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Core concerns

Transparency is essential in holy grails like nuke energy and agri research

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh |
March 5, 2012 12:06:02 am

Transparency is essential in holy grails like nuke energy and agri research

The resignation of Roddam Narasimha from the Space Commission is a matter of concern and the prime minister has done well not to accept it. It is of some importance to mend that fissure as soon as possible. Narasimha took on the much benighted aircraft project and was one of the first to redefine “self-reliance” in the 1990s as successful attempts at technological networking on a global plane and keeping the initiative firmly in hand while making a success of cooperating,specialising and outsourcing,much before all that became fashionable. He then went on to the National Academy as its director,but kept his core interests.

Space,nuclear energy and agricultural research have been the holy grails and the Valhalla of the Indian technological establishment. They were always wards of the prime minister apart from Yojana Ayog. A new PM visits BARC,Bangalore and Pusa,apart from visiting neighbouring countries soon after taking over. When I was at Yojana Ayog and a younger,brasher colleague was asking many questions,an Atomic Energy Commission chairman kept on patiently answering them. But when contradicted in a manner he didn’t particularly cherish,he smiled and said,I know you fellows think no end of yourself but you must know that I can bring pressure to bear on you.

In nuclear energy,there are three hardy critiques which never go away as part of a discourse. The first is that it is expensive,the second is it is unsafe and the third,we haven’t a clue on starting on the completion of the nuclear fuel cycle. Now it is true that when we don’t have the uranium for our reactors or spare parts for repairing them,capacity use goes down and large overheads on low generation lead to high costs. But even in the mid-1990s,when capacity use was good,Rana Pratap Sagar and Tarapur had been fixed by our own people. The Nuclear Power Corporation was making handsome profits.

For a large part of our history,and before we signed the agreement with the Americans,we were going it alone and,as I have written many times,if the development costs are taken care of by the state,which is essential if you ekla chalo,then the cost of nuclear power competes with coastal power plants far away from the coal belt. Similarly,Placid Rodrigues,former director of IGCAR,used one of my learning curve cost curves to argue that the fast breeder reactor (FBR) would be economical. To minimise these learning costs,we signed the nuclear deal with the Americans. But,to some,the FBR is a red rag. At a conference,the then energy member of the Planning Commission contradicted my statement that an experimental reactor on the thorium route was actually working at Kalpakkam. When I protested strongly,a senior economist working with the PMO asked me not to get angry for we all knew that the reactor was there and working. Now that we are on the way to accumulating the fuel to get on eventually to the plentiful thorium that we have,the attack is on safety. On safety,we all know former AERB chairman Dr A. Gopalakrishnan’s devastating critiques,but they have been discussed extensively in open documents and don’t go away. Transparency is important here and the facts of every incident and the action taken on the work of the nuclear safety regulator must be in the public domain. But,of course,the NGOs who are critical are never satisfied and always have a story for the innocents,who don’t know.

In fact the Americans,French and others also want to cooperate with us in the nuclear space. The US official reaction to the “nuclear power is unsafe” story has been muted. The French are clearly on the side of nuclear power. In fact,the strategic policy think-tank,Herodote,which works out of the French president’s office,has the theory that vested interests fund anti-hydel and presumably nuclear power groups and this is neatly summarised in Jean-Luc Racine’s 2006 paper “Le débat sur la Narmada: l’Inde face au dilemme des grands barrages (The debate on the Narmada: India faces the dilemma of large dams)”.

The arguments some of us have given in favour of hybrids and genetically modified crops have now found a prominent place as the agricultural growth story in the approach paper to the Twelfth Plan,since land available is declining and the water story has still to turn around. Unfortunately,the approach paper’s explicit faith that only the private sector will deliver seeds has led to justifiably strong reactions from the research establishment. The planners are wrong here,for public research has to outline the larger strategic domain in which private companies can operate,in partnership with the ICAR.

The writer,a former Union minister,is chairman,Institute of Rural Management,Anand
express@expressindia.com

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