Nuclear Power in India: The Vision of Shiv Viswanathan

The Indian writer Shiv Viswanathan, who describes himself as a “social science nomad,” published a brilliant essay last year on the raging debate over the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, on the southern tip of India.
India has been attempting to go through the same process of “development” that Japan went through in the 1960s and 70s, but it seems to have learned nothing from the mistakes of those who have gone down this path before. Like Japan, India has adopted the energy megaprojects of a large state which feels it must crush fishing villages and any other small community that stands in the way of national goals.
Unfortunately for state planners, Fukushima happened just as the Kudankulam project was nearing completion. The locals rose up and mounted an opposition which dominated national and international headlines. Japanese villagers had no precedents to inform them about the nuclear juggernaut that was descending on them, but Indians had the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima to make them wary.

Kudankulam Background from The Week:

  • The agreement on the Kudankulam nuclear power project was signed in 1988 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. It hit the first roadblock when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
  • Owing to the political developments in Russia, the construction of the plant started only in 2001.
  • Concerns about the safety of the plant rose after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 caused by an earthquake and tsunami. People of Kudankulam started mass protests against the plant.
  • In November 2011, a panel constituted by the Union government, which did a survey of the safety features in the plant, said the reactors are safe.
  • In February 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed some western NGOs for fuelling protests against the Kudankulam plant.
  • In March 2012, an expert panel constituted by the Tamil Nadu government submitted a report in favour of commissioning the plant.

Shiv Viswanathan wrote his essay in the form of a dream in which he conversed over the meaning of Kudankulam and nuclear energy with Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and various writers and philosophers. This is an unusual device because with it he attributes to these people words that he only imagines they would speak, but they are actually his own insights. He may have written it this way to honor their influence on his thoughts, or perhaps he just wanted to be modest. Nonetheless, I think Mr. Viswanathan should take full credit for them. The full essay can be found at Dianuke.org, but I’ve excerpted some of its gems below:

·           One cannot think of the modern state without the baggage of necessary evils. Torture is a necessary evil. Detention is a necessary evil. Suspension of rights is a necessary evil. Genocide is a necessary evil. It is almost as if you cannot have a social contract without necessary evils. The greater the evil, the bigger the necessity.
·           I somehow want to belong to a world where ethics is not a technical answer to a technical question. 
·           Today politics has become a dismal science and science a dismal politics. 
·           Science has to return to life. It needs a good laugh at the pomposity of clerks who run our world, who titrate truth through pipettes.
·           Number is seen as a form of assurance that creates certainty for the Hamlets in us.
·           Between facts and truth lies life. Facts are seductive, apples of knowledge which lie.
·           …Niels Bohr… loved the logic of quantum but still stuck a horse shoe in his lab door. When asked, he said, “just in case…”
·           You need knowledge to say you do not know. Not knowing is an essential form of knowledge… knowledge is not hubris, it is a form of caring. 
·           [Not knowing] is an ethics of prudence, of modesty of a science that senses limits and converts them to possibilities.
·           Nuclear Energy is a reason of state.
·           I think when Japan decided to shut down the nuclear plants, it became a civilization again. Ethics and aesthetics, honor and modesty became a weave. Japan realized the limits of modernity.*
·           Admitting a mistake is the beginning of a civilization.
·           A poker player, a good one, knows when to stop. Scientists are good poker players. They are worried that God might play dice with the world but man cannot. 
·           No good insurance agent would insure a nuclear plant. A scientist should at least know what an insurance salesman does.
·           Scientists who join committees often think like one.
·           Risk is a recognition that science has changed. It is an acceptance of prudence, the recognition that you do not know, the acknowledgement that a road accident and a nuclear explosion are different, different in scale and quantity. You have to design differently for both.
·           Pilgrimage should be a part of scientific method. Every atomic scientist should visit Hiroshima and Chernobyl, spend a few moments in meditation to understand what a hibakusha means, a survivor of an atomic blast.
·           If a nuclear reactor is bad science, what makes it good politics? Politicians. And scientists playing politicians… Good scientists who were better nationalists. They left science to become devotees of the nation state.
·           Nuclear energy feeds the state not a people.
·           Civil society felt that energy is a form of civics. Gargantuan energy leads to gargantuan states.
·           1984 should have been about a nuclear plant. 
·           No housewife would want a nuclear plant. It breaks the Swadeshi rule. You cannot control it. 
·           Nuclear Energy brings out the theologian in us. And the feminist.
·           A housewife is a body of knowledge. She knows what budget as a number means. Budget is a ratio of limit to possibility. Budget is an ethics. Budgets are not just about households. They are about planets and the cosmos. You need energy budgets for the world.
·           A budget is also a theory of suffering. A housewife suffers. She understands the everydayness of suffering. She knows you cannot buy happiness cheap. Nuclear energy tries that. It isolates the ethics and ecology of a housewife. See it as a feminine logic not as a feminist ideology.
·           Nuclear energy was a failure of language, of storytelling. It should have been a cosmo-comic, a story that inhales huge sections of time. The time of nuclear energy runs to millions of years and yet we telegraph it to a decade. When storytelling declines and language suffers, you get symptoms like nuclear energy. There was no poignancy, no pathos, no irony, and no regret. No guilt. Cost benefit analysis and efficiency tells you little. A thermometer measures heat but a Dante has to tell you about hell.
·           Aesop had more wisdom than all the cost benefit analysts in the world. A hundred fables of nuclear energy told with the endearing affability of the fox and the crow. 
·           Kudankulam should not be a petition to the state. It should have been a civilizational debate, summoning Tagore or a Gandhi.
·           Kudankulam is a thought experiment in the real time. It shows that if you begin with official science, modern economics, and political theory, you will reach Kudankulam. Current categories lead to the current crisis. Look at all the key terms at Kudankulam- energy, security, efficiency, development, progress, and cost. It is a don’t-use-me dictionary of terms, a lethal thesaurus of our time. You cannot argue the case in these terms.
·           Our protest movements are too reverential. They enter the debate as supplicants, as petitioners when actually we need a new Magna Charta, a freedom to dream and live differently.
·           Half of Delhi cannot identify Kudankulam on a map. Our clerks will claim it enters history only as a nuclear plant. For our bureaucrats, fishing villages have no history.
·           Our democracy breeds and thrives on informal economies, on margins, on nomads, and slums and pastoral groups. We pretend they do not exist and get irritated when they insist that they do.
·           We are a strange democracy which attributed thought only to experts. Fisherman can fish but not think. If they do, then it must be foreign hand, an NGO conspiracy, and the dangers of conversion. Delhi and Jayalalitha are convinced fisherman who think and think about nuclear energy are alien creatures. A state which treats them like planktons suddenly sees them as sharks.
·           Kudankulam needs to be fought legally and philosophically. Kudankulam is the heart of India. It belongs to all of us. Like Gandhi would advise, we fight it twice. As a village struggle and as a drama of modernity.
·           We begin without consulting the people. By the time, the displaced organize, the contractors are already at work. Everyone argues that the half done has to be completed. The contractors sound more patriotic as the project proceeds.
·           Security cannot deprive us of rights. Security cannot threaten livelihood.
·           Saying no to nuclear energy is the beginning of the new democracy.
·           Does democracy choose life or in its indifference decide it is quietly genocidal?
·           History has shown that a civilization begins to die when it ignores an ethical debate in a village. The butterfly effects of history have already begun happening.

All sections in italics by Shiv Viswanathan.

* Unfortunately, the writer seems to have been deceived by Japan's vague promise to abandon nuclear sometime in the future. In 2012, the government led by Prime Minister Noda made statements about aiming to abandon nuclear energy by 2030, but soon waffled on the commitment. The policy was never established as a firm national goal, and the present government led by the LDP is determined to make use of the nuclear investment as soon as its safety can be guaranteed, which logically means never, but for the government means soon. Japan is far from being done with its nuclear experiment.


Garavi Gujarat News, India Court Rejects Plea to Block Nuclear Plant, September, 13, 2012.
Raminder Kaur, “Nuclear Power vs. People Power,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July, 2012.
Martin Fackler, “Japan to Begin Restarting Idled Nuclear Plants, Leader Says,” The New York Times, February 28, 2013.
Shiv Viswanathan, "On Saying No to Nuclear Power," Dianuke.org, June 12, 2012.
Joanna Sugden and Aditi Malhotra, "Anti-Nuclear Campaigners Down, Not Out," The Wall Street Journal, India Real Time, May 6, 2013.

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