Monday, March 15, 2010

Nuclear Noclear

Amidst all the ruckus caused in the Indian Parliament by the Women’s Reservation Bill, you could be forgiven for having not noticed the stalemate regarding the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010. You would even be forgiven for yawning at the very mention of this “exciting” piece of legislation. Spare a minute to consider how important this is.

Anybody even remotely familiar with India will easily relate to the abysmal power situation in the country. That Indians have come to accept power cuts as a way of life is a sad commentary on Indian stoicism. The worst way to solve the power situation is for each building and shop to own a DG set – it’s the most inefficient and polluting solution possible and yet this is exactly what we do.

As India grows, its power needs will multiply manifold. Where will this power come from ?? Coal ? Too polluting. Hydel ? Not much scope and in any case the likes of Medha Patkar will make it impossible to implement. Oil ? Will increasingly become unaffordable. Solar ? Too costly and the technology is not developed enough to be deployed on scale. Wind ? Tidal ? Ditto – same problem. There is really only one solution – Nuclear.

The word nuclear raises all sorts of visions of Armageddon. In today’s world there seems to be scare mongering and general distrust of science – witness the furore on genetically modified crops. But nuclear power generation can be as safe as any other means of generation, and less polluting. Sure safety standards have to be incredibly rigorous. But there is no risk free ticket to growth and prosperity. There has to be a balance of growth, risk, environment and a whole host of competing considerations.

This is part of the reason why Manmohan Singh was ready to risk his government to sign the US deal a few years ago. India has since then steadily progressed on this front. Multiple agreements have been signed with France and Russia. Now there needs to be legislation to cap liabilities in case of a nuclear accident , which is why the bill with the highly exciting name was introduced. The cap on liabilities is required to make any supplier of nuclear reactors to do business with you – the threat of unlimited liability is simply not a risk any company would take. At first sight, this might sound like a sell off of interests to US companies ; but it isn’t ; there are already international conventions on this subject - the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy, etc. India needed this bill to sign some of the conventions.

Opposition parties have shouted hoarse that this is a sale of national sovereignty to US companies (using whatever lung power they have left after the yelling over the Women’s Reservation Bill). Our elected representatives are not known for their dispassionate evaluation of issues on merit. Very likely, this bill will be shelved. And the power situation will drift, as it always has. Meanwhile, Indians will learn to live with more power cuts. And the rich will keep buying DG sets. And as a nation, we will keep finding the most inefficient way to meet the requirements of power.

I’ll leave you with this thought. When I came to China, I one day asked my IT colleagues, where is the UPS and what is its capacity. I was met by puzzled faces. UPS ?? What is UPS ?? The concept of a power cut is alien in this place.