Defiant India Pushes Ahead with Nuke Power

"How does the country meet its enormous power needs when it is so short of natural resources?"

by / March 22, 2011
The Japanese nuclear plant problems are being compared to the 1979 loss-of-coolant accident at Three-Mile Island in the U.S.

While Japan's struggle to prevent a nuclear meltdown may have caused a setback in the so-called global nuclear renaissance, the pushback around the world against expansion of nuclear power plants seems to have hardly daunted energy-starved India.

Even as many nuclear powered states stall their roll-outs, India insists that it will move ahead with all its nuclear power expansion plans, albeit with stepped-up safety measures. The country's environment minister recently issued clearance for a 9,600MW nuclear power plant in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Minister Jairam Ramesh said this week, however, that "what has happened in Japan is very serious. We will have to learn appropriate lessons and whatever additional safeguards, additional precautions are required we must take, but I don't believe India can abandon the nuclear option."

With nuclear power accounting for just three per cent of the country's energy generation, India could not afford to hit the "rewind button" on nuclear energy, he said. India generates about 4,700 MW from 20 reactors, and although it had targeted to add another 1,220 MW by February this year, it managed to achieve barely 18 percent of that target. Still, the country has grand plans to install 63,000 MW of nuclear power capacity by 2032 at an outlay of close to $150 billion. Like Japan, China and even Pakistan, India is a classic instance of an energy-hungry but resource-poor country that has little option but nuclear power.

According the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) if India plans to sustain 8 percent annual rate of economic growth for the next 15 years -- and include all aspects of development with it -- the country would need to add approximately 600,000 MW of power by 2030.

India is the world's 6th largest energy power consumer, accounting for 3.4 percent of global energy consumption by more than 17 percent of the global population. Yet, "roughly half of India's population does not have access to clean energy forms and the other half that does have access cannot rely on either the quantity or the quality of energy provided," says TERI Executive Director, Leena Srivastava.

Importantly, about 70 percent of India's 165,000 MW capacity is generated by coal-based power plants and 21 percent by hydroelectric power plants. "It is increasingly obvious that India's coal resources are not going to be able to support this growth. While renewable energy is an option, the need for stable base power makes reliance on nuclear power almost a given," says Srivastava.

According to the minister, coal-fired, and hydro power also come at an environmental and ecological cost. Coal contributes to emission of greenhouse gases and hydro power brings about environmental damages in terms of dislocating occupants, he argues. Although India has discovered huge gas reserves, owing to lack of infrastructure it will be a while before gas-fired plants can significantly contribute to energy supply. From a climate change point of view then, nuclear power is the best source because it does not have any greenhouse gas emission, says Ramesh.

Small wonder then, that India has launched a propaganda campaign to silence critics. Particularly vocal is the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, a non-government agency in India, which has called for a moratorium on all civilian nuclear activity and a transparent public safety audit of all nuclear reactors in the country. It alleges that the government provides little details of its nuclear power plans, and in its zest to meet its soaring energy needs, the current administration may be hastily adding nuclear power capacity without adequately considering the safety aspects.

The Prime Minister's Office, on the other hand, says it has given state-owned Nuclear Power Corp. of India (NPCIL) two weeks to submit a report on measures needed to ensure safety at all existing and proposed nuclear projects. NPCIL -- the sole authority for atomic power generation -- added that it has already formed four committees to prepare the report to address various concerns.

The safety review might lead to additional safeguard measures as well as containment measures in pacts with global nuclear majors, who recently signed agreements with NPCIL for developing reactors and supplying equipment and technologies, NPCIL officials said.

But that is not taking an objective view of cost competitiveness and long-term safety of country's nuclear present set-ups and future plans, says critic Brahma Chellaney, a professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. According to him, "big money is influencing opaque contract making," in the country's nuclear power plans. He cites the instance of the country designating a nuclear park for exclusive reserve -- without inviting bids -- for four chosen foreign vendors.

On October 1, 2008, the U.S. Senate approved the civilian nuclear agreement allowing India to purchase nuclear fuel and technology from the United States. U.S. President George W. Bush signed the legislation into law, now called the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-proliferation Enhancement Act.

The agreement opened up India's civil nuclear sector to global resources, but as a quid-pro-quo for removing the country from almost three decades of nuclear isolation, it also allowed foreign companies to benefit from India's nuclear power expansion plans. The vendors that have since announced partnership with India for equipment supplies are Areva, GE Hitachi, Westinghouse, and Atomenergomash, a Russian firm.

"Even China, known for its lack of respect for safety issues, has announced that it is suspending new plant approvals until it could strengthen safety standards," says Chellaney. "In contrast, New Delhi's response has been to launch a public-relations campaign to say Indian nuclear plants are safe and secure."

Following the Japanese nuclear crisis, several countries have announced steps to scale back or review nuclear power with Germany, even temporarily shutting down seven of its pre-1980 plants. Similarly, Italy, Venezuela, and Switzerland have started reassessment of their nuclear plans, according to reports.

Nevertheless, India is not the only country that views nuclear technology as a necessary evil. The U.S. and Brazil think along these lines, and so does China to some extent. In fact policy planners argue that natural resources such as coal are limited and tapping nuclear energy to meet growing demands is inevitable for a country like India. "How does the country meet its enormous power needs when it is so short of natural resources?" they ask.

Indrajit Basu is the International Correspondent for Digital Communities.

Indrajit Basu Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.