Reply to Prof Atul Chokshi

Prof Atul Chokshi sent me a longish e-mail last Friday in response to my article on Kudankulam. I replied the same day. He has now published his e-mail (perhaps slightly edited) on Dianuke. Go read it. Below is my response (verbatim except for a couple of deleted and irrelevant sentences) that I sent him on Friday.

Date: Fri, 14 Sep 2012 22:13:43 +0530
From: Rahul Siddharthan
To: Atul Chokshi
Subject: Re: Your Hindu op-ed on Koodankulam

Dear Atul,

Thanks for your detailed mail. I am surprised that nobody in IISc was
willing to speak up for nuclear plants: I have had only positive
responses from other scientists so far (including the colleagues I
alluded to, who have previously protested nuclear weapons), and the
only other negative response (not counting comments on the Hindu's
page) was from a journalist who thought I was too rough on the DAE!

Regarding your points, if I respond it may be even longer than your
mail, but I will try anyway. But basically, I agree with some things
you say, disagree with others, and fully agree that scientists should
have more debate. Being an articulate writer, perhaps you can write a
counterpoint to my article?

Someone pointed to an earlier Hindu article by Suvrat Raju and M V
Ramana, calling Kudankulam "untenable":
But I did not find it very convincing. (Raju, by the way, is also a
scientist at a DAE institution, namely HRI Allahabad.)

Regarding your specific points:

> Unlike George Monbiot, I turned the opposite way after Fukushima, so
> that I am now a nuclear energy skeptic, especially for India. This
> is largely to do with our cultural casual attitude to safety on many
> fronts, and the related trust deficiency with the nuclear industry
> (worldwide) and our Govt. As you have rightly pointed out, the lack
> of an independent regulator is one of the key problems. However,
> even with an independent regulator, the implementation of the
> regulatory orders will remain perhaps a bigger challenge.

I fully agree with your concerns about our attitude to safety and feel
that any regulatory body should have international representation and
some sort of punitive power. That said, I feel the DAE has one of the
better safety records internationally and this is unlikely to change.

> While nuclear energy may be relatively clean during regular
> operation, there are several factors such as mining, getting the ore
> to the necessary concentration for use, and other factors which add
> to the environmental burden so that nuclear power is not as benign
> as it is advertised. It is substantially better than coal, but then
> so are many other renewable possibilities. You may be surprised to
> know, as I was, that because of the small concentrations in ores the
> current nuclear plants need almost as much mining as coal for a
> similar energy (as Arati has shown) - a comparison is misleading
> when it is coal vs U235 (usually shown as 1 kg of U235 ~ million kgs
> of coal).

I would like to see some numbers here (reference to Arati's article?)
My understanding is, while thorium is scattered in the sands, uranium
tends to be easier to mine. I am no expert in any of this, however.

Regarding other renewal possibilities, I am even less convinced.
While Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear plants, it buys
substantial amounts of electricity from France, which runs mainly on
nuclear plants and exports much of its production (except, apparently,
during cold spells, because much of French heating is electric). But
indeed if German solar power turns out to be a success story, that
will be good news.

> Nuclear power plants have a long gestation period, even without
> local protests. Despite the large-scale planned increase in the
> number of nuclear plants in India, the influence of this on carbon
> emission in India will be marginal at least over the next two
> decades, as current plans involve substantial increase in coal power
> until 2050.

This is unfortunately true. However, the 2000 MW at Kudankulam and
9000 MW at Jaitapur should not be dismissed and, if rejected, will
have to be replaced by other means. These projects are on the verge
of completion and that is part of my problem with these agitations.
Even apart from environmental concerns, cancelling the project means a
waste of tens of thousands of crores of public money, for what seem to
me scientifically very dubious reasons.

> Furthermore, with the ongoing global warming and
> erratic weather, several nuclear plants have had to reduce power
> (and possibly shut down temporarily) during summer time because of
> reduced water and higher temperatures in rivers. I was shocked to
> learn that there have not yet been any large scale emergency
> evacuation exercises in India. Even after Fukushima, there was a
> news report of a successful offsite emergency exercise conducted
> near Tarapur, but when one goes beyond the headlines one discovers
> that the exercise involved moving 100 (yes - the number of zeroes is
> correct!) people from a village - just read about this yesterday.

You are right. But there are many reasons to practise emergency
evacuation, and nuclear meltdowns seem to me the least likely of the
lot. Cyclones and floods would top the list, with non-nuclear
industrial disasters like Sivakasi a close second.

> already a potentially dangerous technology. To add even more to
> this burden, the Govt is planning to import several designs from
> Russia, France and USA. There are likely to be important variations
> in means to handle safety issues, and this will increase the scale
> of complexity that NPCIL will need to deal with.

Again, there are two sides to this. If these are tried and tested
designs there is less cause for concern and safety procedures should
already be well-documented.

> relatively benign options available. Finally, I have not touched
> upon social costs of the choices we make, and to question at what
> level is a democracy a democracy - as it is too easy to use the
> "greater public good" to ram down options on the unwilling. In this
> context, I did feel that you last paragraph was somewhat harsh and
> condescending. Having seen and heard about some of the people
> involved, I know that there is a great understanding of the issues
> involved and people are very committed to the cause they are
> protesting against and for the choices they want to make - such
> language works against fruitful discussion and deliberation.

Yet again, it is a two-sided business and it is too easy, in a
democracy like India, for a minority to hold the country hostage with
unreasonable demands. And I do find the demands of the Kudankulam
crowd (like demanding the blueprints of the plant) unreasonable).

I do know many activists on the ground in Kudankulam and don't doubt
their commitment -- i.e. I don't doubt that they are doing what they
think is right. I do doubt their open-mindedness. I explicitly
offered to help set up a discussion between them and DAE scientists.
They refused because "they already know what DAE has to say." And I
find what is going on in Kudankulam, especially the jal satyagraha,
extremely manipulative -- a cynical imitation of a genuine jal
satyagraha that has been happening in another state, where the
protestors were not demanding a halt to the project, but merely
implementation of Supreme Court orders on rehabilitation and
resettlement. Incidentally, it was specifically this that prompted me
to add the last paragraph -- I originally sent it to The Hindu on
Wednesday without that paragraph, and yesterday I asked to add those
lines before publication.

With best regards


Leave a comment


  1. Ananyo Maitra

     /  September 20, 2012

    Dear Rahul,
    I am not convinced by either your first op-ed or your rebuttal of Atul’s mail. As I see it, the creation (or non-creation) of a nuclear power plant is less of a scientific decision, and more of a social one. Having said that, I do not think that even the science is as crystal clear as you make it out to be. I confess that I do not work on nuclear physics, or anything remotely connected to it (the closest I have come is studying the dynamics of a cell’s nucleus!). But you must realise that your anecdote about Monbiot is just that: an anecdote. What happened, or did not happen, in a single earthquake is not of much statistical significance, and we should not base our judgements (either for or against nuclear power plants) on it. We have all heard of baby’s surviving a ten story fall, and people dying because of a fall from their beds. But that does not mean that people should use gravity instead of lifts, or build a series of steps to alight from their beds!
    The real question is who says nuclear power plants are safe, and how do we know it is safe? It comes down to trust. You say that there should be an independent body. How will that body be constituted? Will the body’s decisions be taken by a vote? What if its 6 for and 4 against? Will it be considered safe? What does safety mean? I agree its a relative term. Someone joked that it is safer to be near a nuclear power plant, than to cross a street in Delhi (I agree that crossing some streets in Delhi is like crossing a minefield…). I wonder about the scientific content behind that statement, given that even the toll due to Chernobyl varies from 4,000 to a million depending on the source. I have not seen a single more or less credible study that shows that nuclear energy is either the cleanest or the cheapest energy option. I know of cost benefit analysis that show that it is one of the costlier ones! If you consider it the cleanest energy option, I need to see the figures based on which you consider it to be so.
    I think that the onus should be on the commissioning agency to demonstrate its safety or cleanliness in a detailed manner. That should include descriptions of probable problems and their resolutions, and safety measures. That should include a detailed discussion with the concerned people, and not just statements by the illuminati, or celebrity endorsement by a former president who was an aeronautical engineer. . It might have been “tried and tested”, but are those test results public, or you call them “tried and tested” simply because a plant with that design exists, and nothing has happened. Then this statement is not really scientific. See, with a bit of luck, nothing might have happened at Bhopal. But the plant design would not have become “tried and tested” right?
    However, my fundamental problem with your mode of argument is not a scientific one. It is that you consider the problem a scientific one at all. It is in reality a fundamental question about democracy and development. Who has the right to decide what will be good for me? Who has the right to decide on the development path? The Pavlovian answer, the majority, begs the question, majority of what? Specifically, who has the right to decide whether to have a plant at Kundakulam or not? People of Kundakulam? people of Tamil Nadu? People all over India? The results might be different in each case! Should we confine our “polling” to those who might be adversely affected? How do we decide who all will be affected? Should those who benefit, but will not be affected, be “polled”? Or should we decide for the “greater common good”. How would we define “greater common good”? These questions are not limited to this plant, or nuclear plants. They pertain to developmental projects as a whole. If we have the right to decide what will be good for other people, are we not acting like colonialists? The attitude that they are not informed enough to decide is elitist, and undemocratic. It is the duty of the commissioning agency to inform them, and answer queries. And that should not be a “bonus”, but a necessary condition.
    Your statement that your problem with the protests is that the projects are near completion, again does not wash. In fact, I was reminded of the start of the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy for a moment. A project is commissioned. By the time people realise what is happening, and mobilise opposition to it, the contracts have been awarded, and bulldozers are at work, and people say “Oh! But its already started! How can we back off?”. In reality, there is no local consultation in India in the planning stages of a project. The only recourse is thus a post facto protest.
    In summary, the commissioning agency has to a) hold extensive, informed local consultation for any project, in the planning phase b) Be open, and clear about dangers, and safety measures c) Quantitatively and qualitatively prove the advantage, and demonstrate whom the advantage accrues to d) be answerable to queries from the people likely to be affected by the said project. This might sound idealistic, utopian, and plain stupid. But ignoring this is not only undemocratic, but leads to a development path which leads to rising income disparity, and increasing difference in social indicators. Flippant answers about security (comparing it to living in Madras, or Delhi) remind me about a joke that, according to family lore, my great grandfather used to tell: Bed is a very dangerous thing. Most people die in bed.
    Sorry about the long, and not very cogently expressed, quasi-rant. I also apologise for the inevitable typos, and mistakes.

  2. I need to quote from your previous post “…properly implemented and with safeguards…” in the context of the ongoing struggle. I think this is one of the most important problems, and the people living in the region simply do not believe that this is the case. Also, one cannot brush aside the work of a lot of persons who have questioned even the cost-benefit analysis of nuclear energy. Also, I do not see why you should object to the use of the “Jal Satyagraha”…this is a free country and protesters can use any technique to attract attention to their cause provided they are not resorting to violence. Finally, the issue on which this struggle and most other struggles are converging, whether or not explicitly stated or realized is that of the `Eminent Domain’, a relic of colonialism. Until such time that local peoples are consulted in decisions that affect them these struggles will continue…it is simply a natural reaction to someone putting a nuclear power plant in your one’s back yard.

  3. Nuclear energy is costly if you are talking about the capital costs. Capital costs are often very high because accidents like Fukushima delay plant building. Operating and fuel costs for nuclear plants are among the lowest for any source. For further details check out Richard Mueller’s recent book “Energy for Future Presidents”.

    About safety, I would not want to get into a debate here. But it’s worth considering that in a 40 year history during which 104 reactors have continuously operated in the US, there was one accident – Three Mile Island – which killed no one. Nuclear energy is not without risks, but one has to place those risks in perspective and in comparison with other energy sources. Chernobyl and Fukushima were both extreme case scenarios

    • sacredfig

       /  September 21, 2012

      @Curious Wavefunction
      “Capital costs are often very high because accidents like Fukushima delay plant building. ”
      “Chernobyl and Fukushima were both extreme case scenarios

      Doesn’t square up, does it?

      • @sacredfig: Thanks for pointing out the typo. The correct statement should have been “capital costs can be high because the perception of risks from accidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima and TMI can cause long delays”. For instance, nobody died in TMI but the public perception of the accident basically killed nuclear reactor construction in the US.

        @anant1964: As you probably know, the area around Chernobyl now looks like a wildlife preserve, with wolves and birds populating the once barren environment. Also, most of the isotopes released in reactor accidents (including Chernobyl) are short lived isotopes like strontium-90 and cesium-131.

        • sacredfig

           /  September 26, 2012

          “For instance, nobody died in TMI but the public perception of the accident basically killed nuclear reactor construction in the US.”

          Surely you’ll agree that instant fatalities are a poor (or incomplete) indicator of the true ramifications of a nuclear disaster. The greater cause for concern are the long-term impacts. And its not just about “perceptions”. It DID cost a billion USD to clean up after TMI, and many times more than that at Chernobyl.

          “As you probably know, the area around Chernobyl now looks like a wildlife preserve, with wolves and birds populating the once barren environment.”

          I’m sure wolves and birds approve of nuclear power plants :-) I’ve also heard some people say that the latter do particularly prefer it to other sources of power, most notably wind. But for other species which do know a bit about mutagenic radiation, perhaps the picture is a tad less sanguine?

          “Also, most of the isotopes released in reactor accidents (including Chernobyl) are short lived isotopes like strontium-90 and cesium-131”

          Surely how MUCH is initially released is equally if not more important, to determine how long the exponential tail will continue to matter.

  4. I think this is well known, but there is no harm in repeating it. Nuclear accidents, however rare, are not like any other accidents. I am no expert, but atleast these worries are common: here are few fail-safe methods to contain catastrophic events and there are no recovery methods or radioactive fallout. The effects can last decades, if not centuries. Regions affected by nuclear catastrophes can become wastelands for very long periods of time. Why should not communities who have been living in a region for generations not worry that their ancestral lands will become wastelands?

  5. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  September 23, 2012

    Thank you all for your comments. I think some of them deserve a detailed response (though I have to say, all these things have been discussed ad nauseam, by people more expert than me). Anyway, I will probably post a more detailed article — stay tuned.


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