Dr A Gopalakrishnan is not prone to theatrics. Neither is he an anti-nuclear activist. He, in fact, has been the chief of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board between 1993 and 1996.

During his tenure, he had raised quite a few questions and many hackles over issues of transparency, safety and due diligence in India's secretive nuclear establishment.

I have known him from the time I began writing on the Koodankulam issue in 2012. The main source of information regarding the two controversial 1,000 MW plants in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu has been, and still is, the rumour mill. Tea leaves and tarot cards are easier to decipher than the infrequent official press releases.

As a result, Gopalakrishnan is the person I turn to for clarifications on what to make of the rumours, which ones to pay attention to and which to ignore.

A few days ago, I called him to get a summary of the presentation he was to make at the State Level Convention on Nuclear Energy held in Chennai on January 30. He flatly refused. “I don't want to be misquoted. I'm typing up the key points of my talk. Wait until tomorrow, and I will have it ready for use immediately after I speak,” he said. He revealed nothing except to remind me that he is “not interested in politics."

"I am a technical man," he said. "I want to be careful.”

The suspense was worth it. In a 30-minute talk replete with anecdotes and careful reasoning, Gopalakrishnan painted a large canvas to make a case for why India's civilian nuclear programme no longer makes sense. In it, he talks about his disappointment with the current government, the dangers of making (nuclear energy) in India, the unmanageable and unresolved issues of nuclear liability, the opacity and lack of independence of the nuclear regulator and the increasingly expensive nature of the technology.

His caution and the caveats are what make his call for India to hit the pause button on its nuclear power plans all the more compelling.

Here are excerpts from Dr A Gopalakrishnan's speech in Chennai.

“I have spent the last 57 years of my life in nuclear engineering. In all these years, there has not been a single day without doing something or the other nuclear, often things that give a headache to somebody else. For the last one year, I have been watching what the new government will do. I have not written anything since I wrote the three articles expressing concerns over Koodankulam's fate.

[Read Dr A Gopalakrishnan's three articles on Koodankulam here:

  1. Resolve Koodankulam issues
  2. Address concerns on nuke plant
  3. Flaws in Koodankulam plant]

“Now, what we thought will happen is happening. I was hoping that Prime Minister Modi would steer the nuclear programme towards a healthier direction. But I was foolish. If anything, the programme that the UPA government set in motion has accelerated further.

“After the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, several countries revisited their nuclear plans. I have visited China on invitation two or three times after Fukushima. There's a lot of opposition to nuclear power even there. But that news doesn't come out because it is a different system there. India is a democracy. Everybody should be able to speak. And regardless of whether it can satisfy everybody, the Government is obliged to listen and respond.

“Germany shut down eight of 17 functioning nuclear plants immediately after Fukushima. They committed to shutting down all remaining plants by 2022, and they have a timeline for doing that. Now, somebody said something about Germany drawing electricity from France which has a large nuclear base. But we have to credit Germany for saying that at least they will not put any more money into nuclear.

“France is hell-bent on selling EPRs (European Pressurised Reactor) to India. But in May 2015, the French parliament approved a bill to reduce dependence on nuclear power from 75% to 50% by 2025. The same bill also aims to increase the proportion of renewables in France's electricity mix to 40 percent by 2030.

“Many other countries have paused [their nuclear programmes]. The cost of nuclear is rising exponentially. But we seem to act as if we have an enormous store of money. When you look at history and how we got here, we can understand. There is a commonality between UPA [the United Progressive Alliance] and this government. Both are close to companies (foreign and Indian) that want to make money.

“The trouble started with the Indo-US nuclear deal. Dr [Manmohan] Singh said he wanted to get India out of the nuclear pariah status. But that was not the real reason. There were powerful forces pushing for the deal. We know that industrialists in India and abroad and industrial federations even put their money to lobby US congress. Our own government spent money to influence the deal.

“But for all the intensity of these efforts, only a handful of people knew the real details of the deal and its justification. Even within the Atomic Energy Commission and the Cabinet, many people were in the dark. The parliament was told that they [United States] will get something out of it and we will get something. We were never told what we were giving them. It was only when US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice responded to a senate question that we found out what was in it for the US. She pointed to a letter from India's foreign secretary that promised the purchase of a minimum of 10,000MW of American reactors. She rattled off how this will generate more business and how many American jobs will be supported. This caused a temporary furore in India, because our parliament never knew. It was never told in the many times that the government was asked.

“The [former] PM appealed to the parliament that if the deal is passed, the Americans will share all nuclear technology – something unheard of since 1974 [when India first tested the nuclear bomb]. This was the carrot. India wanted transfer of technology because we are weak in two areas – Enrichment of uranium and Reprocessing of spent fuel (EnR technology). This was important for the weapons programme and for nuclear power expansion. Nobody will part with these technologies easily because of proliferation concerns. But we promised to buy their nuclear reactors, and it was written in the 123 agreement that they will release this technology.

“But we were fooled by the Americans. Within two months of signing the deal, the US went to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and said EnR technology should not be shared with nations that are not party to the Non Proliferation Treaty. India has been steadfastly anti-NPT. India had been hoodwinked. Our foreign secretary wrote a few letters. But this was the time when the UPA government was in crisis because of all the corruption scams. The US just ignored the letters.

“The present government can justifiably say that it is dealing with a fait accompli, that it is merely executing an intergovernmental agreement. But if I were looking at it from a national interest perspective, I can say this was meant to be a two-way street. I am not going to proceed with the purchase of your reactors until the matter of EnR is handled and resolved.

“I thought that this government would take that route, but industrial forces have prevailed.

The French reactors

“With France too, the same is happening. The French have not released any letters. But the French president Sarkozy and our [former] PM [Dr. Singh] had met two to three times. Some side-letters were signed by the two chiefs with the promise of French reactors. At that time, the French had just finished the paper design of the EPR reactor. We were told that this was the design for us, and we agreed.

“How can a country that prides itself in a nuclear establishment with AERB, Atomic Energy Commission and many capable people commit to a reactor that has never been built and is only on paper? There are no examples of this reactor anywhere in the world. No economic or technical assessment has been done.

“The French nuclear regulator ASN – one of the best in the world – is threatening to decline approval to the EPR design. The EPR has some insurmountable difficulties with its forgings. Even America, which has some of the best forging systems, has not been able to do it because of its complicated geometry. The indications are that the design will not pass. Meanwhile, Areva shares have plummeted, and it has been bought over by Électricité de France. Now both will collapse.

“With this kind of a cloud hanging over the reactor, how can Modi go to France and sign a deal for more reactors? Before the prime minister went to France in April [2015], the French regulator ASN wrote to AERB warning it of EPR's design deficiencies. Areva informed NPCIL [Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd]. They didn't want us to later say that they didn't warn us. I don't know if the news reached the prime minister's office, but surprisingly, the PM delegation went ahead and enhanced the deal from two to six reactors. Thankfully, actual construction is pushed to 2017 to get a final answer from the French regulator.

Make in India

“Amidst all this, this constant talk about Make in India is frightening. Nuclear [technology] is enormously costly. There is no justification in first buying it and then saying you will bring cost down by making in India. Koodankulam is a good example of all that is wrong with make in India. The entire erection and commissioning of the reactors was undertaken by NPCIL and its major local contractors.

“India has built 22 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR). We are competent in that. But PHWR and VVER [also known as WWER or Water-Water Energetic Reactors] are very different in terms of standards and methods of construction. But here Indian contractors have just gone ahead and followed the instincts they had from the experience of building PHWRs. You may be able to get the [VVER] reactors up and running, but once you get the insides radioactive, you cannot inspect or change things. They have rushed ahead to get the reactor started, and now it is not operational 80 percent of the time.

“In the long run, the Koodankulam reactor will prove to be one of the most dangerous. We don't know what parts have gone in. There is a proven case of corruption – not Indian, but by the Russians – in the sourcing of parts for the reactor.

“In Jaitapur, we are going to make in India from the first reactor onwards. The forgings are so complicated that the French have not been able to make it. But here we are talking about a joint manufacturing of forgings. If something goes wrong, who will bear the liability? In Koodankulam, we have written off all liability for the Russians. In Jaitapur, it will be in dispute.

“We have to try and press this government for a course correction. Telling them to abandon everything, including the nuclear weapons programme will not go down well. Don't club the weapons programme with this. Nuclear power by itself will cause enough problems for the Indian public.”

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. He is part of the Chennai Solidarity Group, which along with Poovulagin Nanbargal and People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy organised a day-long State Level Convention on Nuclear Energy in which Dr A Gopalakrishnan was an invited speaker.