record on safety awareness and emergency preparedness, many Indians do fear that major accidents could take place in Indian nuclear power plants. A cursory look at the Bhopal tragedy, frequent train accidents, airplane accidents, assassination of so many top-level leaders, and other such fiascos show that we, as a nation, are not good at averting disasters or at being prepared for unexpected emergency situations.

It is very strange that in a democratic country like ours, certain departments, projects and scientific advisors are treated as "sacred cows" with no need for any transparency and accountability. They function like extra-constitutional authorities and not even elected public representatives and the media have any knowledge or information about these entities, their budget or their activities. The specifics of nuclear weapons and energy programs that have such an enormous bearing on the lives and futures of Indian citizens of India are kept away from the "ordinary citizens" under the pretext of national security. In fact, the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 (clause 18) states that we cannot ask, or gather or disclose any information about present, past or future or planned atomic plants.

Instead of facilitating closer scrutiny and vigilance, the Indian nukedom and officialdom are heading in the opposite direction. In June 2000, the Indian government took away the authority of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to oversee the safety of a large number of critical nuclear installations meant for the weapons program in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). An internal safety committee became responsible for ensuring the safety of the public and the workers from dangers that could emanate from these facilities. This move seriously undermined the AERB's responsibility for unbiased and independent safety regulations.

Many local people and anti-nuclear activists in Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts of Tamil Nadu have been demanding the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Government of India to respect their Right to Information and to release the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Site Evaluation Study, and the Safety Analysis Report that are claimed to have been done way back in 1988 for the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project that may go critical in 2007. Even though these studies are now outdated and many changes have been brought about in the project, local people do have the right to know what the government and the Indian nukedom really argue.

The DAE has also sidestepped the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) in getting proper permission for setting up the Koodankulam project. The mandatory Public Hearing has never been conducted to this day. Although the original plan is to have two 1000 MW reactors, the DAE authorities keep adding the number of reactors in Koodankulam unilaterally as if they were running a state within the Indian state. Keeping the civil and political societies in the dark about their actual plans in Koodankulam, the DAE is acting with no transparency and accountability whatsoever.

So much money has already been wasted on nuclear power projects and the current cash crunch is mainly due to nuclear power being very expensive, inefficient and capital intensive. So the top officials of Indian nukedom have expressed interest in inviting private investments. To reach their target of 20,000 MW power by the year 2020, they say they need a whopping amount of Rs 800 billion. What all this means is that while private companies make money with no responsibilities, Indian taxpayers and the "ordinary citizens" will bear the cost of dealing with the nuclear waste and other dangerous consequences.

A highly populated developing country like India does have an increasing need for energy. But that energy has to be economical, sustainable and environment-friendly precisely for the same reasons of over -- and dense -- population. Even a small mishap can hurt, harm or kill a huge number of people. The "use and discard" strategy adopted in nuclear power projects is not viable for obvious reasons of limited land availability and the serious impacts of nuclear waste on the present and future generationsí health and safety. Moreover, we cannot afford to spend all our scarce resources on energy production alone because we have other pressing needs such as health, education, housing, transportation and so forth.

It is foolhardy for India to embark upon power production through nuclear plants when technologically advanced countries such as Sweden and Germany have decided to phase out the nuclear power option. The nuclear energy companies in the United States are closing down old units and not starting new ones. The nuclear power projects do not help the social and economic development of India but only add to the power, prominence and prestige of upper class financiers and power barons. These "temples of science and technology" (in Russian President Putin's view) provide the middle class scientists and engineers stable job, steady income, and comfortable living. But what do 400 million poor people of India get out of these nuclear power projects is a big question mark.

To face the increasing needs of energy, the answer is not embarking upon costly and highly dangerous nuclear power generation, but preventing distribution loss, theft and streamlining inefficient administration. There are also many viable non-conventional energy sources such as solar, wind and bio-mass. We already have solar fridges, solar radios, and even solar hearing aids. We have solar cookers in various shapes and sizes. Now the world's first solar-powered crematorium is built in Gujarat and it will save about 600 pounds of firewood for each body cremated.

India's potential realization in the wind power sector is said to be in the range of 20,000 MW to 45,000 MW. As of today, the total installed capacity of windmills in Tamil Nadu alone is more than 1,350 MW and an additional 450 MW will be added in this financial year. The Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES) has prepared a master plan for 80 potential sites in 10 States on the revised criterion based on mean annual wind power density (MAWPD). The Koodankulam (Tamil Nadu) area that has hundreds of windmills now is one of them. There have been several teething troubles such as inadequate wind data, weak grids and outages and incompatibility of the largely imported infrastructure. If only we put enough emphasis and resources on renewable sources of energy, we could have sustainable living in India without dangerous radiation and deadly diseases.

S. P. Udayakumar is a Coordinator of People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and puts out an email newsletter 'Red Earth' to spearhead the struggle against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant <>. | See Also: Privatising Nuclear Power is Dangerous -- PMANE Press Release of October 2003