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Book Review: A Very Nuclear Approach

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Reviewing M.V. Ramana’s latest book slamming the use of nuclear energy in India is a daunting task. For, the book has been so heavily endorsed by a galaxy of eminent persons that it is difficult not to concur with their opinion that the book is anything but an outstanding work of great importance. The panegyrics are printed all over the dust jacket and continue into the first three pages of the book as “advanced praise”. The luminaries who have lauded the book even before its publication include historian Ramachandra Guha, author Amitav Ghosh, professor Achin Vinaik, retired Admiral Ramdas and many others.

In the face of the vociferous pre-judgements, suggesting a contrary view would seem churlish. Yet, while the book is admittedly well researched, which it must be given that the author has been studying the subject for much of his professional life, the book does not come across as being a fair assessment of India’s nuclear energy option.

The book seeks to argue that India’s misguided nuclear energy programme is driven not so much by public support but by the politically powerful Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The motivation according to him is as follows: “Based on our argument of the sources of the DAE’s political power, we see that it cannot change its dual focus on nuclear weapons and expensive electricity for the foreseeable future if it is to thrive. The DAE sees them as complementing each other in helping the organization continue its institutional pre-eminence in the current Indian government set-up.”

While there is merit in many of his arguments, Ramana writes more as an anti-nuclear advocate than a dispassionate observer. This is not surprising given that the author has made a career out of demonising India’s nuclear programme. He first came to notice with his horrendous paper titled 'Bombing Bombay? Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion' in which he very clinically detailed the horrible effects that would follow such an event.

In this book, Ramana tends to portray the people and organisations involved in the country’s nuclear power programme as secretive, devious and misleading. He is particularly incensed by the refusal of the government to divulge technical details regarding the country’s nuclear programme under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. He rues “the DAE’s history of secrecy and refusal to be transparent” and sanctimoniously adds that “such secrecy is detrimental to democratic debate.”

A chapter in the book titled 'History' is not so much about the history of India’s nuclear energy programme as it is about how some “ambitious” men like Dr Homi Bhabha and Meghnad Saha are supposed to have shaped it to serve their personal purposes and shrouded the entire process in secrecy right from the beginning. This is tendentious writing at its best but it does get a little tedious when it becomes clear the narrative is aimed at projecting a scientist like Bhabha as a villain and not the hero of India’s nuclear achievements as he has been made out to be.

Bhabha is portrayed as a grasping, manipulative person bent on furthering his personal ambition and acquiring power. Ramana writes that though “Bhabha had been a chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission since 1948, the AEC, as a ‘commission’, enjoyed only consulting powers to the government. The way to climb up the political power ladder was to become a government department; then, Bhabha, as its head, would become Secretary to the Government of India – the highest bureaucratic office in the system”.

While it is well known that nuclear energy has inherent dangers and requires a great many safeguards - despite which tragedies like the one at Fukushima could occur – it does not stand to reason that these issues pertain solely to India’s civilian programme. The book is, however, not about the inherent dangers of the nuclear energy option but about how pathetic, overambitious and dangerous India’s attempt at harnessing nuclear energy supposedly is.

The book does not dwell on the nuclear energy programmes of countries like Russia, the United States or Japan, where disasters have occurred but about India, which has been quietly but successfully pursuing a modest nuclear energy programme.

While the Fukushima disaster has given rise to global apprehensions about the ultimate safety of nuclear power plants, it has not led to the wholesale rejection of this energy option. To the extent that it is necessary to be wary of nuclear energy, Ramana’s book is bang on target and relevant. He is also quite right in pointing out the many downsides to nuclear power including the huge issue of nuclear waste. At the same time, it is far from clear whether it is would be fair to entirely junk the country’s modest but growing nuclear energy option.

A version of the review was published in BW | Businessworld issue dated 01-07-2013 on page 96

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