NEW YORK – An obsession with nuclear power makes many political elites secretive, ruthless and delusional, even as their cherished projects threaten millions of people with disaster. But the egregious examples I have in mind here aren’t Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. They are Japan and India, two countries with democratic institutions.
Last week in the south Indian city of Pondicherry, I met a friend who had managed to penetrate the security lockdown around Kudankulam, the Russian-built nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu that began partial operations late last month despite strong protests from local villagers.
Kudankulum lies only a few miles away from a coastline that was ravaged by a tsunami in 2004. Opposition to the plant intensified after another intense earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 caused meltdowns at three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
Since then, Indian police have deported the few journalists who have tried to report on the protests, sequestered entire villages and levied criminal charges against tens of thousands of locals, some of whom have been accused of sedition and “waging war on the state.”
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who invested much political capital in a nuclear deal with the U.S. in 2008, resorted to an Indian political ploy from the 1970s: blaming an unspecified “foreign hand” for the protests. (Never mind that the much-despised foreign hand helped build the Kudankulum plant, along with much of India’s nuclear infrastructure.)
Certainly, the protesters at Kudankulum have much to be worried about. In recent years, some of the crucial Russian suppliers of components to the plant have been detained in Russia and indicted for shoddy business practices. According to A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, “equipment, components and materials of substandard quality” have already been installed in the plant. Their “deficiencies and defects are dormant today, but these very same shortcomings may cause such parts to catastrophically fail when the reactor is operated for some time.”
Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the Fukushima plant, presents an ominous example of extraordinary negligence, denial and collaborative coverup. Long ignored by a compliant Japanese news media and complicit politicians, the evidence of Tepco’s falsehoods and ineptitude has accumulated inescapably in the more than two years since the disaster. Leaks of highly radioactive water in recent months undermine claims by the Japanese government that the situation is under control.
Despite the fact that 150,000 of its people remain homeless and that the nuclear disaster has cost almost $100 billion, Japan is preparing to start up a massive nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant that can produce nine tons of weapons-usable plutonium annually — enough for 2,000 atomic bombs. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been busy vending Japan’s nuclear industry around the world, including to seismically active Turkey and India, countries that have even less institutional oversight than Japan.
In India, Abe’s path is smoothed not only by the customarily powerful stakeholders in a multibillion-dollar industry but also by the superstitious faith invested in nuclear energy in a country where a large part of the population suffers from long power outages almost every day. Pro-nuclear advocates propose nuclear energy as an answer to India’s power shortages and crippling reliance on imported oil.
A new book, “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” by Princeton University physicist M.V. Ramana, takes a sober — and sobering — look at the fantasies and perils attached to this mirage, and finds the promise of nuclear energy empty in every way: environmental, economic and technological.
“While the Indian nuclear establishment’s arguments might provide a case for rapidly increasing the nuclear power capacity,” Ramana writes, “they do not in any way lend support to the supposition that it can increase rapidly.”
India, like many postcolonial countries, invested heavily in nuclear technology for reasons of both national pride and energy self-sufficiency. Ramana explains how India’s Department of Atomic Energy first acquired its present political clout, and how the Atomic Energy Commission, which reports directly to the prime minister, achieved its immunity to public scrutiny despite repeated failure to meet India’s nuclear-energy needs.
In recent years, problematic reports from government bodies such as the comptroller and auditor general have had no impact on the functioning of the nuclear establishment. On occasion, even elected members of the Parliament have been frustrated by its nontransparency.
Chronicling the march of folly, Ramana notes each one of the nuclear establishment’s many dismal milestones, the outlandish targets that were set in continuous defiance of actual results. For instance, the target for 2000 (set in 1984) was 10,000 megawatts; the result was a mere 1,840 megawatts.
Undeterred by such poor performance, Prime Minister Singh now expects India to have 470,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity in 2050 — a figure from science fiction that assumes India will annually increase its nuclear capacity by 11,500 megawatts until 2050 (which is on average 2.5 times the entire nuclear capacity added by the country over the last four decades).
The more disturbing parts of Ramana’s book deal with the neglect of safety by the nuclear establishment. Recounting various alarming “incidents” in recent decades, he inspires little confidence in India’s ability to avoid a major disaster such as Chernobyl or Fukushima.
So what accounts for this great hallucination of the elites in India and Japan? After all, nuclear power is on its way out in many countries, and it has grown distinctly unpopular in Japan, where a majority wants to phase it out. As detailed by Ramana, the argument for nuclear energy in India fails on economic grounds alone, even before we consider the challenges of radiation and waste disposal that bedevil the Japanese at Fukushima.
Of course, any powerful and secretive bureaucracy tends to swell behind official barricades of secrecy — a fact of public life manifested most recently by the U.S. National Security Agency’s apparent impunity. But there are also broader political and economic compulsions behind the new proliferation of nuclear technologies.
Japan’s conservative leaders want to preserve their nuclear option, even if that risks provoking South Korea and a devastating arms race in north Asia. Worried by Japan’s unused plutonium supply, the U.S., as the Wall Street Journal reported in May, is pushing to restart nuclear reactors in Japan.
It is also true that, as Japan scholar Jeff Kingston points out, the export of technology by Japanese companies is key to Abenomics. Japan is at the center of the global nuclear-industrial complex, which stands to benefit greatly from the continued sale of an outdated and demonstrably dangerous technology to wannabe nuclear powers such as India and Turkey.
Toshiba Corp. owns 87 percent of Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, which is helping to build a nuclear plant — again, against intense local protests — in the Indian state of Gujarat; Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Group are in collaborations with General Electric Co. and the French company Areva SA, whose multiple deals with India make it the real beneficiary of the country’s U.S.-assisted admission to the nuclear club in 2008.
In this scramble for large profits, democratic values such as oversight, accountability and transparency are likely to be trampled into the dust. The case of Tepco shows how a large and networked company can buy the silence of the media as well as of politicians and regulators. Thus, while Fukushima remains volatile, another nuclear catastrophe seems to be developing in India.
As in Japan, the full-throated advocacy of nuclear energy by its leaders, and the absence of debate within the parliament or the mainstream media, reinforces the bitter truth of a line from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek that Ramana quotes in his book: “It is indeed true that we live in a society of risky choices, but it is one in which only some do the choosing, while others do the risking.”
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg columnist