Arun Shouries Articles

Necessity is the mother of fabrication too | May 29, 2008

Arun Shourie: Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cut through the hype on the Indo-US nuclear deal, and all you have is the possibility of a marginal contribution to our nuclear energy generation. For this, our strategic interest is being mortgaged in perpetuity

India’s uranium deposits are limited and of low grade,” Hindustan Times declared on December 12, 2006, in a large, prominently displayed, boxed item. “The uranium available today can fuel only 10,000 reactors…” Ten thousand reactors? The total number of commercial reactors in the entire world today is just four hundred and forty. With uranium enough for 10,000 reactors, are we short of ore?

In the same account, we were instructed that “the nuclear deal can save us from the increasing energy deficit by helping install up to 40,000 MW of new nuclear capacity by 2015.” Assuming reactors that generate 500 MW each — the size of our new experimental fast breeder reactor, double the size of several of our current reactors — that would mean eighty new reactors being commissioned in the next eight years: that is, one new reactor coming into operation every five weeks.

The account proceeded to declare that India’s “nuclear electricity capacity” shall “see a 10-fold increase” by 2020. The account noted that at present we are producing 3,310 MW electricity from our nuclear plants. The paper’s forecast would, therefore, mean that electricity generation from our nuclear plants will increase to 33,100 MW by 2020. Assuming a plant-load factor of even 80 per cent — a third higher than the one at which our plants are working today — to generate this quantum of electricity, would entail setting up a capacity for over 40,000 MW. Even in its most optimistic forecasts — and we will have occasion to learn a bit about these soon enough — the Department of Atomic Energy has been putting the figure at half that level!

But that was not the end. Polishing up the deal further, the Hindustan Times informed its readers that by 2050, an astronomical “200,000 MW of nuclear energy can be produced”. We would presumably have more reactors by then than the whole world has today. As my friend T.C.A. Rangachari once said, “Jo hyper-bole so nihal.”

This has been one of the main strengths of the government over the past two years — the utter innumeracy of our media exceeded only by its utter willingness to put out anything. “Killer amendments dropped, India’s concerns taken care of,” the papers proclaimed — when, in fact, as even the most cursory glance would have shown, each and every one of the clauses was very much a part of the Act. “Objectionable clauses non-binding,” they proclaimed — when, in fact, neither our government nor that of the US was able to furnish any list of which clauses were binding and which were non-binding, and, of course, the Act itself made no such distinction.

But the enthusiasts had a ready reason for not studying the Act! “Laden with numbing bureaucratese and legalese,” The Times of India declared on its front page, in its — what else should one call it? — “analytical report” of the Hyde Act on December 9, 2006, “littered with sections, sub-sections, clauses, sub-clauses and footnotes, it has enough statements, caveats and requirements to make heads spin”.

How much easier then to just concoct! For it isn’t the precise figure that propagandists count on remaining in the mind, nor the precise assertion but the general impression — in this case, that the nuclear deal will light up the bulbs, that the concerns which had been expressed have been met. How much easier to abuse: those who were pointing to the provisions of the US legislation were charged with being “obsessed with clauses and sub-clauses”, to be “anti-deal jihadis”. And to put out stories, ‘Advani softens’ ‘Rajnath says if concerns met…’ I had attended every single meeting of the BJP leaders at which the nuclear deal was deliberated upon. At no meeting at all had the leaders felt that either new evidence or new argument had surfaced which required that the assessment be changed. And yet, ‘BJP softens…’ And this after written statements were put out repeatedly over the signatures of the principal leaders themselves.

The press, of course, has been the instrument in all this — that itself is as deplorable as it is worrisome. The wielder of the instrument has been the government. And its fabrications can fill a volume.

The myth of power

As the desperation to justify the deal has swelled, in the government’s reckoning the contribution that nuclear power can make to our energy needs has swelled!

In the Approach paper to the 11th Five Year Plan, which was put out with the usual fanfare in December 2006, the word ‘nuclear’ occurs just twice. The first time is in the context of housing: we are instructed that, along with growing numbers, nuclear families are creating the need for more housing. The second time it occurs is just to state that policies must be evolved to ensure swift completion of hydro and nuclear projects.

But by the time we get to the Report of the Working Group on Power for Eleventh Plan (2007-12), which was put out in February 2007, imagineering takes over the Planning Commission and its experts. The report notes that nuclear capacity at the end of the 10th Plan is liable to be 3900 MW. Reviewing the projects that can be completed in the 11th Plan, the report concludes that capacity addition during the 11th Plan (that is, by 2012) shall be 3160 MW. And then comes a sudden leap: the report says that during the 12th Plan (that is, between 2012 and 2019), 13,500 MW of capacity shall be added.

Pause for a moment and ask, how has this figure — of 13,500 MW — been arrived at? One explanation is, of course, generic: the more distant the date for which you are putting out a figure, the more daring you can afford to be! The second is specific to the figure. You see, when asked what it can aim at for 2020, the Department of Atomic Energy has been in the habit of saying, almost as a reflex, ‘20,000 MW’. Hence, the working group figure: our present capacity is for 3900 MW; add to that what can be constructed at best during the 11th Plan: that makes, 3900 MW plus 3160 MW, that is 7060 MW. To jack the figure up to 20,000 MW by 2020, 13,000 MW or so will have to be added in the 12th Plan. So, that is what we will declare as added! QED!

But assume this sudden leap is executed in the 12th Plan. Another document tells the tale the government has conjured up because of the deal. This government’s main study on the energy sector has been the report of another committee set up under the overall rubric of that habitual legitimiser, the Planning Commission. The committee had the usual stellar cast. Its report is entitled Integrated Energy Policy and was put out by the Planning Commission in August 2006. At page 37, in Table 3.4, the report gives two sets of possible figures for installed capacity of nuclear power — a set for a ‘pessimistic scenario’ and another set for an ‘optimistic scenario’. The capacity for 2020 in the former is put near the usual DAE figure, 21,000 MW. Under the ‘optimistic scenario’, it is put at 29,000 MW — far higher, you will recall, than even the working group figure, but still not so high as to sell the deal. To locate the sabz bagh in the name of which the government has been marketing the deal, you have to look at the figures for 2030: 48,000 MW in the ‘pessimistic scenario’ and 63000 MW in the ‘optimistic scenario’.

That the credulity of even the authors of the report was being strained is obvious from the note they add to this table. They record, “These estimates assume that:

“the FBR (Fast Breeder Reactor) technology is successfully demonstrated by the 500 MW PFBR (Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor) currently under construction,

“new uranium mines are opened for providing fuel for setting up additional PHWRs (Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors),

“India succeeds in assimilating the LWR (Light Water Reactor) technology through import and develops the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor for utilising Thorium by 2020.”

Anyone who has the least familiarity with what the Times of India would have called ‘bureaucratese’ will see through to the extreme skepticism that the authors — heavily pressurised reactors, if I may say so — are trying to convey. By the time three pages have passed, the pressure has taken the better of the reactors: in listing “some energy supply scenarios for 8 per cent GDP growth”, they go for “maximum nuclear”, which they say “assumes nuclear development as per the optimistic scenario of Table 3.4.” The “pessimistic scenario”? Press “Del” for delete!

That apart, what would we have to do to get from 20,000 MW in 2020 to 63,000 MW by 2030 — that is, how do we add 43,000 MW in 10 years? If we put up 500 MW reactors, that will require that we put up over 80 reactors in 120 months: that is, we bring into operation one reactor every one and a half months; if we put up 1000 MW reactors, that will require over 40 reactors — that is, we bring into operation one reactor every three months.

But take one more leap of faith.

Assume that the reactors are set up at this pace. What do we get at the end?

The report states, “Even if a 20-fold increase takes place in India’s nuclear capacity by 2031-32, the contribution of India’s nuclear power capacity to India’s energy mix is also, at best, expected to be 4.0 to 6.4 per cent.” (Integrated Energy Policy, Volume I, xxii.)

Notice what the experts are saying:

Even if —

There is a twenty-fold increase

The contribution to capacity — not to actual generation

Shall at best be….

For this marginal contribution, indeed for the possibility of this marginal contribution, our strategic interest is being mortgaged in perpetuity.

While the government peddles the deal as the magic lamp that will, as the papers have been putting it, “end the nuclear winter”, which will open “the nuclear trove”; while the government peddles the deal as the master-stroke that will ensure “energy security”, the government’s principal document on energy acknowledges the obvious: “If the sanctions by the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) are removed and India is able to import uranium and nuclear power plants, nuclear power can play a much bigger role in the power sector. The capacity growth then would not be constrained by Table 3.4. However, if energy security concerns are our primary driver towards nuclear (sic), then imports of LWRs (Light Water Reactors), even though more economical, may have to be limited to restrict our dependence on energy imports.” (Integrated Energy Policy, p. 48.)

Alternatives

Contrast this contribution with just three of the many alternatives that are available. Citing an Asian Development Bank study, Integrated Energy Policy states (on p. 81) that demand-side management has the potential for affecting a peak saving of “at least 15 per cent of total generation”. The report lists several methods by which these “megawatts” may be secured — every megawatt saved is a megawatt generated. In fact, I am instructed by Commission staff themselves, this is the order of saving that comes about merely from the adoption of more efficient end-use appliances. The correct figure of this potential is not 15 per cent but 19 per cent to 22 per cent: this is the difference between the efficient and inefficient energy scenarios projected on pages 48-49 of the report.

Consider a second alternative. The working group on power itself indicated that the potential of hydro power in just our northeastern states is 58,000 MW.

Add to this what can be secured through partnering with Nepal. The current cost of a reactor — a cost that is bound to leap higher, as we shall see — is around $2.5 billion per reactor. For generating the 35,000 MW that the government’s representatives had mentioned in Parliament, we will have to spend $91 billion. For those mythical 63,000 MW, mentioned by the Planning Commission’s Integrated Energy Policy, we will have to spend $158 billion. Now, the total budget of the government of Nepal is about $1.6 billion. You could offer to defray the entire budget of the Nepalese government for 60 to 100 years, and invite it to together build a string of hydro power projects with money raised from the market, and you will still come out better: you would have got power from a perennial, renewable source; you would have alleviated the problem of floods in UP, Bihar and the rest; you would have converted a neighbour into a friend.

But that is just half the story.

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