01/24/2013 - 10:22

Toward the mainstream

As my colleague Alexander Golts has noted, secrecy has emerged as a central theme in this Roundtable. What always strikes me as most surprising about secrecy in the nuclear realm -- more surprising than the secrecy itself, as officials would keep statistics on diapers classified if they could -- is public acceptance of secrecy. (I'm speaking of India, but based on this Roundtable, similar conditions seem to pertain in some other emerging or non-Western states.)

At the heart of all this, in India at least, is the nuclear mystique that I discussed in my first essay; mystique, more than statutory regulations, allows India's nuclear program to operate with little public scrutiny. In a democracy, public mobilization is supposed to generate political pressure, which leads to legal or administrative reforms, which consolidate democracy. But if this feedback loop is never even started, chances for openness and lively debate are negligible.

Why does the mystique exist? I discussed some of the reasons in my first essay, but other factors are involved as well. One is the sense of awe that a well-publicized, high-end technology can engender in a developing nation -- especially a technology with incredible destructive power. Another is the exclusivity with which nuclear technology was and is treated by the original nuclear nations, making this technology seem the most forbidden of fruits. (Many Indians incorrectly believe that possessing nuclear weapons was one of the criteria by which the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were selected.) As a result of all this, India's nuclear establishment is treated like a priesthood -- one that should not be forced to reveal its sacred creed.

This mystique makes it difficult to normalize the nuclear debate. But if one were to bring the atomic narrative into the mainstream, how would one go about it? The first step would be to demystify civilian nuclear power by beginning to treat it as a normal sector of the economy. (Military applications would come later.) This change in context would make the nuclear power industry answerable to a larger public, force it to become more transparent, and subject it to the discipline of the market and the scrutiny of accountants.

India has begun taking some steps in this direction, thanks in part to three developments: a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States; a decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, following heavy US lobbying, to exempt India from the technology-denial regime that was imposed due to its never signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to subject India's civilian nuclear power sector to safeguards. This combination of agreements has resulted in a separation of the country's military and civilian nuclear programs and opened up the possibility that the nuclear power sector will internationalize in terms of technology, operations, and investment.

Also working to normalize nuclear energy is the government's turn toward envisioning the nuclear power sector as part of a global supply chain, one in which corporate India will be a supplier and customer. And the proliferation and safety issues that surround nuclear power plants are coming to be seen as technical and administrative, rather than as excuses for even more secrecy. This trend has been accelerated by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and by a number of Indian anti-nuclear protests.

All in all, India is on the brink of a breakthrough whereby nuclear energy could stop being a subset of the country's overall nuclear arsenal and instead become a subset of the electricity industry. One sign that the breakthrough may be imminent: Coverage of nuclear issues is increasingly the beat of business reporters, rather than political or security correspondents.

Rising liability costs or a drop in fossil fuel prices could kill off, on simple economic grounds, any vigorous expansion of India's nuclear power program. But the mainstreaming of civilian nuclear power is unlikely to be reversed. Still, as is highlighted in Golts's essays on Russia, nuclear weapons tend to produce a different sort of official narrative, and India's nuclear weapons look unlikely to be mainstreamed any time soon.