‘Nuclear Cheerleaders’ for India

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.

While the global nuclear industry seems entering an era of nuclear decommissioning, India is gearing for a mini-renaissance. There are many in India who believe that the next decade is going to be historic, as significant augmentation of nuclear power generation capacity will be achieved through the construction of 10 units of indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR); ascending nuclear fuel production; reduction of reactor construction time; largest production of heavy water and success in Fast Breeder Reactor. Besides, additional 6700 MWs of nuclear power is expected to come on stream by 2021-22 through projects under construction; many more reactors are planned and, India’s domestic private industry is gearing up for partnerships.

Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has confirmed that the nuclear power plant project at Mithivirdi village (Bhavnagar district of Gujarat) is being shifted to Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh due to delay in land acquisition at Chhaya-Mithivirdi site owing to strong public opposition. In March 2013, public hearing on the proposed project was organized and several farmers groups, NGOs, and anti-nuclear activists opposed to the project attended the hearing on the assumption that “the project will not only damage the environment but snatch away the livelihood of farmers. It will also be a permanent threat to the people.” In September 2013, villagers from Jaspara organised a massive rally protesting the nuclear power plant. With massive turnout of women and children shouting slogans like ‘maut nu karkhano band karo’ (shut down factory of death), ‘anu bijli sasti nathi salamat nathi’ (electricity generated from atomic energy is neither cheap nor safe), ‘we will give our lives not land’ and ‘not here not in our land’ were heard. These provide one glimpse of the popular understanding/misunderstanding regarding nuclear energy prevailing in Indian society, which shackles India’s nuclear energy programme.

Science cannot change anything if people do not pay heed. Societal taboo over invisible radiation, delay in reaching the benefits of the atom to the grassroots, its high-technology nature that is beyond the comprehension of common man, out of proportion portrayal of sporadic disasters, etc. have contributed in shaping the negative societal perception regarding nuclear projects. Apparently, there is no ‘green politics’ in India yet and no political party has subscribed to the anti-nuclear ideology. The intermittent support and sympathy extended by some parties to opposition groups seems to be part of ‘vote bank’ politics. So far, though opposition to nuclear projects is sporadic and no pan-Indian anti-nuclear movement per se is visible yet, what would be the degree of social acceptance of nuclear energy in India as it has embarked on an ambitious nuclear energy expansion programme now? Is the nuclear establishment prepared to ward off India from global wave of anti-nuclear activism? Popular opposition to nuclear projects in Gujarat – normally portrayed as a model state for India’s economic growth – likely to reverberate in other parts of the country. Reportedly, “the villagers in Mithvirdi are now willing to help in the fight against the power plant in Kovvada” too.

All nuclear power projects commence with examination of the economic, technical and scientific feasibility in order to develop confidence on the safety and security of the reactors. But establishing scientific confidence does not by itself address public concern fully, not safety-security of the plant either. Imposition or unilateral decisions for nuclear projects have definite safety-security implications. Greater local/public acceptance and support help ensuring greater safety-security of nuclear installations. Often socio-political problems surrounding nuclear energy are overlooked as they are unanticipated and not fully understood. After a long stride, India with the help of Indo-US nuclear deal unshackled itself from the restrictive multilateral technology denial regimes. But, its nuclear programme seems shackled from within because of the domestic resistance. This seems to be an outcome of the lopsided management of nuclear knowledge within India.

To achieve the projected nuclear energy production, beside material resources, there is a requirement of huge skilled manpower/scientists for which India need not worry. India’s domestic educational institutions – the Homi Bhabha National Institute (HBNI) and its ten constituent institutions, and other twenty-plus universities/institutions – imparting nuclear-related courses cater not only to the domestic demand but also to the global requirements effectively. As per HBNI, during 2014-15 only, 164 Ph.D and 108 M.Tech. degrees have been awarded while 762 students are enrolled during the same period in various courses. According to R.B. Grover, former Vice-Chancellor of HBNI, “academic regour in the doctoral programme has been introduced”, number of engineers enrollment in PhD programme has increased, new courses like nuclear medicine, MSc. in nursing, clinical research, and fusion imaging have been introduced.

All these though sound impressive, our institutions produce only scientists or technocrats, who are ultimately absorbed by the nuclear industry and corporate; oblivious of the fact that ‘nuclear’ involves sociology, psychology and politics beside physics, chemistry, or metallurgy and other aspects. They do not produce “nuclear cheerleaders” who need not be technocrats but can be integral to the nuclear knowledge management (NKM) strategy in the country propagating the positive utility of nuclear energy to the public. Like it or not, nuclear energy debate is not technology vs. technology in India. Nuclear industry must learn from cricket league idea and how cheerleaders add charm and value to the entire process.

In a way, Homi Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru were the early cheerleaders of nuclear programme in India and their charisma smoothened laying down of country-wide nuclear infrastructure unopposed. This Trust-based-Optimism phase (1947 to 1970s) marks popular trust in stalwart nuclear scientists and political leaders during which nuclear projects were viewed as symbols of modernity and prestige. In the subsequent Doubt based-Pessimism phase (1980s to 2000), one can mark the protest against Kaiga project in October 1988, criticism for not producing the targeted energy, and disastrous incidents both within and outside India. As a result, domestic nuclear industry drew negative remarks and buckled. The current phase (from 2001 onwards) can be the Post material-Support-Oppose phase where issues like environment, energy security, displacement, rehabilitation, safety-security issues are linked to support or opposition of nuclear projects. We do not see any charismatic personality with popular appeal cheerleading for nuclear projects in India especially in the post Bhabha-Nehru period. Undoubtedly, APJ Abdul Kalam had mass appeal and advocated in support of nuclear energy and Kudankulam project, he was generally regarded as the ‘missile man’, not nuclear man, by Indian people.

This does not mean that India is lacking visionary political or scientific leadership in the country. Rather, there seems to be a disjointed growth of science, society and technology in the country sometime stumbling in each others’ way. What needed is a concerted effort to prepare a pool of ‘nuclear cheerleaders’ alongside the production of skilled manpower in all these institutions. Non-technical courses for social science students like Nuclear Knowledge Management, Nuclear Psychology, Nuclear Language and Societal Perception, Nuclear-Safety-Security-Safeguards, etc., both at Diploma and Post-Graduation level should be offered either through regular basis or distance learning. To make the courses attractive, after successful completion of study, they must be absorbed thereby increasing the employability of nuclear industry for social scientists which will effectively help addressing the societal concerns involving nuclear projects. Moreover, the nuclear establishment may consider establishment of a nuclear energy Think Tank to generate, address, and attend to nuclear related issues in the country through a pool of social and nuclear scientists as part of the nuclear knowledge management strategy. This would also help reducing burden of the scientific community in dealing with the public and spend their precious time for expediting the nuclear projects.

Last, it would not be far when the ‘green politics’ in other parts of the world will spill over to India and exploit pockets of anti-nuclear sentiment to form a pan-Indian anti-nuclear movement. To attain nuclear energy renaissance for which India is gearing, it urgently needs revolutionary nuclear cheerleaders with mass appeal and pro-nuclear ideology to uplift popular sentiments in favour of nuclear projects, and work as steroids against anti-nuclear movement that likely to unfold in near future.

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