KUMAR SUNDARAM | 29 FEBRUARY, 2020
Namaste Nukes? Trump’s Toxic Sales Pitch for the Stalled Westinghouse Nuclear Project in India
In a rush to please the Americans, no matter the cost
The recently concluded US President’s visit to India was marked by the odious displays of pomposity for which both Modi and Trump are known to have a soft spot. Even as Delhi burned, with deadly riots engineered and unleashed by majoritarian mobs backed by the ruling party, Modi and Trump continued their photo-ops around the Taj Mahal and Gandhi Ashram.
What risks being ignored amid this deafening cacophony are crucial issues concerning the US-imported nuclear reactor project in India, to which both the media and civil society have not paid adequate attention, perhaps due to the fact that these nuclear negotiations have been in the pipeline for more than twelve years now and their mention in bilateral summits and statements appears little more than ceremonious.
However, there are additional twists to the India-US nuclear story that deserve our attention.
To recap, in 2008, in exchange for the American heavy-lifting of the decades-long nuclear embargo that India faced internationally for testing atomic weapons, a massive contract for a 6-unit nuclear power park was signed with the US nuclear giant, Westinghouse.
In a reciprocal gesture for this diplomatic favour, India announced the project without any cost-benefit calculation, safety or environmental impact analysis, and in the stark absence of dialogue, negotiations or the consent of the local communities in Kovvada, a site on India’s eastern coast in Andhra Pradesh.
Although the Indian government, in a rush to please its American counterpart, has already pushed through land acquisition in Kovvada, bulldozing grassroots dissent and even resolutions passed by democratically elected local bodies, the project has been stalled by a number of other factors, including the global decline of the nuclear industry post-Fukushima, which led Westinghouse to first sell its stakes to Toshiba and then eventually, declare itself bankrupt.
Apart from the Fukushima accident, the terminal crisis of the global nuclear industry has also been precipitated by the unprecedented growth in the efficiency and competitiveness of renewable energy sources. Even in India, solar and wind have far outpaced nuclear and are more suitable to the decentralised needs of energy in the country.
Additionally, certain other India-specific factors have stalled the nuclear power projects which corporations in the US, France and Russia have been eyeing in order to resurrect themselves.
Nuclear liability tops the list here – foreign vendors have been wary of the 2010 liability law enacted by the Indian parliament, which they view as overly restrictive, even as civil society activists and safety experts consider the legislation extremely weak.
The Indian law provides for a ‘right of recourse’ in Clause 17(b) under which, in case of a future nuclear accident, the nuclear operator can demand liability from the equipment suppliers.
The nuclear industry lobbies have found this provision to be an anathema and the US government has taken the lead in pressuring successive Indian governments to do away with it.
Governments of India under Modi and Manmohan Singh made every possible effort to undermine the country’s domestic law to facilitate the entry of foreign and private players – giving assurances that in case of an accident India’s government-owned operator would not sue the suppliers, setting up a liability insurance pool to channel compensation back to the Indian exchequer, and introducing outlandish rules under the Act that restrict liability to ‘latent and patent defects’ within a limited period.
Despite his party’s vociferous criticism of such moves by the earlier Singh-led government when in opposition, Modi’s unabashed dalliance with the US has barely remained under wraps – he and Obama jointly declared in 2015 that India would actively take steps to limit liability in the case of a nuclear accident.
However, Modi didn’t stop at that. Not only did his government ensure that the liability rules, dubbed ‘ultra vires’ and against the spirit of the law by former Solicitor-General Soli Sorabjee, entered into force in 2016, it also went on to ratify the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) – an international template promoted by the nuclear lobbies to ensure a liability-free market, thereby deliberately creating a contradiction between India’s domestic law and its international commitments. Ever since it assumed power, the Modi government has consistently undermined nuclear liability provisions meant to safeguard the interests of the Indian people.
If the recent utterances of senior officials from the US Department of Energy offer any clues, the American nuclear vendors do not want to settle for anything short of amending the original Nuclear Liability Act – “to be clear, there are still open issues around the liability issue,” the US DoE Assistant Secretary is reported to have said in a Reuters report published last week.
As the street protests by indignant survivors of Bhopal’s gas accident during Trump’s recent visit suggest, Indian citizens have had an agonising experience due to the apathy of governments and judicial processes, with the most vulnerable sections having been denied both compensation and justice in the case of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Successive governments in both the US and India have managed to ensure that concerned corporations remain unscathed and that their owners go unpunished.
Neither the routine exhortations of India-US summits being spaces for a rendezvous between two democracies, nor Modi’s much celebrated cleanliness drive, have translated into an open dialogue with the victims of the Bhopal disaster, or the detoxification of the accident site even three decades after the horrific chemical industrial accident.
For his part Donald Trump has been pushing for a massive expansion of nuclear power within and outside the US, with his administration fixated on diluting and even scrapping the regulatory and financial restraints put in place after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which in effect placed a cap on any nuclear developments for the next three decades.
Trump’s domestic energy policy and budget allocations disproportionately favour the nuclear industry, and exporting American nuclear reactors to developing countries is also a key part of this policy shift. The US under Trump has concluded nuclear deals with the UAE despite massive proliferation concerns.
Ahead of Trump’s recent visit to India, officials of the US Department of Energy were quoted as saying that they are strongly encouraging Westinghouse Corporation to ensure further progress on the nuclear projects already in the pipeline.
Another addition to the nuclear bucket list this time are the Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which the industry has been fervently pushing both within and outside the United States. While US-based corporations have individually attempted to introduce their SMR business in India in recent years, this is the first time these reactors have been formally introduced as part of the official US-India nuclear dialogue.
Globally, nuclear lobbies have promoted SMRs as an innovation that will help address the perennial problems of cost, feasibility, environmental impacts, and scalability associated with conventional large reactors.
However, as independent experts in the field suggest, SMRs are an old and discredited idea – a make-believe renaissance after the Fukushima accident thwarted dreams of building massive-sized nuclear power parks across the globe.
SMRs are neither cheap nor innovative nor green, as a number of leading experts in the field have pointed out. In particular, SMRs will be disastrous in densely populated countries like India, which already has an electricity surplus, and whose problems in the power sector owe more to its people’s lack of purchasing power, messy regulatory frameworks that do not allow it to take advantage of renewable energy sources despite their increasing efficiency and competitiveness, and the larger questions surrounding its neoliberal growth model.
India has also been desperately trying to position itself as an exporter of SMRs, and the reaffirmation of US support for India’s accession to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) “without any delay” in the joint statement is expected to boost this ambition.
However, much like the other projections made by the Indian nuclear establishment, the pipedream of India becoming a nuclear exporter reflects its postcolonial aspirations of becoming a big player internationally, rather than being grounded in any realism.
India does not have much to offer beyond the sub-300MWe capacity Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) that it mastered in the 1970s by reverse engineering the Canada-imported reactors called CANDUs. Invariably these reactors had huge cost and time overruns, and India is now building their larger versions, 700MWe each, at sites such as Gorakhpur, Chutka, and Kaiga.
The smaller designs are evidently unattractive for potential SMR buyers for reasons of cost, safety and reliability. However, simply pitching them in the foreign market will bring to India the tag of a major nuclear player, which is enough international recognition for the chest-thumping present regime.
Despite the hype that Trump’s recent visit generated – of an upgrade of US-India relations to a ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ and so on – there is very little that India stands to gain. In the absence of any new meaningful and people-centric cooperation on trade, environment, education or technology, this nuclear tango will only remain a farcical buildup at the cost of the safety and livelihoods of Indian citizens.
Not long ago, Modi’s own home state of Gujarat had rejected a US-imported nuclear project labeling it unacceptably risk-prone, especially in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident. This leaves the Modi government with no moral right to impose the US reactors on people in other parts of the country.
Kumar Sundaram is founding editor of DiaNuke.org, an international platform for nuclear-related discussions and campaigns.