In one of his short stories entitled "Higher Mathematics", written during the period 1935-1950, R K Narayanan had jocularly written "Any news that mentions the atom becomes suspect these days". Nothing much has changed in the many decades since then. News about the atom still evinces much interest. Three stories related to nuclear energy dominated the Indian media during the first two weeks of September. It is worth examining the import of the three, individually and collectively, to understand the big picture pertaining to the nuclear energy programme in India.
The first news that broke early in September was the decision by Australia to sell uranium to India. This is big deal considering the hard line view that this possessor of nearly 31% of the world's uranium has traditionally taken against supplying uranium to non-NPT countries. Though India was granted a waiver by the NSG (of which Australia is a member) in 2008 itself, it has taken six long years since then, and long-winded bilateral negotiations since 2011, for the domestic politics in Australia to come around to acknowledging that India could be trusted with its uranium.
Meanwhile, for India the good news is not just the availability of uranium for its operational and planned reactors, but even more importantly, the availability of good quality uranium. Dr Kakodkar, former Chairman DAE, once mentioned that the quality of Indian uranium is so poor that it is akin to the tailings that are thrown away by the Australian mining industry. The input of high quality fuel, soon from Australia besides Canada, Mongolia, France and Kazakhstan, would expectedly enhance the capacity factors of Indian reactors.
The second news, on 6 Sept, related to the record established by the indigenous nuclear power plant at Rawatbhatta, Rajasthan, RAPS-5, by operating in an uninterrupted manner over a period of 765 days. This 220 MW plant first became operational in 2010. It is to the credit of the good maintenance of the plant by the operator, NPCIL, that enabled this record performance. According to the DAE, during the period of the continuous operation of the plant, the NPCIL earned a revenue of Rs 1225 crores which practically redeemed the total cost of Rs 1200 crores that had been spent on the construction of the plant. The plant, given proper maintenance and safety checks, yet has a life of nearly 30 - 40 years. And even more importantly, it produces this electricity that lights an estimated 2.5 million homes in Rajasthan and UP without adding any greenhouse gases to the environment. This is no mean achievement and certainly worthy of being emulated so that nuclear energy can meaningfully add to India's energy mix.
However, this can only be possible if there is a favourable public opinion that supports the ambitious nuclear expansion plans of the government. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced a high target of 63,000 MWe of nuclear energy generation by 2030. He did work towards making this possible through obtaining the exceptionalisation of India and thereby enabling its entry into international nuclear commerce. Consequently, India today has nuclear agreements/MoUs with nearly a dozen countries that will bring in uranium, equipment and reactors into the country.
However, the chance of India being able to exploit the promise held in these agreements is adversely impacted by news of the kind that appeared in Indian press on 7 September -- a day after DAE proudly announced its record achievement and less than a week after the Australian decision to supply uranium to India on the basis of its confidence in its nuclear safety and non-proliferation credentials. This story, claimed to be based on an RTI reply obtained by an activist, ascribes 70% of the deaths in India's atomic energy hubs to cancer. A headline of this nature in a prominent national daily calls for a response from the DAE if it is to address public concern in a transparent manner. Non-availability of credible information from authentic sources, and more importantly in a language that is not easily understandable to the common man, provides room for mischief by opponents of nuclear power. Silence of the DAE on a report such as this does even more harm than the report itself. DAE needs to counter this with credible data provided loud and clear.
It is noteworthy that India is currently in the process of year long celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee of the DAE. On his first visit to the DAE in July this year, Prime Minister Modi exhorted the organisation to place special focus on human and developmental dimensions of atomic science, with special outreach to the youth in schools and colleges, in order to present a human face to its achievements. This is indeed the need of the hour. If India is to encash its many years of safe reactor operating experience, build on a record of the kind made by RAPS 5, make use of the opportunity of tapping into the international commercial opportunities, then it must handle domestic public concerns of nuclear safety with transparency, sensitivity and understanding.