Understanding the Empty Promises of Nuclear Energy: Nityanand Jayaraman

This is a review by NITYANAND JAYARAMAN of M.V. Ramana’s book The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin/Viking).

Narayanasamy’s monthly promises of power from the Koodankulam nuclear plant may be something of a joke in Tamil Nadu. But the periodic promises served a function. They kept one section of Tamil Nadu hopeful that commissioning Koodankulam will solve the state’s power crisis, and therefore resentful of the agitators who were seen to be putting their own lives, livelihoods and safety over the needs of the state.

In late 2012  Penguin published the first solo book by Princeton University-based physicist M.V. Ramana. The book is titled The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.

downloadRamana’s commentary is witty, articulate and rich with anecdotes. He makes a solid case for his central thesis – that delivering on the promises of power or security were never the actual goal of India’s nuclear program, and probably never will be. Rather, promises are the engines that power the program, he argues. By holding out the twin ideals of unlimited electricity and infallible security in the form of a credible nuclear deterrent, India’s nuclear establishment has carved for itself an enviable position. It is answerable to no one but the Prime Minister, and can spend billions over decades with nothing to show for the expense.

As Ramana points out in the introduction to his book, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes it seem as if “India’s nuclear programme is an absolute necessity for the country’s technological, economic and social development.” It is made to appear desirable also on environmental grounds, not just for India but for the world as a whole. 

In 2009, Dr. Singh proclaimed that nuclear will contribute 470 gigawatts (470,000 MW) of electricity capacity by 2050. This fantastic declaration carries with it the promises of plentiful electricity and of a “clean” way out of the impending climate catastrophe.

But neither promise is likely to be fulfilled, according to the book. “[T]he current nuclear capacity in the country – more than sixty years after the atomic energy programme was established – is just 4.78 GW,” Ramana argues. “The projected capacity in 2050 would represent an increase by a factor of hundred, and would exceed the global nuclear power capacity today.”


Anti-nuclear protestors laying ‘siege’ to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNP) by placing over 1200 fibre boats in the sea in October 2012

Thus, he concludes that “While the Indian nuclear establishment’s arguments might provide a case for rapidly increasing the nuclear power capacity, they do not in any way lend support to the supposition that it can increase rapidly.” [Emphasis in the original] Averting climate change, if at all that is possible at this late stage, cannot depend on a technology whose hallmarks are cost overruns and inordinate delays.

The book amply illustrates that Dr. Singh is merely the latest in a long list of tellers of tall tales. Indeed, “The Power of Promise” is a veritable history of tall claims by people ranging from Homi Bhabha and Sethna to Kakodkar.

In chapter after chapter, Ramana meticulously unravels one incredible nuclear yarn after the other sparing no icons or iconic statements in the process. Quite early in the book, he demolishes India’s self-congratulatory declarations of having developed its nuclear program entirely indigenously. To demonstrate his point, he presents historical data to recount the dialogues with US, Canadian, UK, French and Russian nuclear technologists.

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Demonstration in Paris, 2008

One anecdote involving British scientist John Cockcroft is worth mentioning. Cockcroft, a Cambridge colleague of Bhabha’s, responded to the latter’s request for assistance to set up India’s first “atomic pile” (a simple reactor). He offered “detailed engineering drawings, technical data, and enriched uranium fuel rods for a ‘swimming pool reactor.’” Speaking in the Lok Sabha in 1957, the year that the pile was inaugurated, Nehru said that the reactor was put up “entirely by Indian scientists and builders.” Ramana then seeks out and reports Cockcroft’s reaction to this inaccurate assertion. “Did you see the press release from Delhi? . . .[It] seems rather ungracious in view of the advice and help we have given and are asked to give. Presumably, detailed plant designs and drawings do not constitute outside help,” Cockcroft is reported to have said.

In another instance, Ramana notes with thinly veiled bemusement how the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research claimed that its Fast Breeder Test Reactor in Kalpakkam “successfully demonstrated the design, construction and operation of a FBR under Indian conditions.” He contrasts that claim with Department of Atomic Energy figures that indicate that “Over the first twenty years of its life, the FBTR has operated for only 36,000 hours or 75 days a year.”


Anti-nuclear demonstrators in Cologne, Germany, 2011

Touting safety glitches, untested technologies and the unfavourable economics plaguing thorium and fast breeder reactors, Ramana’s book argues that the much-vaunted three-stage program, of which the fast breeder reactor represents the second stage, is not likely to go far. The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor being built in Kalpakkam is currently in its ninth year of construction. Originally scheduled to be commissioned in 2010, the new extended date for commissioning is sometime in 2014. Dealing with the breeder project in different chapters, Ramana explains that cost considerations have led to serious technological and safety compromises in the design of the inherently hazard-prone breeder. Most countries, including France, which had a full-scale commercial breeder plant, have abandoned the breeder program despite incurring huge costs. Ditto with thorium. As Ramana and his physicist colleague Suvrat Raju write elsewhere, “India is a leader in this field by virtue of being one of the only participants.”

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Protests against nuclear power in Taipei

Curiously, “The Promise of Power” devotes 40 pages to the chapter on economics, as opposed to only 30 and 20 for safety, and environment and health respectively. Reading through the economics chapter, though, one finds that this partiality is well warranted. From exposing Homi Bhabha’s cost comparison of nuclear and coal as exercises in creative economics, to highlighting the limitations of traditional economics in adequately costing waste disposal liabilities that stretch out into eternity, economics is central to Ramana’s argument about the unviability and undesirability of nuclear power.

“The Power of Promise” may be the first Indian book on nuclear power to discuss the oft-neglected issue of worker safety in the nuclear establishment. The subject rightly occupies centrestage in the chapter on environment, although the discussion on the topic is scant. According to Ramana, that is a reflection of the opacity of the nuclear establishment, and the paucity of verifiable data on the issue available in the public domain.

Ramana is essential reading for anyone that is curious about the Indian nuclear program’s claims of being safe and hazard-free. The chapter on “Safety” documents safety compromises, near-misses and failed learnings that range from seemingly mundane to totally outrageous, and concludes that the greatest threat to safety is the assumption that nothing can go wrong. The hard-nosed documentation of the nuclear establishment’s failures to put in place safety mechanisms, to maintain stand-by units in working condition, to adhere to site-selection criteria, to ensure use of quality material, to open themselves up for independent scrutiny or regulation, or just learn from past mistakes certainly vindicate the fears of people protesting the Koodankulam plant.

Indeed, now as before, with Koodankulam, the nuclear establishment is threatening to commission first and implement the AERB’s post-tsunami safety recommendations later.


Sayonara Nukes!  Anti nuclear rally in Tokyo, September 2011

Ramana’s footnotes are specially recommended. These neglected outposts in conventional book writing has been transformed into a valuable space for snippets, factoids, stories, explanations to help lay people understand what a megawatt actually is, or sometimes just a meticulous acknowledgement to a source whose phrase Ramana may have borrowed. The choice of what to include in the main text and what to move to the bottom of the page has been done without compromising the flow of either commentaries.

Ramana has relegated technology and engineering to their rightful places in the middle to back rows. Drawing liberally from sociology, political science and theory, and even literature, and moving effortlessly between Lewis Carroll, Marx and Engels, and Shakespeare to Adam Smith and sociologist Charles Perrow, he squarely places nuclear energy in context to explain its performance.

One other gem to look out for are the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. My favourite one by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek reminded me of the Koodankulam debate: “It is indeed true that we live in a society of risky choices, but it is one in which only some do the choosing, while others do the risking.”


For anyone wishing to stand in judgement about Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Gorakhpur or Kovvada, Ramana’s book is a must-read.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and a volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle.

23 thoughts on “Understanding the Empty Promises of Nuclear Energy: Nityanand Jayaraman”

    1. Sankar, my sense is that books like this that question mainstream media’s common sense about “development” are quietly killed without reviews or with scant notice.
      400 words! They spend more words than that on what a Page 3 type nonentity was wearing!
      But you’ve managed to do a great job within the constraints. This book needs to be widely read and circulated.

      1. Grateful to your comment, Nivedita. Let me share with you one information. If you already have read about it, please ignore it. The talk about electricity from Thorium is absurd, nonsensical and puerile. For any nuclear power plant, you know, there has to be a ‘doubling time’ check almost like synchronisation in coal-fired plants. One of the reasons for time lags in the latter is syncronisation. For Thorium, even IAEA is mum about doibling time averages. Prof Sujay Basu, ex and first director, School of Enerhy Studies, arguably one the best scientists on renewables, told me it’s 99 years. So it is not possible even to plan the cost estimation ahead. Sujayda is fond of talking, speaking at activists’ meet but it’s very difficult to get him sit down and write, although he is a very good speaker.

        1. Sujayda was for many years professor at the elect engg deptt, Jadavpur University and the School of Energy Studies is a part of it. He is friendly, like me, with Ramana. Sujayda visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is a symbol of inspiration to anti-nuke activists. By the way, another book that should be circulated is Stephanie Cooke’s voluminous narrative, In Mortal Hands — A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. This too at the instance of Ramana, I reviewed for New Indian Express. It’s an exceptionally good treatise. While reviewing it, I had a genuine inferiority complex.

  1. Cannot quite understand why Cockcroft will suddenly hand over – that too openly? – design drawings and specification to Bhaba or to Delhi ( as if Delhi is a person). Were these not considered state OR trade secrets? Can anyone reading this elucidate please and provide a few good ref like urls and pdf files? Thanks.

    1. Utpal,
      I could not find where you read the expressions that Cockroft ‘handed over’ design drawings and technical data ‘to Delhi’? What I did see is Cockroft’s query after Nehru’s supposed statement in parliament: “Did you see the press release from Delhi?” which is a reference to the place where it emanated from. Whether he handed these over openly or not and in what capacity are questions that might still remain and we hope to hear more about this soon.

      1. The only way I can attempt to answer your questions is to say that the following paragraph from the review above prompted me to ask these questions:

        “Speaking in the Lok Sabha in 1957, the year that the pile was inaugurated, Nehru said that the reactor was put up “entirely by Indian scientists and builders.” Ramana then seeks out and reports Cockcroft’s reaction to this inaccurate assertion. “Did you see the press release from Delhi? . . .[It] seems rather ungracious in view of the advice and help we have given and are asked to give. Presumably, detailed plant designs and drawings do not constitute outside help,” Cockcroft is reported to have said.”

        I have nothing more to add to the debate at this point. I am waiting for any further input that may come my way thanks to Nityanada Rajaraman who in his response below said ” In any case, I’m writing separately to Ramana to respond to Utpal’s query.”

        Thank you, Aditya Nigam.

        1. I wrote the wrong name for the reviewer in my comment. above. My apologies.

    2. Sorry, I was traveling and could not respond to Utpal’s question earlier. In thinking about the question, one must remember two factors. John Cockcroft and Homi Bhabha were not just any scientists. Cockcroft was the founding director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell in the United Kingdom whereas Bhabha was the founding chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in India. In matters related to atomic science and technology, their negotiations would be the equivalent of governmental representatives doing so. Second, the 1950s were a period when many of the countries involved in developing nuclear technology were actively seeking customers. To help in this process, many countries revealed various technical details at conferences, including at the Geneva conferences organized by the United Nations, and in nuclear magazines and journals. A good example of such a reactor was the heavy water reactor from Canada. I have uploaded a paper with a detailed description of the NRX reactor, which was the one that the CIRUS reactor was modeled after, on my website to give you a flavor of the kind of detail one could obtain. I hope this clarifies the nature of the exchange. Finally, my understanding of the discussions between Cockcroft and Bhabha, as well as Cockcroft’s reaction to Nehru’s announcement, were from Itty Abraham’s wonderful book “The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb” and I have referenced it extensively in my book. You can see the relevant pages (84-85) on google books.

      1. thank you for explaining the nature of your source. I am better informed now. By the way, I am a theoretical physicist and aware that these two were not just any other scientists. Warm regards, …

  2. Dear Sankar da, thanks for your kind words about the review. One of the reasons that I felt kafila would be an appropriate place for this review is the freedom with space, and the increased chances of introducing this book to people already interested in such topics. 400 words is a joke, although I must say you have used it quite well. Regarding Utpal’s question, this is something that Ramana would be better placed to answer. In fact, upon seeing the review, Ramana said that it was not he, but Itty Abraham, that dug out Cockcroft’s quote. In any case, I’m writing separately to Ramana to respond to Utpal’s query.

    1. In contrast to North America and most of Western Europe, where growth of nuclear power has leveled out for many years, the ‘greatest growth in nuclear generation’ in the near future is expected in China, Japan, South Korea and India.

      It would be naïve to believe that the political establishments are not aware of the negative consequences of nuclear power. The question may then arise as to why have the emerging economies of India, China, Brazil, et al., have aligned themselves with the nuclear establishment without fully exploiting other alternative energy sources?

      In 2005, the Planning Commission of India had appointed a very high power committee,’ The Expert Committee on Integrated Energy Policy’, to recommend on the future of India’s energy policy. The Committee submitted its ‘final report’ in August 2006 (Planning Commission, 2006). Before releasing their final report, the Expert Committee had submitted a ‘draft report’ in December 2005 (Planning Commission, 2005).

      In the ‘draft report’, the share of nuclear power, in the projected energy mix of 2031–2032, had ranged between 0% and 6%. But in the ‘final report’, this projected range was increased to 4% and 6% respectively. This clearly indicates that ‘energy experts’, appointed by the Planning Commission, believed (at least till December 2005) that the energy needs of India, with a projected GDP growth rate of 8% per annum, could be managed without any contribution of nuclear energy. But in the ‘final report’, the same ‘group of experts’ have projected nuclear energy as an important contributor to the energy mix of 2031-32.

      (For details see ‘Civil’ Nuclear Program)

      In the absence of organised public opinion, as was seen in Haripur (West Bengal), against such blatant exercise of power, these states will construct new nuclear power plants knowing fully well that the safety and economic cost of nuclear energy are much more than the cheaper options already available in other energy sources. This hunger for ‘absolute power’ is pushing the ambitious states like India, China, Brazil and South Korea towards nuclear power projects. Political leaders of these ambitious emerging economies, where the state has not yet reached the maturity stage, prefer nuclear power to other alternative energy sources, as it serves the dual purpose of retaining the state’s hegemony on citizens’ basic energy needs and assures supply of weapon grade ingredients.

      1. Dipankar deserves thanks for expanding the debate. Indeed, any nuclear power reactor may be converted into weapon-making one. It’s conversion of controlled fusion into uncontrolled one.

  3. India has always had a very civilian oriented, civilian dominated, non-military nuclear programme. The weapons section of the programme, only came about after a series of brutal and tragic events in the subcontinent, starting with the Sino-Indian war of 1962. And carrying through the 1965 and 1971 wars. But it was China’s explosion of a device that really pushed India into a weapons programme, and it is still small in relation to the programme as a whole. India’s nuclear sector encompasses power generation, accelerators, radio isotopes, agriculture, computers, even astronomy. China, North Korea and Pakistan started their nuclear programmes with a weapons and military orientation, right from the outset. It was India, that produced Asia’s first scientific research reactor, Apsara, and its first large power generating unit, in Tarapur.

  4. China scraps nuclear facility after protests: “The people’s government of the city of Heshan has decided to respect the public opinion and will not consider CNNC’s Longwan industrial park project.”

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