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  A doomsday film, Lovelock and India

Three strangely related events together hold a message for all those that care for India’s future.

The first event, is the doomsday film “The Day After Tomorrow” by Roland Emmerich that has opened across the world last week. It is a slightly frenzied dramatisation of what havoc global warming can bring about. It is in the genre made famous by Emmerich himself in movies like “Independence Day” and “Godzilla”. Scientists who have viewed the current film say it is based on pretty flaky science. Even if the consequences of global warming will be as depicted, the time line, they say, is all wrong. It can’t happen that fast or in such a rush. Are they a touch nervous? Are disasters a certainty, give or take a century?

The second event in the last fortnight, is a statement that comes from a more sober source, in a more measured voice, but it is no less devastating to contend with, than the film. James Lovelock, the Green Guru says that we are underestimating the creeping menace called global warming. And, --hold your breath-- he recommends widespread adoption of nuclear power as an evil we must live with, to end burning fossil fuels for our energy needs.

Lovelock is not easy to dismiss. He is a respected scientist, is 84 now and has been a long-time Green. He is the originator of the Gaia theory that holds the earth to be one integrated living organism with a mind of its own and an ability to regulate itself. He has a wide following among those who venerate the earth. Therefore, Lovelock’s statement recommending nuclear power has shocked environmentalists. Lovelock says he now believes that the pace at which benign alternate sources of energy --solar, wind etc-- are developing is too slow to save the earth.  “I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy,” wrote Lovelock. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have predictably rejected Lovelock’s call.

We finally turn to the third development of the fortnight. It is the announcement that construction of India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor [PFBR] is to begin in July at Kalpakkam near Chennai. It is a monster engineering project to be executed entirely by Indians. It will cost Rs.3,400 crores and take seven years to complete. Once the PFBR has yielded the data and experience that scientists are seeking, it will lead to a series of FBRs. By the year 2020 there are to be four producing 500 mw each. Eventually a total of half a million megawatts are to be produced by FBRs. A new public sector undertaking the Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigham [BHAVINI] has been formed to manage the FBR programme. India is clearly embarking on a path to energy security based on nuclear power.

For those who are squeamish about nuclear power, all that can be said by way of comfort is that India has a record of being a skillful, mature and safe nuclear technologist. Its progress has been studiously calibrated and steady. It is a saga that has not attracted an able biographer, which is a pity because he would find many self-effacing heroes going by names like Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, P R Roy, M R Srinivasan, P K Iyengar, Raja Ramanna, H N Sethna, R Chidmabaram, S Fareeduddin, N Kondal Rao, Anil Kakodkar and a supporting cast several thousand, brilliant faceless Indians.

Between them they have created a wide range of technologies and guided India’s nuclear programme over close to 50 years. In that time, India has graduated from one level to a higher one with the greatest deliberation. For example, when work begins on the PFBR in July,2004, it will have 19 years of experience gained from the Fast Breeder Test Reactor [FBTR]. And it will be a decade or so before the PFBR will result in a production line of FBRs.

Fact is, we live in hard times that call for hard choices—like going nuclear. The best one can do is be competent with the choices made.