Vinod Mubayi


Dedicated anti-nuclear activists oppose nuclear power everywhere so their critique of the Indian nuclear program is expected.  However, it is possible to have a somewhat different perspective on the Indian nuclear program as well as offer a critique of the hyped Obama-Modi “breakthrough” that is supposed to lead to a number of Westinghouse and GE designed reactors being constructed and operated in India in the near future.


Admittedly, since the Fukushima disaster nuclear power has been on the defensive.  In the US, for example, a nuclear renaissance was being optimistically predicted 5 years ago with numerous utility companies poised to embark on new reactor construction after being in the doldrums for several decades.  Now, only a couple of projects in the south-east US are in the construction stage and many others have been postponed or indefinitely delayed.


The abundance of cheap natural gas in the US due to the unprecedented success of new discoveries has more to do with utilities postponing or abandoning relatively expensive, long-term investments in nuclear plants compared with much cheaper, short-term investments in gas-fired power plants.  While both serve to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by replacing the old, coal fired capacity (gas has one-third the emissions of coal, while nuclear has zero emissions), economically gas is currently the much desired alternative as investors can begin to get their money back in 3 years compared to 8 or 10 years for nuclear.  One possible approach for promotion of nuclear is SMRs (small, modular reactors) that can be factory assembled and delivered to the site much like gas turbines.  But SMRs face many uncertainties still due to issues such as licensing, and possible lack of investor interest due to the lack of experience or a track record for these plants.


India has no abundant natural gas reserves as far as is known. It is building large amounts of coal fired capacity based on both domestic and imported coal that already accounts for an overwhelming amount of power generation and it is currently the 3rd largest GHG emitter in the world, behind China and the US. After more than 40 years of nuclear power generation in India beginning with the imported GE Tarapur plant in 1969, nuclear’s share in overall capacity and generation is a mere 3-4%.  The only firm case for nuclear that can be currently envisaged is based on reducing GHG emissions as an alternative to base load coal-fired capacity, which, one may notice, some of the anti-nuclear activists rarely seem to mention although they also consider themselves as environmentalists.  Some of them do highlight wind and solar power generation alternatives and of course these should be encouraged and supported. But aggregate wind turbine capacity in India exceeds nuclear already by a significant margin and one should ask what its contribution to generation is.  Tamil Nadu appears to have the largest amount of wind power capacity of any state in India and one should ask what its contribution to annual generation is because there is supposed to be a large deficit in power in the state.


To turn to the Obama-Modi deal, one may first note that the deals for imported nuclear power plants made during the UPA regime and continued by the BJP government, exemplify some of the worst features of the investment in power by foreign companies in India exhibited by the Enron plant in Maharashtra years ago. There was no open bids to analyze performance and cost, simply allocations of sites to the Westinghouse AP 1000 and the GE ESBWR plants without any analysis or justification of why these particular plants represent good investment choices for India.  Even the UAE, a virtual American client state, was able to conduct and process a much more transparent transaction of selecting a reactor supplier a few years back based mainly on cost.  In that case, the Koreans walked off with the winning bid for “their” reactor, the APR 1400.  (This design is an update of the old Combustion Engineering’s System 80+ that received design certification from the US NRC in the 1990s. Combustion was later acquired by Westinghouse, and the design was taken over and modified by the Koreans who now have some units in construction or operation in Korea and market this design as a “Korean” reactor). The French were highly miffed that their EPR was not chosen in the bidding for the UAE plant.  No doubt, India feels an obligation to the US ever since Singh and Bush reached their agreement to allow India to participate in global nuclear commerce. But why should that have prevented India from setting up a transparent bidding process for reactor selection? Instead, in the worst tradition of handing out something to everyone, India just handed sites in Gujarat to the Americans, Westinghouse and GE, the French (Jaitapur for the EPR), and the Russians (Koodankulam and some others) without justifying to the Indian public why these were the best choices.


All the press and media attention has been focused on the so-called liability issue that was supposed to hold foreign suppliers “hostage” in the event of an accident and against which the foreign reactor suppliers, mainly the Americans, were caviling against.  This is the kind of issue that lawyers, diplomats, and statesmen and the media love to focus on. But the severe nuclear power plant accidents that have actually occurred, are a complex mix of equipment failures, human failures on the part of the plant operators, or external events like tsunamis that went beyond what the plant was designed for.  How, given the complicated likely evolution of an actual accident, the clever lawyerly construction of the “patent or latent defects” clause in India’s liability bill could be ultimately adjudicated or resolved in court seems difficult to imagine.


We have three examples of severe reactor accidents: Three Mile Island (TMI) in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011, two of which caused damage offsite (Chernobyl and Fukushima).  One could carry out a gedanken (thought) experiment in applying the Indian liability law to these examples and then determine who or what could be legally held liable for damages.  Nuclear plants are designed with a defense-in-depth philosophy that provides for multiple layers of defense in the event of challenges to safe plant operation.  Operator errors such as happened at TMI and Chernobyl and the earthquake/tsunami at Fukushima that overwhelmed what the plant was designed to withstand resulted in major damage but what supplier could be held responsible for the damage caused? US and all other foreign reactor suppliers probably know that even if the chances of an unfavorable final legal judgment in the unlikely event of an accident are low, given that NPCIL would be the operator of the plants, there would be extremely bad publicity from any accident and long, costly, and uncertain litigation.  Hence their opposition to the liability clause, even if legal liability on their part would be difficult to prove in court.


For dedicated anti-nuclear activists the issue of who to hold liable in the accidents at TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima is obvious.  It is the technology itself.  The same argument, however, could be used against the chemical industry as the accident at Bhopal showed, and even more so the coal industry responsible for the deaths and chronic illnesses like black lung to thousands of miners, as well as deaths and respiratory illnesses of those exposed to harmful coal power plant emissions and environmental devastation from heavy metal contamination of the ash ponds in areas where coal plants are located.  Furthermore, there are the GHG emissions that pose a global threat.


However, pointing out the manifest health and environmental problems of coal-fired electric generation does not in any way gainsay the many problems of India’s nuclear program. The inability to set up an independent nuclear safety regulator in India, coupled with absurd, imaginary projections of India’s nuclear capacity in the future by the Department of Atomic Energy and now the PMO, are important matters of concern in India’s nuclear program.  Another important issue in the prospect of US reactor supply to India regardless of what Obama or Modi think or do, is one of financing, cost of generation and ability of the utility to pay for the power. This fact doomed the Enron plant when MSEB refused to buy its power as it would lose money on every unit of power purchased. It could potentially doom the prospects of Westinghouse or GE reactors unless there is some hidden Gujarat model in the transaction whereby Indian taxpayers could be called upon to save Modi’s face.


It is possible that the Obama-Modi nuclear “deal” was just a cover to deflect attention from more significant agreements on defense matters with the US. BJP strongly opposed to the Singh-Bush nuclear deal in 2008, although that was probably for largely opportunistic reasons.  However, since nuclear generation is completely in the government sector in India, it is quite likely that it has a much lower priority in the Modi regime’s agenda, considering that the Gujarat model of energy sector development is based on huge giveaways to the largest corporates like Adani, who stand to make a killing from major projects in solar power and coal power.

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