India's Catastrophic Nuclear Plans

Japan's unfolding nuclear disaster must surely lead to a complete re-think of India's $175bn plans to build a new generation of nuclear power plants with technology from France, Russia and the US. It is inconceivable that India could begin to match Japan's far-from-successful attempts, since last weekend's earthquake and tsunami, to limit the impact of such a disaster, so the plans should surely be halted for the foreseeable future.

This is because India has shown in recent months that it is not capable of efficiently managing mega events, planned or unplanned, despite economic growth of approaching 9 percent, great successes in information technology and manufacturing, and undoubted scientific skills.

It would therefore be terrible for the country to go ahead with the nuclear program that it has been planning since it struck a historic nuclear accord with the US in 2008, which gave it access to international nuclear power and allied dual-use technologies. In a moment of apparent euphoria after the deal was signed, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, even talked scarily of India increasing its nuclear power capability 100 times over the next 40 years to yield 470,000 megawatts of power by 2050.

"This event may be a big dampener for our program," Shreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of the government-owned Nuclear Power Corporation, told Bloomberg news agency. "We and the Department of Atomic Energy will definitely revisit the entire thing, including our new reactor plans, after we receive more information from Japan."

Ageing reactors

Currently India has 20 ageing nuclear reactors supplying 3 percent of its total power generation. Two of the reactors were built by GE in the late 1960s to the same possibly risky designs as those at Fukushima in Japan.

The new program envisages at least doubling capacity within 20 years. Three months ago, US$9.3bn in plans were signed for two nuclear reactors to be built by France's Areva group, plus more to be built by Russia. US companies such as GE are also urgently chasing contracts.

The Nuclear Power Corporation said yesterday that it is checking to ensure that currents plants would "be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes", but that is not enough. India is of course capable of checking such things in the normal course of events, but what is needed here is efficient management to avoid crises, and quick and efficient responses when disaster strikes.

Juggad – 'we'll manage' – no longer works

There is an assumption in India that, to use the British theatre phrase, "everything will be all right on the night." The Hindi word is jugaad which implies innovative and sometimes rule-bending fixing so that "we'll manage." Then there is kaam chalao, meaning "make do."

Till recently, one could indeed rely on India turning chaos into last-minute success in the Monsoon Wedding film's sort of way. But it has begun to look over the past year or so as the country's growing corruption and managerial inefficiencies have shown it incapable of responding effectively to the quickening pace of high technology and other changes in many areas.

Jugaad in effect is no longer enough. This was shown most dramatically with the Commonwealth Games' corruption and managerial fiascos late last year. Other examples include countless railway crashes, Delhi's inability to manage the crowds and road congestion caused by an annual auto fair, gross inadequacies in police readiness and functioning, a disastrously inefficient reaction to a massive fire in Kolkata a year ago, yearly fog problems at Delhi airport and so on.

The list is endless, with each example showing, in different ways, the impact of a combination of waning government authority, lack of managerial focus and authority, poor and unsustained training, unwillingness or inability of professional experts to challenge the often-corrupt dominance of self-serving top officials and politicians, and over-riding greed and corruption.

Nuclear power is already controversial in India. Opposition has been building against the imminent construction of an Areva nuclear plant in an earthquake-risk zone in southern India. The government was also forced by opposition parties last year to buck international practice and make nuclear plant suppliers liable for accident compensation claims. Now it will be difficult for political parties to authorize construction of most nuclear plants.

This is indeed one of those moments when India can be thankful that it has a powerful, if fragmented, political democracy. As Uday Bhaskar, director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, said yesterday, "Democracies are reactive and an accident of this magnitude will raise concerns among the population about the safety of the technology."

John Elliott blogs at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com, which is carried on the Asia Sentinel site.