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.”
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.
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.
Read more at India Shouldn’t Buy What Japan Is Selling