After the first Pokharan test of 1974, India was subjected to an embargo on its civilian nuclear energy power generation program. This embargo, which became more severe over the years, was initially sought to be enforced by the two countries with which India had ongoing collaboration in commercial nuclear power generation, U.S. and Canada. As a non-signatory to the NPT, this embargo, with some case-by-case exceptions, was also applied by the NSG, the nuclear suppliers group of 44 countries that engage in nuclear trade and commerce. The U.S. had supplied on a turnkey basis India’s first power reactor at Tarapur, a GE design light-water boiling-water reactor using slightly enriched uranium, and had signed an agreement to provide enriched uranium fuel for 30 years. After Pokhran I the U.S. essentially abrogated the agreement although it made one or two additional fuel shipments. France, Russia, and now China that have enrichment facilities supplied fuel subsequently from time to time to keep the reactor in operation although for many years it has operated at a fraction of its rated power level. India, however, had earlier an agreement with Canada to provide the technology for the CANDU reactors which use natural (non-enriched) uranium as fuel but heavy water (deuterium) as a moderator and a plant at Kota in Rajasthan was nearing completion of construction when Pokharan I occurred. Canada immediately terminated all cooperation and the Indian nuclear establishment was forced to develop and implement the technology indigenously at considerable cost and with many delays. With the exception of the first Tarapur plant and the two Russian-supplied VVER reactors under construction at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, all 15 operating power reactors in India are based on the CANDU design using indigenous natural uranium and heavy water produced in India (for which technology was procured initially from the Swiss company, Sulzer). India has limited resources of natural uranium but these are running out and it is acknowledged that they will be insufficient to support even the current program not to speak of an expanded program as envisaged by the Department of Atomic Energy. It is in this respect that the agreement which would allow India to freely import both fuel and, perhaps, more efficient technology is important. Not being able to do so would essentially freeze the nuclear power generation option at its current insignificant level of less than 3% of installed capacity.
Maintaining balance and diversity in the energy system is an important element in minimizing risk, assuring security of supply, managing demand, and in leaving open options for future choice of technology. India’s electricity system is heavily dependent on coal-fired plants which account for over 70 % of capacity and generation with much of the rest furnished by hydropower and a small amount by nuclear and natural gas. While India has fairly large reserves of coal, its quality is rather low as it has a high ash content and this has led to many problems in the past as plants have blamed coal quality for their poor availability factors. However, coal as a fuel has other problems world-wide, both short-term and long-term. The health and environmental effects of coal use are well-documented; world-wide there are perhaps 6000-7000 deaths annually from mining coal, mostly in China, but about 200-300 per year on average in India. Coal use is also associated with a host of illnesses both in miners (black lung disease) and among the general public (respiratory diseases and cancers) from particulates and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur that are products of coal combustion and the leaching of heavy metals into the soil from the ash ponds. Mr. Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M), as evidenced by his article of August 17 in the Hindustan Times, along with anti-nuclear activists in India who tout the “cost-effectiveness of coal vis-à-vis nuclear generation”, is either unaware of these factors or unwilling to admit them. For the long-term, it is well-known that greenhouse gases present a major threat to the earth’s environment and coal-fired generation is one of the major contributors worldwide to this problem. It is only by ignoring these externalities completely that those benign statements about coal use can continue to be made.
The other options for generating electricity have their own set of problems. Hydropower projects involve the displacement of large numbers of people, loss of arable land and habitat for flora and fauna. The prolonged agitation over the Narmada Valley projects does not augur well for putting all our eggs in the hydro basket. Importing natural gas from Iran is definitely a good policy to implement if the economic issues regarding price, etc. are satisfactorily settled. But gas has other more valuable uses in India, e.g., as a transport fuel in CNG-fuelled cars and buses, than just as a source of power. Wind power is a good energy source in some coastal areas but the resource is limited and one should recall the statistical nature of its availability on both a seasonal and a diurnal basis. Solar photovoltaic generation offers a niche source for certain end-uses but is generally still too expensive as a general source for power generation. Viewing the power system as a whole, nuclear generation as one among several alternatives offers a reasonable choice for the diversification of the technology of power generation in a country with a fast growing economy and a huge population with many needs for power. In this context, the Indo-U.S. deal, or something similar, that permits India to import both fuel and technology is crucial, if nuclear is to remain a viable generation option in India.
The apprehensions that have been voiced recently concern two aspects of the agreement that can change as it goes through legislative approval by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. One aspect is Indian control over the nuclear fuel cycle and the other relates mainly to security issues like inspections, production of weapons-grade material and so on. Many years ago, the original reasoning behind India’s decision not to sign the NPT concerned its discriminatory treatment of the nuclear weapons haves and have-nots. This discrimination still persists, although, for its own reasons, the U.S. is now willing to let India enter the “club” as it were. In retrospect, as far as its energy and economic interests are concerned, it would probably have been better for India not to have gone the route it did but, instead, have imported technology and fuels as South Korea did later with greater success in erecting a viable nuclear generation option. (South Korea, starting in 1983, has over 17000 MW of operating nuclear capacity while India starting in 1969 has about 3000 MW). However, it is not the past but the future that one must be concerned with now.
A group of retired senior scientists from the Department of Atomic Energy, who were instrumental in the development of nuclear technology in India, have recently voiced apprehension that the modifications made by the U.S. Congress to the Bush-Singh agreement would infringe on India’s “independence in carrying out R&D in nuclear science and technology” and also put restraints on India’s “nuclear option as a strategic requirement.” They assert that we “cannot accede to any restraint in perpetuity on our freedom of action. We have not done this for the last forty years after the NPT came into being, and there is no reason why we should succumb to this now.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh responded in Parliament that India would make “its own assessment” of its weapons program and “there is no question of American inspectors roaming around our nuclear facilities.” Yechury in his newspaper article seems to be mainly insisting on a full discussion in Parliament although he voices mainly the same apprehensions that the retired scientists have done with the additional reservation that the deal would tie Indian foreign policy to U.S. interests. In the latest news from the Hindu of August 27, the retired scientists have welcomed the statement of the Prime Minister and said they were “satisfied” with his assurances.
Undoubtedly, any agreement and especially one with the sole superpower entails a certain amount of give and take. Whether this agreement goes ahead or not depends on the actions of the U.S. Senate and the final shape of the deal as it emerges from the U.S. legislative process.