Right said Bidwai

What is bad for Bidwai is good for India: the rule always applies

Praful Bidwai offers honest, rational arguments against the India-US nuclear deal.

Many of the deal’s opponents are also mistaken in arguing that it’ll reduce/cap India’s nuclear arsenal/fissile material production. India will only subject 14 of its 22 operating/planned power reactors to inspections. The rest can annually yield 200kg of plutonium—enough for 40 bombs, in addition to the existing 100-150, and way beyond the professed “minimum deterrent”.

India can also stockpile unlimited amounts of weapons-grade material in its military-nuclear and other unsafeguarded facilities, including the “Dhruva” and prototype fast-breeder reactors. Besides, India can dedicate scarce domestic uranium exclusively to weapons. Again, India can live with the Hyde Act’s constraints. They’re a small price to pay if you want your weapons normalized and expanded, while resuming global nuclear commerce.

The honest, rational, argument against the deal is that it legitimizes nuclear weapons (India’s and the US’), weakens the global non-proliferation norm, unfairly favours India because it’s Washington’s friend, consolidates an unhealthy, unequal India-US relationship, and promotes the wrong kind of energy.

The deal will admit India into the global nuclear club—on the side of those who run a system that India long condemned as atomic apartheid. Once it joins the club, India will bid goodbye to its commitment, reiterated in the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme, to fight for global nuclear disarmament. You don’t join an exclusive club, and then demand its dissolution! The deal will detract from a principled commitment to a peaceful, equitable world order free of the scourge of nuclear weapons. [Mint]

Those who feel that a deal that favours India—fairly or otherwise—is good for India should therefore rally in support of the deal. The time-tested dictum that India’s national interest is the opposite of what Mr Bidwai advocates holds true.

Mr Bidwai is not the only anti-nuclear activist arriving at the conclusion that the deal allows India to hone its nuclear deterrent and expand nuclear power. Here’s M V Ramana in IEEE Spectrum:

What’s more, the agreement is likely to increase—not decrease—India’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons and material. By importing uranium, India will be able to channel its native supply toward military purposes.

There is also the possibility that those nuclear reactors not subject to IAEA inspection will be converted to military ends. Any power reactor not under safeguards can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium by limiting the time the fuel is irradiated. This prevents the build-up of higher isotopes of plutonium, which are undesirable in a weapon. When a typical heavy-water reactor is operated normally, fuel remains inside the reactor seven times as long as when it is producing weapons-grade plutonium. Heavy-water reactors are particularly suited to making bomb-grade material, because new fuel is continuously added (and old fuel continuously removed); this type of reactor could produce the same amount of electricity every year but would use seven times as much fuel to do so. In theory, a 220-MW heavy-water reactor, run at 60 to 80 percent capacity, could produce 150 to 200 kg per year of weapons-grade plutonium. [IEEE Spectrum]

Elements of the BJP who continue to reflexively oppose the India-US nuclear deal need to explain the public why they are on the same side as the likes of Mr Bidwai.

(Mr Bidwai’s piece, by the way, contains many of the usual canards. He’s entitled to them)

22 thoughts on “Right said Bidwai”

  1. Praful calls nuclear energy the “wrong kind” of energy or some such thing. Unfortunately there really is no kind of ‘right energy”. Name the source and you can find something wrong with it. Coal? Dirtier than nuclear fuel, and yes radioactive (mildly though). Biomass? Blame the spike in global food prices on the scramble for corn ethanol. Wind? What about the birds and the real estate? Solar? Subsidies anyone? Ocean waves? Hydro? And the list goes on. Although an ignorant few sneer at the medium term goal of generating 10% of our electricity from nuclear power – 10% isn’t to be sneezed at. Nuclear fuel is denser than any other type of fuel, and poses no less problems in transportation, storage, and disposal.

  2. Kaangeya,

    He is entitled to make polemical arguments about the “dangers” of nuclear energy, never mind whatever pollutants it produces are contained in one small truck (whereas coal/oil plants spread it over a large volume). But he trips up when he talks about unit costs of different types of power. He ignores the total costs of fossil fuel based power, and more importantly misses the economic point that the market price of power is/will be much higher. The marginal price of power is that of the most expensive type of power that can meet the demand. [Update: Atanu Dey points out that this should be correctly phrased as “the price is the marginal cost of the most expensive type of power that can meet the demand”. ]

  3. A few points

    a) The nuclear disarmament movement has been screaming from the rooftops for a long time that India would be able to (read “will”) use the fuel for making more bombs.

    b) You have your own conception of “national interest”. I happen to think that India would be better served by supporting efforts that reduce tension and contribute towards global disarmament.

    c) Economic arguments. Also, do you seriously believe nuclear waste is easier to dispose and less harmful than waste/pollutants from coal etc.?

    In the same article that you cite (Ramana) discusses this thoroughly. He also cites an MIT study in 2003 reaching the same conclusions (even ignoring waste disposal). The cost-benefit analysis is one of the main reasons the nuclear industry in the US is dying in spite of massive subsidies and huge propaganda by the lobby.

  4. Dear Anand,

    I happen to think that India would be better served by supporting efforts that reduce tension and contribute towards global disarmament.

    The first part of your sentence appears reasonable. The second part of your sentence is debatable, and anti-nuclear advocates have the burden of proof to prove that a nuclear-free world will be less bloody. [The post 1945 world lived under the risk of annihilation, but nuclear deterrence prevented the outbreak of large scale conventional war]. But I’ve also argued that India should contribute towards disarmament. So what gives? That there’s a huge issue in between: India’s security. It is naive to think that end states are not path dependent.

    But I have a deeper, more fundamental disagreement with your framing of India’s interests. India’s national interests are survival, security and development of its people. Reduced tensions and disarmament are desirable to the extent that they help towards these ends. And no, beyond polemics, it does not follow that reduced tensions and a nuclear free world will always and necessarily be in India’s interests.

    Also, do you seriously believe nuclear waste is easier to dispose and less harmful than waste/pollutants from coal etc.?

    Yes. Don’t you? How difficult is it to dispose off the dirty smoke from thermal plants? Ah, there is carbon sequestration, you say. But the costs of thermal power using sequestration go up significantly…and the countries that have these technologies are (justifiably) unwilling to give it away for nothing.

    He also cites an MIT study in 2003 reaching the same conclusions (even ignoring waste disposal). The cost-benefit analysis is one of the main reasons the nuclear industry in the US is dying in spite of massive subsidies and huge propaganda by the lobby.

    And why should a US study be relevant today? As I point out, merely looking at unit costs of power is economically flawed. Firstly, it does not reflect the real costs (as externalities are unpriced, and I argue coal-based power has much higher negative externalities). Second, unit cost of thermal power, even if it is lower, is not indicative of the price of power when it cannot meet the market demand. Market prices are set by the marginal cost of the most expensive supply that meets the demand. [See this study on the economics of nuclear power in India. And that was in the days when oil prices were way below the $100 that they are now]

  5. I don’t think there is a technology that can sequester carbon on an industrial scale. On the other hand disposing of nuclear waste, which really means storing it somewhere for hundreds of years until its half-life becomes non-toxic, is not easy or cheap…but then we have this global warming due to carbon bogey – can’t use coal or oil (although China is building coal-based power plants like there is no tomorrow – we don’t because we can’t get our act together on anything, not because we don’t want them). So on mass scale there is no alternative to nuclear…

    Nitin, without carbon capture requirement, coal, oil, nat-gas will beat nuclear any day – although the prices of three commodities seem to be unstoppable now-a-days thanks to Chinese consumption (and ours, but less so…). Alagh seems to say otherwise. With Uranium we’ll always have NPT type issues unless we are part of NPT as a nuclear power (look at what Aussies are up to). Thorium is the best option for us – but if Thorium is the fuel of choice, then we don’t really need the nuclear deal to tie us down on testing (which is what BJP doesn’t want – no Hyde Act or conditions attached to it – see Yashwant’s recent interview on Rediff…)

  6. Chandra,

    Fair comment on the sequestration/fuel disposal issue. But I feel that the risk of climate change, and the possibility that we could actually mitigate it using alternative energy sources, makes nuclear power a prudent alternative.

    The merit of the deal is exactly that we’ll break out of those NPT type of issues, without affecting either our ability to use fossil fuels or Thorium. Unless one is dogmatically opposed to nuclear energy, it is hard to see why those who believe that increasing supply diversity is against the national interest. As with any policy, the question is at the margin. It’s not about “should India throw away thermal and invest only in nuclear”. Rather, it’s about “should our next power station be nuclear or thermal”.

  7. a) National interest: It’s not clear to me why the anti-nuclear movement has the burden of proof here.

    Let me concede the point about no war in the post-WW2 period because of nuclear deterrence (I don’t believe it, but let’s put it aside). It still doesn’t follow that India would be better served with a nuclear weapon. For the most part, India didn’t have nuclear weapons in this period. Also, the doctrine of deterrence was between Europe/US and the Soviet Union. It’s not clear why that should extend to India.

    In my opinion, a serious burden of proof also lies with people who claim that India needs a “nuclear deterrent”. When you talk about the post-war world, the deterrence was mainly between Soviet Union and US. India was technically a non-aligned country. There should be arguments for India sinking tons of money into nuclear energy with very little to show for it.

    b) Cost: You’re misunderstanding Ramana’s study. It’s not based on US market. If you look at Ramana’s article he mentions the MIT study insofar as it supports his own study (done in conjuction with International Energy Initiative). Ramana has published detailed studies in EPW and elsewhere. You can check. Ramana has also pointed out that the subsidy on heavy water masks the cost of power.

    I would like to make it clear that I’m not an expert on these matters. But just to mention one point which Ramana makes (regarding the govt’s claim of coal being transported long distances).

    In the early years, the DAE claimed that nuclear power was cheaper than thermal plants that were located more than 600 kilometers away from the coal mines. By the 1980s the distance had crept up to 800 km. A 1999 study increased the distance to 1200 km. In fact, though, one-third of India’s coal plants are located right next to a mine pithead, and another quarter or more are within 500 km of one. Even the 1200-km claim does not hold up to scrutiny…

    Also, I’d like to make a point that historical perspective is important. The US has the longest experience with nuclear energy. It has plenty of capital, technological know-how etc. The fact that nuclear energy is dying in the US should give us at least some food for thought.

    c) Waste disposal: Nuclear waste is notoriously hard to get rid of (Yucca mountain in the US has become the symbol of resistance to nuclear power). The environmental movement’s view is that coal etc. are definitely contributing to global warming, but nuclear power is not the answer. There are much more cost-efficient alternative sources of power around.

    Regarding carbon sequestration and so on. The talk about nuclear energy to counter global warming is hard to take seriously. Even if 10% of the energy comes from nuclear (the wildest govt. estimate) it’s a long way for countering fossil-fuel based electricity. Also, Ramana (among others) point out that improving the efficiency of existing technologies is much more cost effective than any such fantasy about nuclear energy.

    e) I’m not “dogmatically opposed” to nuclear. It’s a considered opposition.

  8. “The fact that nuclear energy is dying in the US should give us at least some food for thought.”

    Anand, it’s actually reviving at the moment – I know at least two companies that are working on paperwork to built new reactors (it’ll take a while to get permit and actually built one). The reason why US didn’t built any since the 70s is because of three mile island reactor accident, which was non-fatal, and environmental groups opposition after that (and of course Chernobyl). Just because US does something, it doesn’t mean it’s set in stone or that it’s right…France has plenty of reactors and, I think, gets 70% or more of power from nuclear reactors and Japan does too…China is planning 10s of reactors in the next few decades…And of course there are plenty in India itself without too many issues..

    Plenty of those environmental opponents are turning around, not all, mostly due to global warming connection to carbon. At the moment, nuclear power opponents are really in the minority…

    There is really no other alternative to coal (and oil and gas), for continuous production, other than nuclear, on a mega/giga watt scale…

  9. I don’t know much about the political views various “activists” involved in the nuclear debate. But as far as the science of nuclear energy is concerned I know that Prof. R Rajaraman is an expert and he seems to support the deal:

    link 1 and link 2

    His sounds very pragmatic here:

    “The correct framework within which people must decide on the deal is to compare what we will get from it as compared to where we will be left without it.”

  10. Chandra,
    Of course what’s right in the US doesn’t translate to India directly. I mentioned it only as a support to other arguments.

    I do however agree with you on one thing. It’s correct that the whole south Asia is a major growing market for nuclear energy.

    My main problem is with the deal mixing military and civilian issues. Nuclear energy (though I don’t like it) is of a totally different order to nuclear weapons.

    a) Nuclear energy: If India wants to diversify into nuclear power and it is convinced of the cost-benefit analysis by honest debate (which I don’t believe has happenned), I would be in support of it.

    In this regard, I disagree with all of your assertions.
    i) There’s no alternative except nuclear on a large scale: What’s the evidence for this claim? The article by Ramana cites a wide variety of alternatives based on renewables and improvements in efficiency.
    ii) And of course there are plenty [of reactors] in India itself without too many issues... You mean you don’t know about them. There are many issues with various accidents. Also, the birth defects in the areas surrounding the reactor sharply increase. One of the main points here is that the regulatory board (AERB) is not independent of the DAE. Check reports by Ramana and Greenpeace India for details.

    b) Nuclear weapons: This deal is in blatant disregard of (the hypocritical but nonetheless important) NPT and other arms control measures. It will surely increase the arms race in Asia, especially with Pakistan and China. Already Pakistan has indicated some moves in that direction. I’m strictly opposed to this because of this aspect.

  11. Why does the media give Bidwai so much print space? Hire some better clown if that’s what is driving them, all the way to Bidwai.

  12. “What’s the evidence for this claim? ”

    Anand, Have you seen an alternative technology that can generate 100s of MWH? The most recent ones are 10sMWH by solar, heavy subsidized by tax payers – money going to Chinese (and some Malaysian) solar panel makers, in Germany and few other European countries. We can’t afford it. A poor economy with huge population needs lots of cheap energy to grow.

    I was talking about issues with reactors. Yes, I have seen reports of populations living near by impacted, but that’s socialist economy on display. One can see the same toxic impact to local population from a papermill or a chemical factory – polluted water and soil. Enforcement could have been tougher if a private company such as Tata or Reliance runs the plant. A socialist govt – which is both a law enforcer and running the business, will never prosecute itself. And such an economy breeds corruption so that worst offenders can get away. Suffice it say, those issues are fixable. Plenty of countries run clean nuclear power plants…

    With regards to NPT, while you have a right to oppose the nuclear deal, if you are doing it because of NPT, I am afraid you are reading too many news articles written by western NPAs…NPT was written to put India a bottle. It’s circular argument to say we should in the bottle because of NPT.

    Land of Pure and China, with a blind-eye from US, have done more damage to Bharatiya national security then any country on the planet. To say that we have appease our strategic enemies is a bogus argument.

  13. Chandra,

    It’s circular argument to say we should in the bottle because of NPT.

    Now, I wish I had gotten that line!

  14. Anand,

    Ramana’s proposal for investing in renewables and energy efficiency instead of nuclear energy is – to put it mildly – not informed by market realities. As I have pointed out earlier only solar energy has the potential to leave the environment intact – but only in hte generation of power, not in the making of the devices that generate it – and making solar panels, silicon wafer manufacture is a dirty and dangerous process. Wind, ocean, biomass, and what else have you, all have hard to manage consequences for the environment. Energy efficiency? Glad you mentioned it. As a rule efficiency investments with a payback >2 years are never made >85% of the time. This is based on extensive studies by the US DOE. With no such data available in India of the quality and scale published by the US-DOE’s EIA, to even bring up the possibility of energy efficiency improvements in India is non-serious gambit. It does not matter what the Indian DAE says, this discussion is about nuclear energy not them. What you ignore about xportation of coal, even if a plant is situated right on top of the coal seam, is the need to xport tonnes and tonnes of it 24/7, manage the pollution of mining, extraction, combustion etc. Nuclear fuel is denser by several orders of magnitude. All the waste generated by the US nuclear industry today can be stacked on a football field a few feet high. The worldwide nuclear power industry is in revival, and France and Russia who have continued to invest in this technology for years are all set to cash in. Our dithering has cost us dearly.

  15. Kaangeya,
    a) Can you cite the DOE (US) study you mention? And why is the same true for India?
    b) Market realities: I’m confused. How’s subsidizing nuclear energy immensely for decades (not even counting the R&D subsidies) a “market solution”? It’s straight infant industry promotion. I can give you figures if you like. (Ramana has a good article in EPW on heavy water subsidies).

    Making an analogy, if you don’t invest in renewables (R&D included) in the beginning, you won’t get a viable industry.
    (See also citation from Ramana at bottom of my post)

    c) Waste: I see no substance in your hand-waving argument. The physical area waste occupies is only one factor (your football field measure is without basis, I might add). The capacity of the waste to do harm is another. There is a qualitative difference between, say, CO2 and radioactive waste. I’m not convinced at all.

    Chandra,
    Again, let’s separate out civilian and nuclear.

    i) Civilian:
    a) Issues with reactors: I meant it when I said there were issues with reactors. At least one of the DAE’s nuclear reactors has come close to a major accident. (Nayan Chanda(1999): ‘The Perils of Power’, Far Eastern Economic Review, cited by Ramana, Feeding the Nuclear Fire, EPW).

    I think we agree on the health hazards of reactors on the local population.

    Regarding regulation, I’m unconvinced by your evidence-free argument that private companies are better regulators than the govt. for health and safety. The private regulators would have ample incentives to cut costs on safety and health. Moreover, the local people (the ones most affected by the radiation) will not have any stockholders in the company, so the company has incentives to ignore them by filling local politicians’ pockets.

    Your argument has nothing to do with “socialism”. It’s a function of the protection of rights for the local community and the rule of law, a political situation.

    Since you’ve indulged in some dogmatic “socialism”-bashing, let me indulge in some of my own “big business – govt”-bashing. Remember Union Carbide? 1984? It happens to be in front of my mind, because the survivors are marching to Delhi to demand their rights.

    Re: viability of alternative sources, there are plenty. I mentioned articles by Ramana and Greenpeace. Just one illustration of the power of “markets” though. The nuclear industry is hugely subsidized. Citing from Ramana:


    In 2002/03, for example, the DAE was allocated
    33 516.9 million rupees, dwarfing in comparison
    the 4735.6 million rupees allocated to the MNES
    (Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources),
    in charge of developing solar, wind, small hydro,
    and biomass-based power. Nevertheless, installed
    capacity of these sources was 4800 MW (as
    compared to 3310 MW of nuclear energy). While
    their contribution to actual electricity generated
    would be smaller because these are intermittent
    sources of power, they have much lower
    maintenance costs. Further, exploitation of most
    of these sources started in earnest only recently
    and there is ample scope for improvement.

    ii) Nuclear Weapons: I’m not relying on “western NPAs” for my source. I’m firmly plugged in to the non-proliferation movement in India.

    Regarding NPT, I’m open to hearing your views. I agree that it’s hypocritical, the NWS, already reneging on their obligations.

    I’m not at all convinced by your claim that the NPT was made to “put India in a bottle” (again evidence-free). It’s not clear why in 1968 (when it was written) or 1995 (extended indefinitely) anybody would be concerned about India.

    Nor did I claim that. I believe non-proliferation is a worthy goal. My argument is not based on NPT.

  16. Anand,

    Re the impact of energy efficiency on consumption and demand, there is no single study – the subject is too complex for that. Check out the US DOE pages, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the many desks within the DOE. I am not give you more detail at this point. I have spent weeks dredging through the troves of data published by US DOE and am not give my work away so easily. That’s why I know that any talk of bridiging the energy deficit through renewables and energy efficiency in India is little more than wishful thinking, we simply have no data to work on, nothing in the league of the US DOE.

    Again my football field measure is absolutely right on – spend some time on the US DOE pages to convince yourself. Coal waste is very very dirty, and unlike nuclear waste that is denser by several orders of magnitude, coal waste cannot be compacted and put away.

    Anand you quote Ramana here, While their contribution [renewables] to actual electricity generated
    would be smaller because these are intermittent
    sources of power, they have much lower
    maintenance costs. Further, exploitation of most
    of these sources started in earnest only recently
    and there is ample scope for improvement.
    I cannot imagine how an argument like this can be taken seriously! It generates less and has plenty of scope fopr improvement only if….

  17. Kaangeya,
    I will assume that you’re arguing in good faith. If you cannot do the courtesy of providing me with sources, you simply are not credible. At least give me a sample to see if I should pursue it.

    Regarding the citation from Ramana, I, unlike you, didn’t cut out the operative part.

    a) The subsidy on nuclear was 7 times the subsidy on non-conventionals (not even counting R&D).
    b) The installed capacity of non-conventional was higher than nuclear.

    This together with the rest of the statement doesn’t mean renewables are the future, but at least make a case for they being considered (especially compared to nuclear).

    You also ignore my point: Nuclear power is not “viable” because of market forces but because of decades of subsidy.

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