Editorial Special Article, The Statesman, June 29, 2008
IS N-DEAL ESSENTIAL?
PM Out Of Sync With Indian Realities
By SAM RAJAPPA
A parliamentary democracy like India must have as Prime Minister a person popularly elected to the Lok Sabha so that his feet are firmly rooted on the soil of the land. Though Manmohan Singh is not the first Prime Minister to reach that position from the Rajya Sabha, he is the only one to shy away from the people’s verdict. Indira Gandhi resigned her Rajya Sabha seat on becoming Prime Minister and got elected to the Lok Sabha in the first available by-election. So did Inder Kumar Gujral and HD Deve Gowda who too were Rajya Sabha members at the time of becoming Prime Minister.
Manmohan Singh got elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam, claiming to be a resident of Guwahati, which the entire nation knows is false. To substantiate his claim, he produced in the Supreme Court a ration card issued by the Assam government, rent and electricity bills of a house in Guwahati which was not his usual place of residence. With no political base in the country, it is not surprising that Manmohan Singh has been pursuing the bilateral Indo-US civil nuclear co-operation with single-minded determination, even at the risk of disintegration of the United Progressive Alliance which put him in the gaddi in the first place.
Is nuclear electricity essential for India's energy security? Information gathered from the Planning Commission’s projections and other published official records show that it is not. The Planning Commission Expert Committee on Integrated Energy Policy (2006) says: “The country is energy secure when we can supply lifeline energy to all our citizens as well as meet their effective demand for safe and convenient energy to satisfy various needs at affordable costs at all times with a prescribed confidence considering shocks and disruptions that can be reasonably expected.”
To achieve this, India must increase its primary energy supply by three to four times and its electricity generation capacity by five to six times of its 2003-2004 levels. By the year 2030, power generation capacity must increase to nearly 800,000 MW from the current capacity of 160,000 MW. This translates, in simple arithmetic, to an annual addition of about 29,000 MW.
In the event Manmohan Singh succeeds in pushing through the nuclear deal with the USA before President George Bush demits office in January 2009, India will be able to add at the most 30,000 MW by the year 2030 using imported power generation machinery, which works out to less than five per cent of the projected 800,000 MW. Can this provide energy security by any stretch of imagination?
According to the country’s top nuclear scientists, the real issue facing India is whether or not we want “mythical extra energy security through this deal paying thrice the unit capital cost of conventional power plants with the additional burden of subjecting the freedom to pursue an independent foreign policy and indigenous nuclear R & D programme.” The Indo-US nuclear agreement is untenable because it is anchored in US domestic laws, including the Hyde Act. At the height of the no holds-barred sale pitch for the agreement, Manmohan Singh hailed it as India’s “nuclear renaissance.” This was the echo of a phrase coined for the 2002 Washington DC conference of nuclear industry executives and the US government officials to boost the comeback of commercial nuclear power. Subsequent statements of the Prime Minister and sarkari scientists and intellectuals would have us believe that “nuclear renaissance” was the ultimate panacea to make poverty quit India and propel the nation as a super power. A cruel joke on the people groaning under the ill effects of double-digit inflation.
Manmohan Singh is a recognised economist of international repute. If only he had devoted a fraction of his attention to the sorry plight Finance Minister P Chidambaram had landed the country in by his reckless mismanagement of its financial health, the Prime Minister would have done a great service to the people of this country. The prospects of nuclear energy as an option are limited by four unresolved problems: high relative cost, perceived adverse safety, environmental and health effects, potential security risks stemming from proliferation and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes, according to a joint report prepared by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
For these risks to be worth taking, says a 2007 report by an Oxford University Research Group, “nuclear power must be able to achieve energy security and a reduction in global C02 emissions more effectively, efficiently, economically and quickly than any other energy source. There is little evidence to support the claim that it can, whereas the evidence for doubting nuclear power’s efficacy is clear.” In short, nuclear power is costly, unsafe, risk-prone, supply-side option incapable of providing energy security and incapable of responding to the challenges of global warming and climate change. What are the alternatives then? With seven per cent of global reserves of coal, providing 56 per cent of India’s commercial energy supply, coal gasification combined cycle process, an emerging technology for clean and efficient coal fueled electricity generation, is worth pursuing vigorously.
India is well endowed with renewable sources of energy. Latest estimates give the potential for wind power at 45,000 MW; small hydro-power at 15,000 MW; biomasspower/co-generation at 19,500 MW and waste-to-energy at 4,200 MW, making a total of 83,700 MW. Of these, only 13 per cent has been exploited so far. India has unlimited solar power and ocean energy, but is unable to exploit these due to lack of sufficient R & D. With estimated reserves of 360,000 tonnes of thorim, India could develop the thorium fuel cycle instead of relying on imported uranium. Former President Abdul Kalam never missed an opportunity to stress the importance of developing the thorium cycle route but it fell on deaf ears of the UPA government. Thanks to the efforts of the earlier governments, the first ever commercial Fast Breeder Reactor of 500 MW capacity is nearing completion at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, and three more of similar capacity are in the pipeline. India could also step up exploitation of domestic oil and gas reserves, besides speeding up implementation of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.
The Washington DC based UN Foundation, working on ways to combat global warming and climate change, had put together a compelling document titled “Realising the Potential of Energy Efficiency.” The document states that EE can produce almost immediate results with existing technology and proven policies and do so while generating strong financial returns that exceed those from investments in conventional energy supply. Achieving an annual rate of EE improvement of 2.5 per cent is well within our reach. Through this means alone the country could bring about savings of around 80,000 MW of electricity by 2030 and effectively combat global warming and climate change. The Planning Commission Review does recognise the importance of EE but has not done anything on this front. While we have not heard a word on this high potential, eco-friendly, cost-effective and totally indigenous solution, Manmohan Singh has been drumming up ad nauseum the alien, costly, risk-prone nuclear option.
On 12 June, he pleaded with Indian Foreign Service probationers to remove the political hurdles in the path of the Indo-US nuclear agreement as if it is in their hand. Infrastructure augmentation without optimization is a resource guzzler and could make the Indian economy FDI dependent. It would force us to adopt alien models of development instead of going in for indigenous solutions which alone could provide security in any field, most of all in electric energy.
The writer, a veteran journalist who retired from The Statesman, is based in Chennai.