Print edition : January 30, 1999

Allow me to congratulate your team on the comprehensive, well-balanced Cover Story "" (Frontline, January 29). However, I feel that the issue being closely linked to national security, an editorial should have found a place.

It indeed defies explanation that a Government suddenly finds the chiefs of three of its important and sensitive departments too inconvenient to handle and removes them all in a single night in a manner that smacks of arrogance. For a Government whose first brazen attempt at removing the head of the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) M.K. Bezboruah, had been frustrated by the Supreme Court, the second such attempt should not have come so soon. But, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government has not lost any opportunity to discredit itself.

Let it be clearly said of A.B. Vajpayee and his team: they have no clue about how to run a government, leave alone a coalition government. Surprisingly, they have not evinced any interest to learn from the precedents established by earlier governments. Admiral R.H. Tahiliani, former Navy Chief, commenting on the unjust dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, has said that Jagjivan Ram, Defence Minister in the Janata Government of 1977, was asked by his Prime Minister to dismiss one of the three Service chiefs, who had been outrageously vocal in his support of Indira Gandhi's Emergency measures. Jagjivan Ram politely declined, as he felt that the Government was well within its right to do so but such an action would politicise the armed forces. Bhagwat's dismissal underlines the Government's contemptuous disregard for such precedents. The matter is further compounded by Defence Minister George Fernandes who not only accuses Bhagwat of "being a security risk" but also has the temerity to suggest that the latter's summary dismissal would not have any demoralising effect on the armed forces. He fails to realise that the Chief of the Naval Staff has a unique and indispensable role in the chain of command in India's armed forces, and his dismissal, which has no precedent, has only seemed to undermine that role. Admiral Tahiliani and Admiral L.Ramdas, in their articles in The Times of India and Frontline respectively, have shown that such half-baked, flat-footed attempts at justifying a patently unjust act are not allowed to pass muster by persons who are professionally equipped to comment on matters related to defence.

Nobody disputes the principle of civil political control over the armed forces in a democracy, but the civilian bureaucracy masquerading as popular political authority has maintained its stranglehold over the armed forces for quite a long time and this is openly resented. The three Chiefs of Staff writing jointly to the Defence Minister complaining about the attitude of Ajit Kumar, former Defence Secretary, is the latest manifestation of this resentment. The Government needs to look into the matter forthwith in order to stop the crisis from growing any further.

The shoddy treatment meted out to a Navy Chief and the Government's attitude and actions in this regard raise several questions. First, if Vice-Admiral Madanjeet Singh was not acceptable to the Government, why did it not ask Bhagwat for some more names? Why was no disciplinary action taken against Harinder Singh who had made serious communal allegations against his chief? Why was he foisted on Bhagwat as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, against the express disapproval of this by the later? The Government's monumental silence on the Shiromani Akali Dal's allegations of communal bias against Bhagwat lends credence to media reports that Bhagwat has been done in by communal-minded allies of the BJP Government. Prime Minister Vajpayee certainly did not help matters by accepting the hospitality of Harinder Singh during his annual holiday in the Andaman Islands. The Bombay High Court is already seized of this matter and the Government has a prima facie case to answer.

The BJP-led Government, since its first day in office, had shown a unique penchant for creating controversies and then plunging headlong into them. Its latest action seems to suggest that this penchant has now assumed dangerous proportions. This Government does not know where to stop or to draw the line.

Diwakar Jha New Delhi Social justice

I congratulate Frontline on allotting a few pages for the cause of social justice. Hats off to Dr. K. Jayakumar for his article "A case for a fair deal" (January 29). I hope this would prompt Members of Parliament belonging to the Scheduled Castes to meet the Prime Minister and seek a solution to the problem.

K. Adenna, Ex-MLA Ongole, Andhra Pradesh Books and reviews

More than the book itself, its review by S. Varadachary ("Making of a Mahatma", January 29) is bound to inspire many more biographies on Mahatma Gandhi. The projections in the write-up on the many-faceted personality of the Mahatma are versatile and revealing.

Lt. Col. (Retd) D. Ramanathan Chennai K.S. Krishnan

I read with great interest your tribute to Dr. K.S. Krishnan ("A pioneering physicist," January 15). He was not only a great scientist, but a fine human being.

I met him first in early 1937, when I was at Oxford. At his request I took him on a tour of some of the colleges. At St. John's College, famous for its garden, the flowers were wet with dew. I said the dew must have fallen overnight. Dr. Krishnan gently corrected me: "Dew does not fall. It rises!"

C.V. Narasimhan Chennai A collector's item

The interviews with Noam Chomsky and Amartya Sen make the Frontline issue of January 15 a collector's delight. I look forward to more such coverage.

Dr. Samir Kelekar Bangalore Attack on Christians

The atrocities committed against Christians are unprecedented ("Targeting Christians", January 1). Christians' contributions to the nation are well known. Hindu fundamentalists should realise that such atrocities will never help them realise their dream of transforming this pluralistic society into a Hindu Rashtra. The days of the BJP-led coalition government are numbered. It is a pity that the Defence Minister, himself a Christian, has not uttered a single word by way of protest and condemnation. Hindu fundamentalists see a Christian conspiracy behind everything. Amartya Sen, Mother Teresa and several journalists are all painted with the same brush.

R.J. Sinha Agra India's nuclear breeders

We were pleasantly surprised by Frontline's initiative in bringing into the open a debate on India's nuclear breeders (Frontline, December 18, 1998), which followed from an article that appeared recently in the scientific journal Current Science. We share your enthusiasm for widening the readership on this issue as we believe that electric power, or the lack of it, is too important a matter to be left only to scientists and technologists or buried in the pages of learned journals.

In our article we calculated the technological viability of nuclear breeder reactors and the implications of the proposed nuclear power programme for meeting India's power needs. Our conclusion is that the nuclear breeder is not a viable option for the country in the short and medium run - at least for the coming many decades - and not, as your correspondent mentioned, a non-viable option for India (without defining any period).

Your correspondent T.S. Subramanian, when referring to a rejoinder to the original article, also published in Current Science, may have seen in that journal another note from a former senior scientist from the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), where he did not challenge the overall conclusions of our paper but discussed the breeder's viability in the long run.

THE driving force behind this work is our concern for India's poor per capita consumption of electric power, about 350 kilo watt hour a year as compared to a world average of over 2,200 kWh and to the average for China, which is approaching 1,000 kWh. China, which until a few years ago shared India's poor record, has managed to add over 15,000 mega watts (MW) of capacity annually. Our best record to date is about 5,000 MW, and the capacity increase during the Eighth Five-Year Plan was only some 17,650 MW.

If India is determined to match China's capacity of today by the year 2010, the country will have almost to triple its present installed capacity of 86,000 MW, adding over 12,000 MW annually. We need all appropriate electric power generation technologies, from wind power to nuclear power, to reach this goal. It is in this context that we examined nuclear breeders, and found them wanting.

As we were addressing what we thought was a technological problem, nuclear breeder versus thorium-plutonium thermal reactor, etc, we did not concern ourselves with the political issues that seem to be clouding the response of our friends from Kalpakkam. Issues of a nuclear test ban or fissile material cut-off will not reduce or vanish with the choice of nuclear reactors, nor will the thermodynamic efficiency of a technology be dictated by political considerations. There is a real danger in mixing the two issues.

Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) officials have questioned our conclusions, claiming that the data on which we have based our analysis are pessimistic and that the reactors today are doing far better; that past performance is no indicator of future promises; and that we have ignored the concerns about obtaining uranium from outside. These are serious questions that deserve detailed answers. While technical issues will be discussed separately in a scientific journal, there are relevant issues that are of a more general nature.

First, we address our choice of plant load factors (PLF), which we believe to be a constraint on breeding fissile material. The Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) is quick to point out that recent load factors from operating nuclear reactors have shown significant improvement and that we have been too conservative in our estimates. Our parametric analysis extends to a 70 per cent plant load factor (lifetime), which is right in the ballpark for worldwide lifetime load factors, not those of a given year.

Of course, some years (and some plants) will have higher load factors. A less appreciated fact is that the DAE's improved load factors for nuclear power are also a function of their derated (lowered) capacities (such as for the Tarapur, Rajasthan and Madras Atomic Power Stations). It would be interesting to calculate what the lifetime load factors would be if we take into account the original gross capacities (which were between 220 and 235 MWe).

A serious policy analysis should not ignore the fact that Indian-designed reactors (PHWRs) have lower load factors than light water reactors, or that Indian lifetime load factors have been much lower than those in the rest of the world. There are various reasons for this, including many outside the purview of the DAE, such as poor grid frequency and stability. There is also the issue of load factors from breeder reactors. As this technology has not been commercialised anywhere in the world, it would be premature to project very high load factors for such reactors.

The largest fast breeder reactor, the 1,200 MWe Superphoenix I in France (it has since ceased to be a breeder, but become a mere neutron generator), has a very low lifetime load factor, of around 3 per cent. The lifetime PLF of our own fast breeder test reactor is modest, to say the least. We understand that Europe has now abandoned its breeder programme, and even Japan, a country with much greater energy import dependence and a high share of nuclear power, is shelving its proposed breeder programme for now. This is not because of a scarcity of plutonium - Japan has been stockpiling plutonium for years - or any embargoes.

Much as we all would desire, it will be difficult for the DAE to accelerate rapidly its speed of construction to that in France or Japan in the heyday of nuclear power. It appears that the scope of construction is limited not simply by the electrical capacity under construction but also by the number of plants constructed simultaneoulsy. Here, the DAE's reactors compete poorly on both counts.

While other countries have been building reactors of and over 1,000 MWe (net), the DAE is yet to build any nuclear power reactor above 235 MWe gross capacity. While Tarapur 3 and 4, the construction of which began recently, are of 500 MWe, these are the first of a kind. The only additional capacity before Tarapur 3 and 4, which are at least seven or eight years away, will be of 880 MWe size (Kaiga 3 to 6). If we include the pair of proposed imported Russian light water reactors of 1,000 MWe capacity each in our calculations, we will have at most only about 7,500 MWe of nuclear power in India by 2010. By this time, based on the Central Electricity Authority's National Power Plans, the overall installed capacity in the country should be over 200,000 MWe, raising the percentage contribution of nuclear power from today's 2 per cent to 3.75 per cent (mainly due to imported reactors).

WHILE we have briefly indicated some of the problems nuclear power faces in India, our published analysis focussed on breeder reactors and the long time necessary for breeding fissile material. We have not included in our analysis the time required for the perfection of all the facets of the breeder fuel cycle. Breeder reactor technology is itself some way away from cost-competitive commercialisation (compared not only to fossil fuel generation but even to heavy water reactors) and the breeding rate is unlikely to be rapid enough for speedy deployment of breeder reactors. No wonder scientists at Kalpakkam talk about breeder power for the coming four centuries! Viewed this way, the scope of our analysis is limited and modest - for the coming 50 or 100 years.

In the history of energy, a hundred years is a very long time, especially when we remember that during the previous century blubber from whales was a major source of energy for illumination. We therefore remain optimistic that many new technologies would emerge and become competitive in the intervening years. Natural gas-based power has become very attractive in recent years, with its efficiency showing a continued and healthy improvement to over 55 per cent, and investments becoming very competitive.

In addition to this already proven technology, sea-bed mining of methyl hydrates is being intensely studied, as is coal-bed methane. Even the costly solar cell, often considered unaffordable, has risen in its efficiency to almost 20 per cent and India is progressing well in its use of windpower. Biomass-produced electricity may provide an autonomous and cost-effective option to Indian villages. This becomes all the more relevant when we realise that agriculture needs over 30 per cent of today' production and that the penetration of electric power to village households is a meagre 30 per cent. We believe that in the coming years we may have a number of power supply technology options, and if breeder reactors are to stand and be counted they will have to show some improvements in their technological capability and cost-competitiveness, which are not visible today.

If nuclear power is to play an increased role, we suggested the option of increased use of heavy water reactors and light water reactors operating with imported uranium, as India has limited domestic reserves of uranium. We believe that Dr. Placid Rodriguez and Dr. S.M. Lee are unduly pessimistic about the denial of supply of uranium to India. Embargoes against a country of over 900 million - with its inherent scientific, economic and social strengths - are bound to fail sooner than we tend to think.

India, a responsible nation in the world, is as entitled to a share of global natural resources as any other country is. In its negotiations India must pursue that goal objectively. In this connection, the DAE's policy record is laudable. It has signed agreements with Russia, in spite of objections from the United States, to build nuclear power stations in South India, and is running the Tarapur nuclear power stations for the past many years with uranium from China, a country with which it has continuing political differences. We are confident that the Indian polity is mature and robust enough to overcome these temporary difficulties.

NOW, about the harshness of the tone of our paper. We are plainly surprised. Before submitting this paper to Current Science, we solicited comments from a number of scientists and policymakers, including defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam and nuclear scientist Nagaratnam. While they had many comments to offer, they did not mention harshness in presentation. Nor did the anonymous referees of Current Science. Noted sociologist Robert Merton, while talking of scientific enterprise, attributes a few characteristics such as disinterestedness and organised scepticism in the pursuit of science.

Scientific writings written in the passive voice and in the third person often reflect these charactertics. The language is terse and the style is impersonal and cold. Taken together with the results of our analysis, it might have given a feeling of harshness. This was not the intent of the authors. Specially, when one of them had the privilege of working in the atomic energy establishment for over a decade and had the pleasure of collaborating for a number of years with the director of the IGCAR, one of the authors of the rejoinder.

V.S. Arunachalam Rahul Tongia Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania, U.S.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor