Sunday 15 February 2009
History of Indian Science and Technology
Conversation with D P Agrawal
Dharma Pal Agrawal is a distinguished scientist. During his tenure at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research(TIFR), Mumbai, and Physical Research Laboratory(PRL), Ahmedabad he made outstanding contributions to using scientific techniques like radio carbon dating and thermo luminiscence to fixing the age of archeological artifacts. In fact he brought in a flavour of hard science to Indian archeology. He has also been deeply committed to reconstructing the history of Indian science and technology, which has been ignored by eurocentric historians. Shivanand Kanavi met him at Almora, where Agrawal currently leads Lok Vigyan Kendra to carry out research into the past as well as train a future generation of enquirers.
Shivanand: Dr Agrawal welcome to Peepul ke Neeche. To start with I would like to ask you about one of your current preoccupations with the History of Indian Science and Technology. How did this love or almost an obsession start?
D P Agrawal: In fact, my fascination with primitive technologies goes back about thirty years. I was working on ancient metal technologies of the Harappans, the Chalcolithic cultures and even before that I was working on Stone Age flaking of tools. For example, taking out long stone blades starts from the Upper Paleolithic times (older than 100,000 years). This continued up to the Harappan times. He produced up to six inch long blades, sharp as a razor. You can even shave with them! For a lot of tasks these stone tools were used as arrows, knives, spears, even harrows for digging the earth. So it seems to me that the story starts there.
The Harappans were using quite a bit of copper. In fact, if you compare them with other copper-bronze age cultures in India, they had the most abundant copper. Pure copper is soft. So you cannot use it as a knife. You can hammer it and anneal it, but after a few hammerings it becomes brittle. So they must have combined some minerals bearing arsenic and tin with those bearing copper and the result was bronze. Now we know if we mix 1-5% arsenic with copper it imparts hardness, also some ductility. Later on they also found that if you add a little bit of lead then you would improve its fusibility. So I started looking at these things when I was at TIFR. We found that the Harappans were using tin alloys, arsenic alloys, adding lead to improve fusibility for casting.
Later on I got interested in how climate changed over the last few million years and we carried out a big project in Kashmir which was a huge lake. So the sediments are there like pages of the book. You can keep turning and you can go back 4 million years. It took us ten years. We wanted to continue but we started getting threats from terrorists, so we had to quit.
Why did they see you as a threat?
It was peculiar. Since we were working with the Department of Atomic Energy for logistical reasons, they said ‘you are making atom bombs to kill us, so we will kill you’. But the people there were extremely friendly and even today if we go there we must meet those families. If they know that you had come but did not meet them, they will be very angry.
I always wanted to document and publish the history of science and technology in India and we were conscious of monumental series on Chinese Science and Civilisation by Joseph Needham. That earned a place in the sun for China’s science otherwise the west never recognized the oriental sciences. But as far as India was concerned the British always denigrated Indian science, technology, its heritage. They claimed that they came here to civilize us. But we had the Indus civilization in the third millennium BC when they were barbarians! I thought that we should publish a series of books bringing out the material evidence about science and technology in India, because if we use literary sources there can be interpretations of all kinds.
Dating the Indian records is a problem.
Yes. Even the measurement of angula is a problem. There are many versions of it. Luckily we have some actual scales in the Harappan sites and we can measure the divisions. In the first stage we wanted to base ourselves on the material evidence, archeological evidence, actual artifacts etc. That is how we started on copper technology, on Harappan architecture, on zinc or iron and so on. Now we have 16 volumes commissioned. Some more will be commissioned.
How did your association with Rajiv Malhotra and Infinity Foundation start?
It was a chance meeting. I used to go to a round table meeting at Harvard University. In the guest house I was staying Rajiv was also there but I did not know him and I thought he was another professor. The round table was mostly about linguistics, archeology, genetics etc of South Asia and West Asia. When I suggested to Rajiv Malhotra that we should have a series like Joseph Needham’s, he liked the idea. Then only he told me that they have a foundation and that they are funding some projects etc. He asked me to produce a 10 page proposal on which we would work. After that the whole thing started.
What are the problems in researching in this area and where have we made positive achievements in recording it?
I would like to see a balanced global history of science and technology so that we can recognize the contributions of different countries, be it China, France, India or England. Dharampal, the Gandhian, showed that up to the 18th century we had a lot of technologies. We could do plastic surgery; make ice, produce high quality steel, textiles and so on. Of course, we could not only produce Taj Mahal but also complex irrigation systems of Shringverpur (near Allahabad).
Then we also found Zawar mines in Rajasthan with huge retorts and commercial scale pure zinc production. Gradually we also noticed that in the Indus valley, they developed hydraulics, engineering and metrology but nobody talked about these things. So we said it is time somebody looked into these things and produced individual histories of these technologies like zinc, copper, iron, architecture, civil engineering etc. Then we realised that not only copper but right up to the 18th century we were producing steel of very high quality. British used to import it and used it in some very important bridges which Vibha Tripathi has mentioned in her book on iron technology. They were making high quality razors using Indian steel in Sheffield. Local people of Kumaun told me that in Lohaghat they used to make stainless steel kadhais. In Karnatak and Andhra regions they were producing special types of steel. It became so famous that it was traded globally and one of the mandis was Damascus. It was of such high quality that when Alexander came here in 4th century BCE, he was presented with 100 talents of steel (talent= 34.3 Kg). It was considered so precious. Then there are records that Persian kings Darius, Xerxes etc up to 6th century BCE used to import Indian iron for making swords etc. So it had already achieved so much fame.
The other curious thing is that though in the folk legends or in our historical writing we do not find any reference to the Indus civilization, but if you go by the technological traditions then you can trace everything from the Harappan substratum. The angula (unit of measurement) for example or the hexadecimal system (1 rupee is 16 annas), ser and chhatak (measure of grain), 16 mutthis to a nali (measure of land) all this goes back to the Harappan times. Now Dr Balasubramaniam has shown that it continues right up to the historical times. The iron pillar of Delhi he has shown that the same system of measurements was used.
Even our water ablutions for example can be traced back to Harappan times. Sindoor and even the toiletry assemblage of a tooth pick, an ear cleaner and a tweezer, can be found in the Harappan sites. In Kaliabangan, Rajasthan for example they used parallel furrows in the fields. On one side they grew peas and gram on the other side mustard. Mustard is the bigger plant and it should not throw its shadow over the peas. So they grew it in such a manner that peas throw the shadow over mustard and not the other way around. This way you can grow two crops. That continues till today. If you see even present day houses in that area in the mud flooring they had put burnt terracotta balls and charcoal. When we asked the engineers there they said it does not allow termites to enter the house and it does not allow moisture. This again is a technology that goes back to Harappan times. The Harappan houses had a square shape with rooms all around with an open shaft, the air conditioning people told us that this ensures air circulation that keeps the house cool. We knew how to fight the hot weather. The main entrance to the house is in the narrow lane and the wider side of the street is closed. If you go to the lanes of Benares, even in June they are cool. The lanes are too narrow so the sun cannot beat down and there is always some wind blowing. In Rajasthan again they never use a plain wall; they break it with some stone work. If there is a flat surface you absorb a lot of heat so you break it. These are devices which Indians used to deal with the weather. All this comes right from the Harappan times.
Harappan mystery, how this great culture flourished? We have material remains of their culture but what were their thoughts, what was their state? At the same time we have this heritage of Vedic literature. Some have found similarities between the two and some have argued against it. What is your view on that?
I would not claim expertise in ancient Sanskrit, but from whatever translations we have been reading about the Vedic society, it seems to have been a pastoral type. It is mainly rural and not an urban society at all which comes out loud and clear. It is dominated by priests, who had large pieces of land to sustain a large number of cattle etc. They also had a very important place for the horse, which is totally missing in the Harappan culture. If you go into their religion, the Vedic gods are all natural gods, like agni, vayu, marut etc which seems very animistic. Whereas the Harappan religion is iconic; one can see proto-Siva, Pashupati as the preserver of animals, Yogeshwar Siva is shown in a yogic pose. Then one has Mahishasur Mardini, worship of banyan tree, peepul tree etc. The basic substratum of Indian society, be it religious, cultural, technological, architectural etc can be traced back to the Harappan civilization. So it seems the Aryan phase is a bit intrusive in our history. It comes and then becomes the dominant culture, the priests, Brahmanas etc. Later on it becomes fashionable to trace your ancestry to Aryans . I will give an example from Kumaon. Here all the powerful gods are local. You can see Golu Devata, Nanda, even Badrinath, these are not Aryan Brahmanical gods. When Shankaracharya came here they incorporated them into the Brahmanical system. The local goddess Nanda became the consort of Shiva (Parvati). Tribal, primitive gods were incorporated into the Hindu pantheon of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh or their consorts. The same thing happens in the case of the Harappan gods. Later on they have been incorporated in some form into Brahmanism. In the tablets and seals you can see them. Even actual replica of Shivaling has been found in Kaliabangan. Most of the beliefs that we have in fertility goddesses etc go back to the Harappans. In between an interlude comes which breaks the tradition of urban civilization. We forgot the making of wells, cities etc. Around 18th-19th century BCE this starts happening. Something happens which breaks the tradition and a new one starts and sooner or later it merges with the old.
You have proposed that just as we had northwestern influences, we had north eastern ones also.
Yes. We have not gone into it deeper. Dr Vasudha Pant is working on history of plant domestication. Recent excavations carried out by Allahabad University and the Dept of Archeology, UP, at various sites yielded iron from 1500 BCE. Either we had independent development of rice or it had something to do with the Chinese.
What do you see as important challenges before Indian archeologists and historians, where further work is required, where gaps are?
If you take the archeological scene there is the peak of Harappan civilization and then something happens around 1900 BC and no more cities. People forget many things; whether there was a major climatic change or new people came is not certain. But you cannot decimate people, they move; the culture transforms. The transformation of Harappan culture into later cultures needs to be investigated. We have to excavate more sites in the western part of the Ganga valley, Haryana etc. Now Prof Osada of Kyoto and Prof Shinde of Deccan College are doing some work in Haryana and are finding sites which show transition of cultures. Eastern Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, would be very interesting.
What about Central, Eastern and Southern India?
Deccan College, Jeewan Kharakwal of Udaipur, Osada of Kyoto these are some of the groups working there.
1900 BC to 600 BCE is one gap which needs to be filled.
That is right. The second urbanization comes around 6th century BCE, the first goes back to third millennium BC and the degeneration starts around 18th-19th C BCE. So what happened in between? The other important area is peninsular India. We have very good sites of Stone Age there. We have very good examples of Neolithic culture there.
What period does Neolithic signify?
When we talk about the Stone Age it could be as far back as I million years ago. We have extensive Stone Age artifacts there. But the Neolithic will be more like third millennium BCE when they were using ground stone axes, beginning of agriculture and domestication of animals. Then we find megalithic cultures which probably starts around 1000 BCE.
What are the characteristics of megalithic cultures?
Mega means big, lithos means stone. Huge stones they have used for burials. They also put a lot of iron artifacts in the burials. Dating is a little controversial. Earlier it was thought that it could be 3rd C BCE. But some of the thermo luminescence dates are going back to 1200 BCE. But iron there is about 700-800 BC. There is a lot of iron in each grave.
Which are the important sites of megaliths in the peninsular India?
Brahmagiri, Tadakanhalli and in fact all over the south with different types of megaliths in different regions. In Kerala they have dolmens. But a society which produced so much iron, must be an urbanized society. Must have produced a lot of agricultural surplus, but where are those sites? Megaliths are so spectacular and give such rich yield in terms of artifacts that you go after them and do not go into the habitation sites. What sort of people generated these megaliths? What sort of society was there has to be investigated. Also what is the history of agriculture itself in the South? At the moment you have three broad divisions; North-wheat and barley, East-rice, South-millets. But what was the relationship of south with Africa with which it had sea borne trade, contacts.
In the south there are lots of challenging problems which we need to investigate especially the changes in the settlement patterns, even history of technology.
And their maritime contacts....
Yes their maritime contacts which go back to pre-historic times. From Roman times we have quite a bit of evidence. My feeling is that this period studies are not getting the amount of attention they deserve so there are still those blanks.
And also northeast and eastern part of the country ...
In Assam some work was done by T C Sharma and A K Sharma. Problem there is the high rainfall and most of the sites are covered by forests and vegetation and difficult to dig. Conditions have always been disturbed there. That makes it dangerous for people from outside to work there.
Your training was in Chemistry. How and when did you turn to archeology?
I went into radiocarbon dating which was nuclear chemistry. When Willard Libby invented radiocarbon dating (he was awarded Nobel Prize for it) in the mid fifties. Nehru was very conscious of it and with his close relationship with Bhabha he said there is so much confusion about Indian chronology why not use this new method. So Bhabha took up the challenge and under the leadership of Prof D Lal a group was established. Lal went abroad and worked with Libby and we at TIFR were one of the earliest labs in the world. We went around different sites, collected samples, learnt about contamination. It was a very educative experience. We also developed the thermo-luminescence dating technique, in which my colleague Ashok Singhvi played a major role.
A couple of questions before we end this conversation today. All of us have been taught in school that there was an Aryan invasion, what is the archeological evidence for that? Second, what were the causes of decline of Harappan civilization?
The first is very controversial. What we know about Aryans is through literature and that also through the oral tradition. Equating that with archeological evidence is very difficult. Evidence after 1800 BC is clear that there is a cultural break. There are no more cities. Only village settlements. There is a degeneration, which could mean some new people came, perhaps Aryans. But there is no clear evidence in the Harappan towns that there was a major invasion . So if they came they came, in waves and somehow subjugated the natives. In the case of culture also there is birth, growth decay and death. This applies to Harappan culture also. We cannot say that Harappans were decimated. So some transformation took place. May be there was climatic change also and they moved to eastwards where there was more rainfall. But they could not adapt to monsoon ecology and hence decayed. It could be a combination.
You were also associated with Prof Yash Pal in writing the first paper on the lost river Saraswati, based on Landsat imagery. Can we say now that the Ghaggar system was the Saraswati mentioned in the Vedas?
We found that the Ghaggar dies somewhere near the coast. It is no longer a perennial river. Moreover in this area there were some tectonic disturbances which changed the direction and flow of the rivers. For example the Satluj which was a major tributary of the Ghaggar system was pirated by the Indus. Similarly paleoYamuna went into Ganga valley. So the Ghaggar died. .
The identification with Saraswati, how satisfactory is that?
That is more literary but the area they describe and the traditions associated with the Ghaggar seem to identify it with the Vedic Saraswati. However some want to identify the Harappans with the Saraswati only. They started calling it the Saraswati civilization. That is not right. Pakistan is a creation of the British so we cannot give away the Indus civilization because of that.
There is also a mirror reflection in Pakistan, which identifies the culture with West Asia rather than India.
Yes. Some people there even call it Moenjodaro because they think Mohenjodaro might identify it with Krishna and some people here say it is Saraswati civilization and not Indus. I do not understand the logic of both. The beginning of Indus civilization is in fact in Baluchistan in Mehargarh. How can you deny that?
We can only hope that if the relations between India and Pakistan improve then we could also have joint teams exploring archeology.
Yes I have also been mooting that idea. What is important for us is that the great Harappans are undeniably our ancestors. They are the first civilized people in this subcontinent. Now why do you worry whether they were Aryans, non-Aryans, Dravidians etc. Let us study them thoroughly and how they merged with later streams of Indian civilization. These are important issues and not any body’s political agenda.
(This interview appeared in Ghadar Jari Hai--The Revolt Continues, Vol II, No. 4, Oct-Dec 2008, see www.ghadar.in )
Friday 13 February 2009
(An article on Nuclear Power in Knowledge@Wharton which has my quotes....)
New Energy: Nuclear Deals Mushroom in India
Published: February 12, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton
On February 2, India signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) allowing United Nations oversight of 14 of its 22 civilian reactors by 2014. Considering the amount of brouhaha the original Indo-U.S. nuclear deal had caused -- it nearly brought down the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi -- the response was low key. "This ends 34 years of nuclear apartheid," said All India Radio. Very few people noticed.
Recent months have, however, seen a lot of action on the nuclear front. On January 26, at India's Republic Day function, the chief guest was Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Central Asian Kazakhstan, one of the independent republics of the former Soviet Union, has never been particularly high on India's radar, so the president's pride of place at the ceremonies caused some surprise. The explanation came a couple of days later when, at a press conference in Kazakh capital Almaty, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, president of Kazatomprom, the state-owned nuclear holding company, said that new Indian atomic power plants would use Kazakh uranium as fuel.
Nazarbayev's team is only one of a series of delegations that have been visiting India to seal nuclear deals. They cover a wide range both in terms of countries and offerings, from raw materials to equipment and fabrication skills. A couple of days after the IAEA deal, nuclear giant Areva of France signed an agreement with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) to provide India with six new-generation reactors. "This is just the beginning," says Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission. "The deal is worth US$12.3 billion," adds NPCIL chairman and managing director S.K. Jain.
January was a hectic month. An 18-member delegation from the UK, headed by Lord Peter Mandelson, the British secretary of state for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, arrived in Delhi with executives of companies such as Rolls Royce, Urenco Enrichment, Thompson Valves and Weir Power. A Canadian delegation also visited India, led by minister of international trade Stockwell Day; it included representatives from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), uranium supplier Cameco and SNC-Lavalin, a nuclear engineering firm. "Canadian companies are well positioned to capitalize on opportunities and to work with their Indian counterparts to meet the needs of India's civilian nuclear market," says Day. "India is very enthusiastic about using Canadian technology and resources to help build [its] nuclear energy capacity." Earlier, there had been visits from French, Japanese and Russian teams as well.
But stealing the thunder both in size and significance has been the U.S. commercial nuclear mission (which was to have visited India in December 2008, but was delayed because of the Mumbai terrorist attacks). It arrived in the country with 60 senior executives of 30 nuclear power companies. The delegation spoke to an array of Indian companies, including Tata Power, Heavy Engineering Corporation, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and Punj Lloyd. "The robust presence here of the U.S. commercial nuclear industry, so soon after the unfortunate events in Mumbai, speaks of the commitment of our companies to partner with India in the coming nuclear renaissance," says Ted Jones, director for policy advocacy at the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC). According to USIBC projections, Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation could add up to US$150 billion over the next 30 years.
India can maximize its opportunity by getting some of the world's leading uranium suppliers or nuclear plant construction firms to compete with one another to offer the best terms, notes Jitendra Singh, a Wharton professor of management. "The opportunity is large, so I suspect this will happen," he says. The current economic slowdown could present India with an opportunity to negotiate long-term contracts at favorable prices and conditions to further its civilian nuclear program, according to Singh.
Some deals are in place. "We will develop long-term relationships and partnerships with industrial companies, design firms and academic institutions," Meena Mutyala, vice president of Westinghouse Electric Company told The Hindu, a national daily. The newspaper also quotes Brandon Bethards, CEO of Babcock & Wilcox Company: "We have world-class nuclear component manufacturing facilities and a strong commitment to safety, quality and performance. We recognize these are key tenets of India's nuclear programs and look forward to working with India as they begin to add more nuclear generation."
While NPCIL has taken the lead among public sector companies, L&T is racing ahead of its peers in the private sector. "L&T has signed an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with Westinghouse of the U.S. for work involving EPC (engineering, procurement, construction), manufacturing and construction activities for the AP1000 modular nuclear reactors which they intend to offer for Indian requirements," says M.V. Kotwal, L&T's senior executive vice president. "L&T has also signed an MoU with AECL of Canada. This covers the development of the Candu ACR 1000 heavy-water moderated reactor for the Indian market. Our company has been involved in discussions with other major players such as GE, Areva and Rosatom, which are likely to offer light-water reactors for the Indian nuclear program. This is because we are a potential participant covering project management, engineering, manufacturing and construction for any of the designs of nuclear reactors and can also play a cost-effective role in supplying critical nuclear equipment for projects outside India."
Kotwal says that exports are a distinct possibility. "One of the mandatory requirements for a company before it can export nuclear equipment is to have an 'N' (nuclear) stamp accreditation," he explains. "L&T is the only company in India to have been assessed and awarded both the 'N' as well as the 'NPT' (national pipe thread) stamps by ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), covering design as well as manufacture. L&T can therefore supply equipment to other countries as well."
Other companies are also seeking collaborations with foreign firms, though specific agreements have not yet been announced. "HCC (Hindustan Construction Company) is well engaged in the recent development of the nuclear power industry in India," says Vinayak Deshpande, the company's president and chief operating officer. "Having built more than 50% of India's nuclear power capacity, HCC has been a market leader in the space of civil and structural works required for containment building and other auxiliaries. As the trade is likely to expand multifold, within and outside the country, HCC has been seeking domestic and international opportunities in partnership with global players recently seen visiting India. HCC, with its strong engineering background, will also seek active participation in domain specific engineering, testing and certification areas."
Analysts have already started to identify Indian companies that could benefit from this nuclear summer of cooperation. Fenil Maru, an equity advisor at ICICI, has a laundry list that includes L&T; HCC; the public sector Bharat Heavy Engineering ("It is looking for a tie-up and has been in talks with Alstom, GE Energy, Russia's Leningrad Metal Factory and Siemens"); the public sector National Thermal Power Corporation ("It is setting up a 2,000 MW nuclear plant" to be operational by 2012-2013); Areva Transmission & Distribution, a subsidiary of Areva of France ("It is looking at a plant for uranium mining and recycling"); Alstom Projects ("The company already makes nuclear reactors and rotors"); Rolta ("The Rolta-Stone & Webster joint venture provides reactor-building technology"); Gammon ("It has undertaken turnkey construction for nuclear projects"); ABB ("It makes components for power projects"); Anil Ambani's Reliance ADAG ("It plans to invest an additional US$2.4 billion in nuclear power capacity); Crompton Greaves; Walchandnagar Industries; Siemens; and Tata Power. As is evident from this list, several multinationals already have a presence in the country through subsidiaries, which they are likely to leverage.
How large can the nuclear power business become? Today, nuclear power constitutes just 4,100 MW or 3% of the country's energy needs. According to NPCIL's Jain, by 2032, India will have to increase this to 63000 MW, at a bare minimum. This translates to 40 new reactors worth US$80 billion.
"It is premature to provide specific numbers as details of the work involved cannot be discussed with any of the foreign companies pending clearances from their respective governments," says Kotwal of L&T. "An approximate assessment of the business potential available for Indian industry could be on the order of US$1.5 billion to US$2 billion a year after a couple of years." The USIBC is more optimistic with its expectation of US$5 billion a year.
Even more optimistic is an L&T white paper, which takes a broader view. "The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal will open two-way cooperation between India and the U.S. on key technologies in the areas of defense, nuclear energy, aerospace and aviation," says the paper. "This is a business mega-opportunity of more than US$200 billion."
It could reach that level if everything goes right, but chances are that plans may hit a speed-bump. The first problem is political. General elections are due in India, and a new government will be voted into office by the summer. Analysts predict that this is likely to be a coalition government supported by left-wing parties. They could jam the works since they have vowed to rework the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. Even the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- which could have a shot at forming the government -- vehemently opposed the deal when it was discussed in Parliament.
Singh says he is "puzzled by the Indian left-wing political parties." Describing their ideologies as "intellectually bankrupt," he says the best outcome would be if in the upcoming elections, the winner gets a clear majority, "so that it is possible to avoid the dysfunctional dynamics of coalition formation between partners who do not see eye to eye on many issues."
Several critics believe that future opposition to the nuclear treaty will be ineffective. "I do not think any new regime in India or the U.S. would go back on the deal," says Shivanand Kanavi, who is writing a book on India's nuclear program and is the author of Sand to Silicon, a book on the digital revolution. "Basically, the Indo-U.S. deal was the key that was necessary to open doors globally for nuclear trade with India. The bilateral deals that have been signed with France, the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan have proven that. The Left had objections to the deal with the U.S. but later claimed it had no problems with deals with other countries. Since then, not much has been heard from them on the subject. I do not see any post-election problem if a coalition involving the Left comes to power. The BJP had claimed that it would renegotiate the deal. But it, too, has not said much on the subject recently."
"I do not feel a reversal is likely," says Kotwal of L&T. Adds Vasant Natarajan, professor in the department of physics at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc): "The current climate seems to be that being part of this nuclear clique is somehow strategic for India and I don't see any Indian government having a fundamentally different outlook. As a policy of course one can always reverse it, but once we sign some agreement to buy a reactor we can't go back on it."
No Silver Bullet
The second issue is that the nuclear deal is not an instant solution that will immediately increase energy supply. According to Kanavi, "The Areva agreement is just the beginning of a new project. The site has been identified as Jaitapur near Ratnagiri, on the coast of Maharashtra, but the size of the reactor, the price and the subcontracts to be outsourced to Indian companies have to be worked out. Areva has a proven design for the 1,000 MW pressurized water reactor. However, it is also touting a new 1,600 MW design. Which one NPCIL will finally choose remains to be seen. There are pros and cons for both options."
Kanavi notes that GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse are still a long way from signing any reactor supply agreements. "The reasons are twofold," he explains. "Areva and Rosatom [of Russia, which has just signed a deal for fuel supplies] are backed by sovereign guarantees on lifetime fuel supplies as well as indemnity. The U.S. companies being privately owned do not enjoy that luxury. Moreover, the 123 agreement between India and the U.S. does not give India pre-consent for reprocessing. Thus there is still work to be done by both the governments for U.S. companies to become serious players."
On another front -- raw materials -- the picture is clearer. "With the sanctions being lifted, there are enough low enriched uranium (LEU) suppliers for power projects," says Kanavi. "In fact, this embarrassment of riches is driving the department of Atomic Energy to think innovatively about using LEU in its pressurized heavy-water reactors, thereby achieving a high burn rate and greater power. On the whole, the worldwide downturn might give India a great opportunity to be tough negotiators for both uranium supplies as well as reactors. In the drive for job creation, we might get some very attractive financing options as well."
Whatever the immediate attractions, the opposition to nuclear power is not going to go away overnight. True, even the Leftists have seen a new light. For all the public criticism, the Left government in West Bengal, which has been ruled by the Communists for more than 30 years, wants a nuclear unit in the state. But others view nuclear energy with suspicion.
"I am not in favor of nuclear energy because it is expensive, and it also does not make a lot of sense for a country like India which does not have a large supply of uranium and other inputs," says Natarajan of IISc. "We will always be beholden to the suppliers. If they decide to turn off the tap one day, for whatever reason -- political or economic -- we will be stuck. Every country is going to look after its own interests. If the U.S. has any strategic interest in this region, it is because they want to ensure their supply of oil from the Middle East or have a counterbalance to China. Any time that India does not agree with the U.S., they will just turn off the tap. In the nuclear supply group, every country in a sense is a U.S. ally. I don't see any country which will be willing to counterbalance U.S. interests and take India's side through thick and thin. In fact, signing the Indo-U.S. deal is almost like signing a worldwide deal because everyone will toe the U.S. line."
Singh argues that it is "overly simplistic" to describe nuclear power as being expensive. "A different way of asking this question would be to factor in the total costs of thermal power from coal, for instance, by including the costs of its environmental impact," he says. "I am confident that such a calculation will show nuclear power in a much better light." Singh further asks if India isn't "already beholden to the oil-exporting nations. The imagined alternative is a false, autarchic fantasy which has little place in today's world. Would such critics rather see India go the way of Cuba, Angola or North Korea?"
The argument that the U.S. supports India's civilian nuclear program because it wants a counterbalance to China is also misguided, according to Singh. "Why is it in India's interest to look this gift horse in the mouth? In today's geopolitical reality, with only one superpower in the world, it is in India's interests to constructively engage with the U.S. across as many fronts as make sense," even as it protects its own strategic interests. Singh favors nuclear energy also because he believes India doesn't have the option to build thermal, coal-fired power plants to cover its power deficit in the next few decades. Also, the environmental costs could be "staggering," he says.
Big Business or Bust
Natarajan is skeptical for other reasons, too. "I don't see it as a big business opportunity for Indian companies because we do not have an indigenous supply of raw material," he says. "India is not a big producer of uranium and that is why our main investment is around thorium, which is available in plenty in India. That is important from a long-term view. If we can develop this [thorium] cycle or something which gives us an indigenous supply of raw material, there may be a business opportunity. But as things stand now, Indian companies can at best be collaborators and do marketing. This will be like any activity where one is a local agent. I won't call it a big business opportunity." (Thorium is not being ignored, however. Infrastructure company Punj Lloyd and the U.S.-based Thorium Power signed an MoU in December to form a 50:50 joint venture to explore commercial nuclear power opportunities. The proposed investment is US$1 billion.)
India's nuclear summer is only part of a global mosaic. With crude prices shooting through the roof last year -- they have come down now -- the nuclear option is being reviewed. "Increasing global consensus is in favor of setting up nuclear power plants for energy needs, especially in view of ever-rising oil and gas prices, depletion of oil reserves, the global warming caused by traditional thermal power plants and demonstration of safe and reliable performance of nuclear plants in the past two decades," says the L&T white paper.
"There are reasons to believe that there will be a nuclear renaissance in the next couple of decades," says Kanavi. "Global warming and carbon concerns have encouraged positive attitudes regarding nuclear power. The large reactor manufacturers have started investing in manufacturing capacity once again. The Bush administration had announced certain incentives for nuclear power. Accordingly, there are 20 proposals in the U.S. However, the Obama administration's policy is yet to be spelled out. The technology has evolved incrementally in the interim. No radical new design has come up due to the slowdown after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl."
Mumbai-based business magazine Business India points out that the financial motive has been a key factor in the slowdown in nuclear energy activity. "As many as 103 nuclear power plants were built across the U.S. between 1963 and 1973, after which no new ones have been erected," says the magazine. "Grossly overbuilt on expectations of runaway energy requirements, nuclear power became uneconomical when this did not materialize, especially because of uncertain licensing procedures for investments. In the UK, too, the last nuclear power station to have been built was Sizewell B in Suffolk, erected between 1988 and 1995. But the Gordon Brown regime decided to end this 20-year hiatus by approving a new generation of reactors to help balance high carbon generating power systems. Ten nuclear stations are likely to be built, at a cost of US$2.4 billion each."
"The attitudinal change that is happening even in Europe towards nuclear power is evident from the recent decision by Sweden to order two large reactors," says Kanavi. "Sweden is one of the most environmentally conscious countries and, in a referendum, had totally ruled out nuclear power decades ago."
China has also increased its nuclear generation targets. It currently has 11 civilian reactors with a capacity of 8.6 gigawatts (GW). The earlier plan was to bolster this by 2GW a year to reach 40GW by 2020. In March 2008, the State Energy Bureau raised the number to 50GW. In June, the China Electrical Council projected a target of 60GW. More recently, the National Energy Administration has been talking about 70GW by 2020. That plan still awaits government approval.
Such arguments fail to convince the skeptics, though. "Global interest in nuclear energy is probably because, in the short term, the greenhouse gas emission from nuclear power plants is almost negligible compared to a coal-fired plant. Global warming and greenhouse gas emission are important issues in the energy market," says Natarajan of IISc. "The long-term solution for a country like India or a continent like Africa is solar power, simply because we get so much sunlight. The developed countries are not thinking along these lines because they don't get the sunlight that we do. If we invest in solar power, we can be world leaders in this field. We should plan our future on something that we can be sure about. The sun is not going to stop shining because the political climate changes."