Around Kudankulam, Nuclear is more ‘Politics’ Than Physics

Dr Sitakanta Mishra teaches International Relations at the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), Gujarat, India.
Dr Sitakanta Mishra teaches International Relations at the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), Gujarat, India.

Science, technology and society are not passive partners; they constitute a dynamically interactive triad influencing each other significantly. But the question is, whether society always responds wisely to the scientific march, especially if the evolution of technology is committed to the sustainability of society. Today nuclear technology seems to be standing at this crossroad.

Many countries today confront public resistance when they seek to expand or restart their nuclear plant operations. Yet, in very few countries have the anti-nuclear activists succeeded – not in America, France, Britain, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, China, or Canada. Even Japan is restarting its nuclear power reactors leaving behind the Fukushima nuclear accident. Germany is a dramatic exception. However, there have been cases in Australia and the US where near-complete reactors have been halted by the weight of public opinion. Will India join this list?

Pockets of resistance, and futile attempts to paint nuclear projects with political color, are nothing new in India. The self-proclamation of sporadic opposition as ‘anti-nuclear movement of India’ can be annoying as there is no pan-Indian movement at all. Neither is there any visible ‘green politics’ in Indian political mainstream, unlike in Europe. What is unfolding is a deliberate attempt by domestic disgruntled groups to shackle India’s upswing nuclear energy drive when the Indo-US nuclear deal has unshackled it from the global technology denial regime.

‘N’ is ‘P’ plus ‘P’ minus ‘P’

The Left Front (CPI, CPM), lesser-known splintering parties like VCK, MDMK, IUML, SDPI, TVK along with the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), and Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environment organization have been putting up resistance against the Kudankulam nuclear reactor. A leader of the VCK party has also reportedly said that “the Centre through its proposed expansion plans at Kudankulam and Kalpakkam, and INO at Theni was making Tamil Nadu the nuclear waste hub of the country. All these plants have ended up in Tamil Nadu only after several states opposed this”.

Such overtones simply vindicate the intent to feed political panic in the name of ‘green politics’ when there is none; and more importantly, erroneous depiction of ‘sporadic resistance’ as anti-nuclear movement in India. Evidently, sporadic opposition to nuclear projects and its politicization started in 1988 when the local population and environmental groups opposed the Kaiga project. In 1989 Dr Shivaram Karanth, the protest leader, contested for the Parliamentary election and got defeated. Similar fate recurred with S.P. Udaykumar, the Kudankulam protest leader, who contested parliamentary election as Aam Admi Party (AAP) candidate. Subsequently he quit the party saying that “the AAP high command failed to fulfil its assurance”. The AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal reportedly told him that “the middle class may not support him if he takes a stand against the nuclear plant since they saw these as employment opportunities for their children.” Rightly so, major chunk of Indian population is not against nuclear energy.

After many futile politicization attempts, Udaykumar has launched his own political party ‘Pachai Tamizhagam’ (Green Tamil Nadu) with the aim to contest forthcoming elections. With a “manifesto dedicated to fighting against nuclear energy”, the party will “not contest to win but to make people aware” of the nuclear risks. As this is not his first foray, Udaykumar’s self-assumed leadership for heralding ‘green politics’ in India would be tested this time for how big a dent he can make in the next election. Moreover, the political void after Jayalalitha’s demise would prompt the splintering parties to join hands with the left factions to resort to coalition formation around their anti-nuclear agenda. Therefore, ‘nuclear’ (N) has been ‘politics’ and ‘psychology’ (P&P) than physics around Kudankulam.

Nuclear linear progression

As per the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) “Nuclear Technology Review 2009”, the Public Acceptance Index (PAI) of nuclear energy in India was increased from around 60 percent in 2005 to around 90 percent during 2008 and ranked highest in the world. The global concerns over safety of nuclear reactors aftermath the Fukushima nuclear disaster also echoed in India leading to speculations on the state of Indian nuclear reactors. To allay public apprehensions, the Manmohan Singh government aptly went for “immediate technical review of all safety systems of India’s nuclear power plants, particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters”, and subsequent improvement required. Especially, the Kudankulam reactor is the first in the world being developed in accordance with the post-Fukushima safety requirements. All fourth-generation passive safety systems are embedded into its design to meet the “the overall probability of severe damage to the reactor core.”

However, popular concept of nuclear risk is heavily influenced by the imagination of consequences of catastrophic accidents – the ‘burden of perception’. Therefore, each time a problem related to nuclear technology arises anywhere, a section of the media and civil society groups draw baseless parallels to India’s programme. They tend to forget that the nuclear risks, to a great extent are location, and technology-specific.

Undeniably public reaction is legitimate; after all public money is spent. But the public panic, based on the idea that ‘nuclear activity anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere’ is manufactured, misplaced and over emphasized; and in the process the specificities and achievements of Indian nuclear projects are overlooked. The anti-nuclear cohort, before self-proclaiming as harbinger of ‘green politics’ in India, must consider the linear progression of Indian public attitude towards nuclear issues.

Attitude towards nuclear issues in India have evolved through three phases. The ‘trust-based optimism phase’ (1947 to the 1970s) marks popular trust in the stalwart scientist Homi Bhabha and the political leader Jawaharlal Nehru during which nuclear projects were viewed as symbols of modernity and prestige. As a result, a country-wide network of laboratories and scientific organisations were established to groom batches of technocrats and basic researchers. The second phase – ‘doubt-based pessimism phase’ (1980s to 2000) – was marked by public protests (Kaiga protest 1988), criticism for not meeting the target energy production, and nuclear accidents and incidents both outside and within India. On October 2, 1988, around 4,000 people took out a rally and a massive protest against Kaiga project took place all over the Uttara Kannada district. While the Congress Party and Janata Dal approved the project, the CPI/CPM took an inconsistent stand on it; only the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed a resolution against it.

The third phase, starting from 2001 onwards, can be termed as the ‘post-material-support-oppose phase’ where “post-material” factors, to a great extent, shape public attitude towards national and international issues. The post-material issues related to “quality of life” such as climate change, environment pollution, energy security, displacement, rehabilitation and the issue of safety-security of nuclear installations are linked to public support for, or opposition to, nuclear policy. The ‘civil society consciousness’ in India has visibly increased. Also the role of regional leaders and state government, beside their equation with the Union governments, would be more determining one for nuclear energy projects in future as a chain of new nuclear facilities are set to be sited in different states. Within this framework, one should judge public support for, or opposition to, nuclear projects in India to find that the anti-nuclear groups play no unique role for concerns of Indian public in regard to nuclear technology.

Nuclear alignments

In the domestic political domain, India also exhibits clear-cut nuclear alignments. So far, no Indian national political party, including the Left Front, has anti-nuclear energy manifesto. At times, they have formed alliances or stood by the protesters not with anti-nuclear ideological inclinations but primarily to win vote banks. In 2008, the Left Front while taking a principle stand withdrew its support from the UPA-I government over the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, which they considered a “comprehensive strategic tie-up with the US imperialism in which the nuclear deal was the cementing factor”, but they did not oppose nuclear energy per se. Similarly, the BJP was critical about the Indo-US nuclear deal, not nuclear energy, with the assumption that it will circumscribe India’s right to further nuclear test.

Also one can easily notice the clearly divided domestic public opinion over the nuclear projects. While there are a few strong opponents of nuclear energy, many others strongly support and view nuclear as the viable source for India’s energy security. Meanwhile, majority of Indian population have not formed their opinion firmly yet. These fence sitters would shift to either side of the divide depending on how quickly and what benefits of nuclear energy reach them. Moreover, the prevailing uncertainties involving safety-security, cost effectiveness of nuclear energy, etc. need to be resolved efficiently. There is a need to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the society and the public needs to be informed that every technology involves certain amount of risks and so does nuclear energy; but the benefit is much more than the risk involved if we do not fail the technology.

Vicious circle

The crux of the problem, therefore, is the manipulation of the gap between Indian public and scientific community where the vested interests take advantage of the lack of information among the public or misinformation overdrive by the media. This vicious circle needs to be breached through a nation-wide nuclear information management (NIM) network involving educational institutions, civil society and nuclear energy cheerleaders. Otherwise if technology is misunderstood, development will be abysmally missed. All must realize that the world has no other easy option and nuclear can ensure our energy demand for foreseeable future.

In fact, the Indian nuclear energy industry is a victim of the lopsided debate. For example, nobody bothers to unravel why the anti-nuclear champions don’t protest for the disasters take place in the oil or aviation industry. Accidents happened, people died, and pollution spread because of man-made reasons, but world has not abandoned oil or air travel. Rather, all strive to find what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on. Surprisingly, contrast is the case with nuclear industry. It is high time to stop demonizing nuclear technology and isolate such attempts of manufacturing socio-political panic.

Dr Sitakanta Mishra teaches International Relations at the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), Gujarat, India.