The nuclear story as it is told in India is distinctly incomplete. While the debate around it is age-old, this story has always suffered from our society's inability to give voice to those pathways of innovation the choice of nuclear energy rendered non-options, pushing them ever closer to obsolescence. A new kind of imagination is called for if we are to tell this tale allowing for the plurality inherent to storytelling.
What brings about this musing is a continuation of the ‘Knowledge Society’ debates which recently took place in the country. The STEPS Centre University of Sussex, and civil society groups in Bangalore, organised a public discussion on the nuclear energy debate, exploring how its current resurgence, while posited with the same problems of yesteryears, today requires a new terms of engagement, since the context in which it is playing itself out is a charged one.
While concerns relating to nuclear weapons have dominated debates in India for the past few decades, the talk of nuclear power expansion has traditionally been justified by saying that it is the only way India can meet its growing energy needs. Likewise, in Europe, many governments and policy makers are encouraging the propagation of this form of energy as a response to climate change and environmental concerns. But even as these contexts play out within the ambit of local politics, the old problems with nuclear energy – those of high costs, safety concerns, radioactive waste and security risks – have not been addressed to-date.
The Princeton scientist MV Ramanna has made an astute case for what he calls ‘the propaganda of scarcity’, saying that agendas so shrill and heightened that they are close to proclaiming we’ll have no electricity if we don’t ‘go nuclear’ are pure rhetoric. Starting with Amulya Reddy in the late 1980s, there has been a lobby firmly stating that alternatives to the nuclear path exist – it’s time we took them seriously.
SPRU Policy Scientist Andy Stirling holds that it is imperative we know why we’re sceptical of nuclear energy – so-called ‘facts’ can be made to read in different ways. Right at the outset we need to recognise that there is literature which says that this form of energy is safe, cheap and reliable. The question then, is that of parameters and supposedly apriori assumptions, such as the most common one of them all: that nuclear power is cheap.
The other argument made for it is its alleged environment friendliness – how can this go unchallenged? And as for the risk of energy dependence, we would do well to question whether this isn’t simply a case of moving from one form of dependence (gas) to another (thorium/uranium). This is not merely a technical debate. The facets underlying it are very political, and we would do well to engage with it at top priority.
Scientist Vishnu Kamath maintains that it would be incorrect to view this question in the light of an ‘either/or’ parameter. It shouldn’t be about pitching one form of energy against another – it would be reductionist to say ‘if not nuclear energy, we should try thermal or hydal power’. What is called for is an examination of the developmental paradigm our country subscribes to – any developmental work undertaken needs necessarily to cater to the multitudes of have-nots, and in a direct manner. Again, if this sort of democratic, all-inclusive form is what we’re looking for, nuclear energy isn’t the answer.
We cannot fall prey to the amnesia that seems to underwrite any discussion of the nuclear question in India. I come to this question from the vantage point not of science, but of the social sciences, and I ask myself, what does ‘being nuclear’ mean to our Indian middle-class imagination? Science was to be the language of the Indian Nation-State, with different forms of energy reading as metaphors for it. We overlooked bio-mass, and with this crucial exclusion, failed to speak of the scores of people living with and in nature.
There followed a systematic disengagement from indigenous knowledges, even as liberalisation broke down our body politic. Our defeated ‘traditional’ knowledges therefore remained dialects, never allowed to turn into full-fledged languages. To dissent against the nuclear was to call into question all of officialdom, and in so doing, the sovereignty of the nation; yet another instance of the suspension of democracy being officialised.