What explains the diametrically opposite positions taken by CPI(M) General Secretary Prakash Karat and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on nuclear energy? If there are prolonged power shortages in West Bengal, people will be out on the streets raising slogans against the CM. Mr Karat faces no such problem either with power outages or protesting janata in the safe confines of the party headquarters in New Delhi. For Mr Bhattacharjee, the Indo-US nuclear deal could be the key to bridging the power deficit in his state. Haripur in east Midnapore district has been chosen as one of the sites for up to six nuclear reactors that could generate between 6,000 MW to 9,600 MW of power.
Wise man that he is, Mr Bhattacharjee is willing to put ideology aside in favour of pragmatism. And he has correctly pointed out that the merits and demerits of going the nuclear route for power generation should be left to scientists. Mr Bhattacharjee is not alone in his espousal of nuclear energy. Across the world, there appears to be something of a nuclear renaissance with more countries opting for nuclear energy as a cleaner and more abundant option to conventional fuels than ever before. Of course, nuclear energy is not without its drawbacks, the foremost being the issue of safety. The world has still not forgotten the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. But many lessons have been learnt from these mishaps. The newer plant designs have made them safer and easier to operate. They have longer lifespans and, if all goes well, could bring costs down. America, which has been chary of nuclear power thanks to strong environmental groups, is rethinking the issue and several new reactors are in the pipeline. Britain too, under Gordon Brown, has signalled that it would go in for a new generation of nuclear power plants. Likewise France and even Finland.
So it is only realistic for India with its fast-growing economy to want to get in on the ground floor. And this is the sentiment Mr Bhattacharjee has expressed to the consternation of the central politburo. Even China, held in such high esteem by the comrades, has not shied away from the nuclear path. What everyone, the CPI(M) included, needs to look at is whether ‘going nuclear’ is beneficial to India. From all evidence, the answer seems to be in the affirmative.