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Has the PM thought of his grandchildren?

By Claude Arpi
September 19, 2007 18:25 IST
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In recent years, very few topics have received as many comments, columns, articles or cover stories as the nuclear agreement signed by the Manmohan Singh government with the United States administration.

I have to admit that, like many in India, the more I read about the now famous (or infamous) 123 Agreement, the more I get confused.

Not being an expert -- there are very few in this country -- I should probably keep quiet, but I cannot resist putting down some points which I believe have not been stressed enough during the debate.

When one asks, 'Why this deal?' the usual answer from the government is that India is doing extremely well economically, the growth may soon reach 10 per cent and in order to sustain the tempo, energy is needed.

Like China, India has become an ogre devouring more and more power. While the government is working hard through vigorous energy diplomacy to cope with the shortage of petroleum products, the scene on the power front is rather grim. There is a shortage of electricity to run the ever-growing 'economic' machine, to which you have to add the increased 'needs' of the Indian middle class for cars, air conditioners, etc.

When it is said that the nuclear deal with the US will help India to solve its energy's problems, it is far from true.

It can only help in producing more electricity. A small percentage (3.4 per cent) of the total electricity generated today comes from nuclear energy (4020 Mwe in 2006-2007).

Through the deal, the government is attempting to increase this percentage. The Atomic Commission admits, 'We have to examine all fuel resources in the country and tap them keeping short, medium and long term scenarios in perspective. Hydro potential and renewables must be exploited to the maximum possible extent and in as short a time-frame as possible.'

But its conclusions are: 'These together with coal would meet short and medium-term requirements, but to meet long-term requirements, it is necessary to exploit nuclear resources.'

But is the nuclear option really a long-term one?

In the US today, only 4 per cent of the total energy requirement is produced by nuclear energy; worldwide, the figure is even smaller -- 2 per cent. Only France, which has invested a lot in this sector in the 1970s, produces 78 per cent of its electricity -- 16 per cent of the total energy consumption -- from nuclear reactors.

Apart from civilian use, nuclear energy is also used for military purposes -- to produce atomic bombs. The 123 Agreement requires India to separate its civilian and military reactors in a phased manner. The civilian reactors will come under international safeguards monitored in perpetuity by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This will be the condition for India to import fuel to run the civilian reactors.

After the Pokhran nuclear tests, the US put a ban on having nuclear business with India. This included trade in nuclear power equipment and also nuclear fuel. Once the Agreement is implemented, the US will lift the ban.

Though abuses have been flying high in the media about the possibility of conducting further nuclear tests, one question has hardly been discussed: does India need further testing?

In an interview with India Today, Anil Kakodkar, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, surprisingly said that 'testing' has 'nothing to do with the deal.'

His remarks were, however, rather vague: 'The 1998 tests, although the number was five, in terms of configuration and ideas, a very large number of them were tested out. And the most important thing was that everything that was tested worked. That did provide us with a fairly high degree of confidence. So in terms of building deterrence we had said that time itself it was adequate.' Deterrence only!

Bharat Karnad, the nuclear expert, is probably closer to the truth: 'The 1998 tests raised some grave doubts about the thermonuclear and 'boosted fission' devices that were exploded. These prototype weapon designs need to be reworked and tested and re-tested in order for them to acquire credibility as operational weapons which can perform reliably and with safety.'

With an 'arsenal quality frozen at a relatively primitive level,' it means India has only two alternatives today: Either to conduct new tests (and the 123 Agreement will be terminated) or do simulations for which very powerful computers are needed.

After the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had declared a moratorium on the tests following Pokhran II, it is doubtful if any government can risk the ostracisation of the past. The solution is therefore computer simulation. And it is probable that New Delhi hopes to get access to sophisticated equipment which will allow Indian scientists to proceed with their military research.

Has the Manmohan Singh government already signed a deal behind the deal to get the required equipments? It is very possible. And in any case, once the 123 deal is through with the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, computer merchants will be flocking to Delhi to do business.

It would also be wrong to believe the US is doing a favour to India by signing the deal. The deal is opening huge business opportunities for Washington, as well as other Western nations and Australia. Let us not forget that the US suffered a great deal from the post-test ban, as several less strict nations jumped to the opportunity to do business with India.

The deal is also a way for Washington to play the India card against China. A stronger nuclear India could help the US administration balance the rise of China in Asia. Like during the Cold War, the US prefers to fight a proxy war rather than a direct one. One easily understands the advantages of such a policy. This also explains the aggressive reactions of Beijing and their proxies in Delhi.

Manmohan Singh, probably knowing that the latter bark louder than they bite, is not overtly worried, Even if his government is dismissed, he will become the hero of India's economic development.

But the China factor remains nevertheless crucial.

Let us remember Vajpayee's letter to Bill Clinton after the 1998 test. The Indian prime minister wrote: 'We have an overt nuclear weapon State on our borders, a State which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem.'

The central question is whether nuclear energy is the solution for the future. It is rather surprising than nobody in the Indian media has raised the issue.

Several countries in the West, particularly Germany and Spain, are on the way to close their nuclear plants because nuclear energy is not considered a 'clean' energy for two reasons: There is a risk of accidents (for example Chernobyl), and nobody knows how to dispose the waste. In 1999, Germany decided to definitively close all its plants and ban new ones. It is generally accepted that it will be done by 2020, the year India plans to generate 20,000 MW of nuclear energy.

The most serious issue is the decommissioning of these nuclear plants. The problem may not be a burning one for India, which is just jumping in a big way onto the nuclear bandwagon, but it will have serious consequences 30 years hence.

In January this year, seven nuclear reactors have been decommissioned in Europe, four in Great Britain, two in Bulgaria and one in Slovakia. To decommission its four plants, it will cost British taxpayers 103 billion Euros. If France -- with its 58 reactors -- decides to decommission the reactors, the bill will be at least five times higher.

Scientists have not yet found any safe and easy means to dispose of the nuclear waste, which may remain radioactive for thousands of years. France has planned to bury them in a site near Bure in Meuse district. Many believe it is a crime against future generations, because in 1,000 or 10,000 years the soil and the aquifers may get polluted; the contamination is bound to come back to the surface.

Without speaking of a Chernobyl-like situation, nuclear plants are also constantly generating contaminated equipments and materials. Unfortunately, there is no cost-effective solution for their safe disposal yet.

In March, the European Council has adopted a set of very constraining rules. Its member-States will have to compulsorily produce 20 per cent of their electricity by renewable sources, and despite France's resistance, nuclear energy was not listed as a renewable energy. During the same period, Europe has decided to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent, to 30 per cent.

The two-pronged policy -- increased renewable energy and reduction of consumption through energy-efficient industry, habitat or life style -- has been agreed upon. It was not an easy decision, but the future of the planet is at stake.

In India, the 123 Agreement will probably ultimately go through, but nuclear energy can certainly not be called the 'energy of the future.'

Has the prime minister weighed all the expensive collaterals for his grandchildren?

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Claude Arpi