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Obama’s N-mission to India

Updated Jan 31, 2015 10:05am
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

LAST Monday, Pakistanis watched glumly as President Barack Obama, the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day celebrations, took in a grand display of Indian military hardware, ornate floats, and marching bands. Subsequently, many commentaries have concentrated on the so-called “breakthrough understanding” that overcomes a long-standing obstacle preventing India’s purchase of nuclear reactors and fuel from the United States. Others have revolved around Pakistan’s grievance about being denied a similar nuclear deal. Both sets of commentaries have missed essential points.

Sibling rivalry means, of course, that Pakistan stands miffed. But one must regretfully acknowledge that Pakistan’s multiple internal crises have reduced the country’s global status, together with the attention paid to it by world leaders. Moreover Pakistan’s primitive agro-textile economy cannot significantly benefit from cooperation with the US in high-technology, and our workforce has little to offer by way of education and skills. And, while Pakistan may prefer to forget the sale of critical nuclear technology and information by A.Q. Khan and his associates, many countries remember that only too well.

But India has not emerged a winner either. Although Obama’s visit has sent India’s leadership into raptures, the loosening of constraints upon US-based reactor companies, which deal with a technology that carries irreducible dangers, has ominous implications. India knows well the horror of one kind of foreign-provided technology that went rogue. In 1984 the leakage of cyanide gas at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal killed over 5,200 people and left thousands with permanent disabilities. This was a chemical catastrophe, but a nuclear one can be far more destructive.


Whereas India has put important conditions on reactor vendors, Pakistan has put absolutely none.


Preventing a nuclear Bhopal has long obsessed India’s civil society. Haunted by the images of the nuclear accident in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, local communities in Tamil Nadu in southern India launched massive and sustained protests against the effort to start up the large Russian-supplied reactor at Koodankulam. The protests were met with police violence and mass arrests on trumped-up charges.

The Fukushima accident also served to spur Indian civil society and local community protests against plans to build an American-supplied nuclear reactor in Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, and a French-supplied reactor to be set up at Jaitapur, near Mumbai. A plan to build several Russian reactors at a site in Haripur in West Bengal was scrapped after the state government rejected it. A partial indemnity clause was inserted into government regulations to hold nuclear reactor manufacturers responsible for damages. This has scared off American reactor suppliers. And so, in spite of the 2008 nuclear agreement, no new foreign reactor deal has actually gone forward.

It is in this context that one must see the recent US-India “breakthrough”. This involves using Indian public money to shield US corporations from liabilities in the event of a disaster involving an American-supplied reactor. The liability has been capped at a mere $200 million — 40 times less than the limit set in the US! Expectedly, a moribund US nuclear industry, long in the doldrums, has applauded the announced softening. It hopes to make up for lack of domestic sales. For 25 years, no new nuclear reactor was built in the US. Meanwhile, making electricity using natural gas is proving to be so much cheaper that some already operating nuclear reactors in the US are being shut down.

Pakistan must note these developments. Reactor manufacturers everywhere want to sell their products and make money first, and worry about dangers second. Profit-seeking Chinese are no different from profit-seeking Americans. Exporting overseas for the first time, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is currently engaged in building two reactors in Karachi, worth $4.8 billion apiece, on a turnkey basis. A soft Chinese loan of $6.5bn smoothed the way. Unsurprisingly the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) which will operate the reactors, sees not the slightest danger.

But let the truth be told: in Karachi, the world’s biggest nuclear disaster may be in the making. The reactors to be built in Karachi are a Chinese design that has not yet been built or tested anywhere, not even in China. They are to be sited in a city of 20 million which is also the world’s fastest growing and most chaotic megalopolis. Evacuating Karachi in the event of a Fukushima or Chernobyl-like disaster is inconceivable.

The story gets still worse. Whereas India has put important conditions on reactor vendors, Pakistan has put absolutely none. It has not insisted upon any kind of legal liability for CNNC in case of an accident. Even basic safety requirements have been waived. When challenged in the Sindh High Court by a group of worried citizens who subsequently won a temporary stay, the government — through the PAEC — was forced to admit it had violated the law by not holding a public hearing on the environmental impact assessment of the Karachi reactors project. The court has ordered a new assessment next month, this time with public participation.

Nuclear electricity belongs to the 20th century, not the 21st. Apart from being expensive and potentially dangerous, the earliest that the Karachi reactors can start producing electricity is by 2020 or 2021. On the other hand, there are alternative power sources that could be brought on-line much before then, and much more cheaply. The developed world is already enjoying the Renewables Revolution, triggered by advances in photovoltaic technology, efficient windmills, and smart grids.

Wholly missed by Pakistani commentators was the positive part of Obama’s promise: he offered American assistance to help meet India’s goal of having solar capacity of 100,000 MW by the year 2022. This is 45 times the electrical capacity of the two Karachi nuclear reactors! If India can build this much solar capacity in a few years, why can’t Pakistan? Let us by all means ask China, and the United States, and other countries for help. As Germany is showing so brilliantly, renewables like solar and wind — not nuclear — can safely and effectively meet a nation’s energy needs.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2015

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