Arun Shouries Articles

The way out | May 28, 2008

Arun Shourie: Saturday, December 23, 2006

Looking at atomic power as the major component of our electricity supplies in the future has been India’s basic strategic flaw. As far as nuclear reactors are concerned, look to them principally for our weapons programme, not for electricity — for we do have other ways of securing electricity

But the Vajpayee government itself started the discussions for this deal,” the government’s apologists shout. Would the fact that Vajpayee’s government recommenced discussions with China on the border justify surrendering Arunachal to China tomorrow?

“But Vajpayee himself announced a voluntary moratorium on further tests,” they shout. A voluntary moratorium is one that can be ended at our discretion should circumstances so warrant. What is being done under this new law of the US is to convert a voluntary moratorium into a legally binding bilateral agreement.

“But Vajpayee himself told the UN General Assembly that India was willing to convert its voluntary moratorium into a de jure one,” they shout. The position the government took was that India would do so by signing the CTBT when forty four countries signed up to bring it into force. These countries included the US, China, Pakistan, and the 41 others that are listed in the draft. As the US Senate itself has rejected the CTBT, where is the question under that statement for converting our voluntary moratorium into a de jure one?

In any event, the government is bound by what the present PM assured Parliament. He emphatically told Rajya Sabha on August 17, “There is provision in the proposed US law that were India to detonate a nuclear explosive device, the US will have the right to cease further cooperation. Our position on this is unambiguous. The US has been intimated that reference to nuclear detonation in the India-US Bilateral Nuclear Cooperation Agreement as a condition for future cooperation is not acceptable to us. We are not prepared to go beyond a unilateral voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing as indicated in the July statement.”

But the first step

In a word, the US Congress has not attached the slightest weight to the assurances the PM has given to Parliament. Instead, the most stringent features from the House and Senate Bills have been taken and incorporated into the final Act.

And this is but the first round. Remember what the two Under Secretaries of State, Robert Joseph and Nicholas Burns, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Pressed about the aspects that had not been covered, Burns and Joseph urged the Senate to “resist the temptation to take actions that will prejudice our ability to realise the important and long-standing nonproliferation objectives embodied in the initiative.” They urged it to see that “The commitments India has made under the Initiative are a significant gain over the status quo.” From four reactors being under safeguards, to two-third — that is, 14 — of the existing ones being under safeguards, to 90 per cent of them being under safeguards in the coming years. And they said, “We believe the best course is to lock in the significant gains reached and then seek to achieve further nonproliferation results as our strategic partnership advances.”

Since the Act was passed, we have witnessed lobbying more blatant than anything I have seen in the 35 years that I have followed Indian public affairs, the twisting and misrepresentation more shameless than I have seen. This feverish activity itself betrays that we should look closely at what is being done.

The way out

Yes, energy is an important objective. Yes, good relations with the US are important. One possible source was cooperation with the US in this field. But that cooperation, evidently, comes with an unacceptable price tag. Stop looking to this deal as the key to better Indo-American relations. Stop looking to Americans for nuclear energy. Stop looking to nuclear energy as a significant component of our electricity supplies.

This last factor — looking to atomic power as a major component of our electricity supplies in the future — has been the strategic flaw which has landed us in this quicksand. The sequence of the government’s reasoning has been:

We need huge quantities of energy.

Nuclear energy has to supply 35,000 megawatts of what we need — against the 3,500 megawatts it supplies today.

While we have the requisite reserves of natural uranium, we are not able to get enough of it out of the ground for the reactors.

Hence, the operating/plant-load factors of all the reactors have been falling since 2000. Therefore, we need imported uranium.

Therefore, we need this agreement.

Therefore, we have to accept the conditions that go with this agreement.

Now, it is true that with the quantities of uranium that we are currently mining and milling, we cannot pursue both — that order of power generation as well as our weapons programme — simultaneously. If for electricity one uses X amount of uranium, I was instructed, for weapons, one needs 7X. That is why we have had to come to two decisions:

Limit the weapons programme.

Go in for imported uranium fuel — whatever the conditions attached to securing it.

The way out is six-fold

First, as far as nuclear reactors are concerned, look to them principally for our weapons programme, not for electricity — for we do have other ways of securing electricity, but we do not have other routes to nuclear weapons.

Second, for energy look to other clean sources. For instance, clean coal; methane through coal; most important, hydroelectric power. I remember studies that have been done about the enormous potential for the latter in just the Northeast. The 5-6 stage Dihang-Subhansiri project itself has the capacity to generate 22,000 megawatts. NHPC is now executing one part of it, and this alone will generate close to 2,000 megawatts. I remember how for a decade the Dibang project had been languishing with the Brahmaputra Board; that board was almost comatose, in any event it did not have in its charter the authority to raise money for projects; we strove to get it transferred to NHPC; NHPC is now executing the project; even this project has the capacity to generate 3,800 megawatts… This is the route to energy self-sufficiency, to energy security. We have the technology. We can fabricate the turbines and ancillary equipment right here. The projects will generate jobs in the numbers that we need.

Third, intensify uranium mining and milling. A myth has been spread by interested parties as well as by those who have not been able to get the irritants out of the way, that we do not have adequate natural uranium. A good corrective to such propaganda is an excellent study done by none other than Ashley Tellis, one of the architects of this very nuclear deal, and one of its most persuasive advocates.

Entitled Atoms for War? it shows that we have much more than enough of uranium. (The study can be downloaded from http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications). Tellis notes that India is widely acknowledged to have reserves of 78,000 metric tons of uranium — some estimates put the figure higher. Using the most optimistic plant-load factors, he calculates that all the reactors currently in operation as well as those that are under construction and the weapons programme over the entire lifetime of these plants will require 14,640 to 14,790 metric tons of uranium. He shows, next, that if the eight reactors that India has declared it will use for military purposes were to allocate a quarter of their cores for the production of weapons-grade material, the total amount of natural uranium that would be needed to run these facilities for the remaining duration of their lives would be between 19,965 to 29,124 tons. Finally, the fuel required to run over their entire life cycle the two research reactors that are used for producing weapons-grade plutonium will be 938 to 1,088 tons. The two last steps would yield India 12,135 to 13,370 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium. This would be sufficient to increase our arsenal by 2,023 to 2,228 nuclear weapons. The total uranium required to run over their entire lifetime all these facilities, would thus use up just a third to one-half of the uranium deposits that are already known to exist.

Tellis writes that the present shortage of uranium is “a temporary aberration”, caused by impediments, removing which is within our capacity. Getting the courts, tribal leaders, activists to see reason. Firming up our land acquisition procedures. These are the sort of steps that are required. Is it not idiotic that we should close all options for the future; that we should mortgage our country’s security just because we cannot get around these self-created problems? Instead of going down on our knees for imported uranium, we should:

Invest the amounts that are required for increased uranium mining and milling

Solve land acquisition problems.

Fourth, we should spur DAE and AEA to be more focused. We should make them more accountable: if peer reviews are the way to spur them, government should institute such reviews.

Fifth, we must redouble research on the breeder programme. The key here is to have the reactors breed in a reasonable time — if the fuel is doubled in, say, five years, we can set up the second reactor in five years and we will have the fuel it needs; but if this doubling is going to take 30 years, we will have the fuel we need for it only 30 years from now. Kalpakkam notwithstanding, much work remains to be done. Once it is done, however, our reactors will be generating more fuel than they will be using, and we will be free of dependence altogether. That will be the time for looking to nuclear plants as a substantial source of electricity.

Finally, we are always being told that we have the largest reserves of thorium in the world. But it isn’t at all clear how far we are from the technologies that are needed for exploiting them. We need a new kind of robotics. We need automation that can withstand the enormously high temperatures that materials will attain.

In a word, instead of going on running after the Americans for reactors and fuel, these are the routes the government should set the country on.

(Concluded)

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