Nuclear in the Year of Modi

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It has been a year now since Narendra Modi took office as prime minister of India and by all accounts, it has been a good year. In many ways, Modi’s victory is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency of the United States in 2008 – after eight years of what many saw as a misguided war in the Middle East and Central Asia, a significant number of Americans wanted change. Similarly, after ten years of anaemic Congress rule, Modi represented the hopes – perhaps unrealistically high – of millions of Indians.

For a candidate who had spoken at length about solar power during the election campaign, it was surprising to see Modi talk up nuclear energy once in office. In July 2014, Modi visited the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and was full of praise for India’s nuclear community. Declaring that nuclear power would be an essential part of India’s energy security, he assured the Department of Atomic Energy of his full support in the implementation of their expansion plans. To be sure, it will take a brave prime minister to belittle the nuclear programme – India takes much pride in its high-tech endeavours such as spacefaring and nuclear technology, especially given the prejudicial international environment in which it was developed. Yet such pride has not necessarily translated into support in the past – some projects are decades overdue and there was never a concerted push towards nuclear power in India.

A few important developments in the nuclear arena have taken place during Modi’s first year in office, some of them entirely of his making and others not so much. For example, India signed agreements with Australia and Canada for the supply of uranium for its safeguarded reactors. These negotiations had been ongoing since the previous regime and would have been concluded no matter who resided at Race Course Road. Similarly, work on Kudankulam, Kalpakkam, and general nuclear research would have likely continued under bureaucratic inertia.

Modi’s leadership has expedited other nuclear developments, principally the civil liability for nuclear suppliers. However clumsy the solution to the train wreck that is India’s nuclear civil liability law may be, a suppliers’ insurance pool removed a major obstacle before nuclear vendors – foreign and domestic – investing in the Indian nuclear market. Another project that saw some movement in the past year due to Modi’s involvement was Jaitapur. The Indian prime minister raised the issue of Jaitapur with Areva during his visit to Paris in April 2015 and saw the French nuclear concern sign a pre-engineering agreement (PEA) with Larsen & Toubro. The agreement is significant, perhaps more so than one realises, because it involves the transfer of forging technology to L&T to enable it to manufacture reactor vessels for the French EPR reactor in India. Not only will this obviate the need for European and American nuclear vendors to depend upon Japanese companies to provide crucial reactor components, but it will also allow India to support its indigenous nuclear industry and eventually enter the export market.

As remarkable as these two achievements are, the shortcomings of Modi Sarkar are equally baffling. Despite a close relationship with Shinzo Abe since his days as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was not able to nudge an Indo-Japanese civil nuclear cooperation agreement closer to the finish line. This was a disappointing setback as both Tokyo and Delhi try to surreptitiously bolster defence and strategic cooperation. Similarly, India failed to capitalise on the Russian offer made during Vladimir Putin’s visit in December 2014 to build 20 reactors in the country. Part of the problem was perhaps that the Indian nuclear establishment was not ready to absorb such an investment and had no sites or plans ready to deploy so many reactors. Furthermore, domestic opposition to nuclear power would make quick movement on new sites difficult.

As always, there have been rumblings about Hitachi and Toshiba setting up nuclear power complexes at Srikakulam and Mithi Virdi but there has been little movement on the ground despite the persistence of such rumours for almost a decade. Similarly, Rosatom’s project at Haripur has been stalled for years without any conclusion in sight. The foundation stone to Gorakhpur, an indigenous nuclear project, was laid by then prime minister Manmohan Singh in January 2014 but the project had been planned since 1984 and there is little news of it since the foundation ceremony either. Such chronic delays need to be addressed if India is to ever pursue nuclear power seriously – in an era where financing is the largest component of the cost of a nuclear power plant, delays can mean the death knell for nuclear energy.

Despite some good progress on the nuclear front during Modi’s first year as prime minister, some fundamental reforms of huge import remain to be accomplished. One is in the arena of transparency. Pace the claims by the nuclear conclave, reliable and consistent information about the nuclear programme is elusive. The introduction of the Right To Information Act has shifted the onus of uncovering data onto activists rather than keep it on the department in question. Furthermore, national security or the public interest is used as an excuse to cloak even the quotidian operations of the Department of Atomic Energy. For example, in November 2014, the Minister of State for Department of Atomic Energy, Jitendra Singh, informed the Lok Sabha that “it is not in the public interest to disclose the quantity of production of uranium” in response to a question on the average annual production from uranium mines and the quality of the ore!

Another reform that should be considered over the next four years is to transfer the control over nuclear energy to the Ministry of Power. This would allow the minister responsible to take a comprehensive view of the power requirements of the country and the options available before deciding on India’s energy mix. Though secrecy may have been important to India’s nuclear programme in its dual-use incarnation, the separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities as stipulated by the Indo-US nuclear deal has obviated the need for such levels of confidentiality. Defence reactors would obviously be retained by the PMO or perhaps transferred to the Ministry of Defence, but those facilities involved in non-military activities can be put under the purview of the minister of power.

What Modi and the Indian nuclear programme sorely needs is a visionary. When Homi Bhabha envisioned a three-stage nuclear programme for India in November 1954, there was not a single commercially operating nuclear reactor in the world; India did not yet have an operational reactor of any type. The world’s first commercial power reactor went critical in December 1957 in Shippingport, United States, and India’s first reactor, Apsara, came online in August 1956 for research purposes; India’s first commercial reactor, Tarapur Unit I, went critical only in October 1969. Bhabha’s ability to think decades ahead was a boon for India’s nuclear programme but it came at a point when the commercial uranium reactors were still a theory and thorium reactors were a distant dream. Bhabha himself was a competent scientist but by no means technically brilliant. However, his audacious dream transformed India .

It is difficult to predict what a visionary might advocate but a few things that might receive consideration are new technologies such as Molten Salt Reactors, Integral Fast Reactors, and thorium reactors such as the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor. A second consideration would be a ramp up in the number of reactors by an order of magnitude – if we want clean air, plentiful energy, and growth simultaneously, perhaps it is time someone talked about a thousand reactors over the next half century rather than twenty, fifty, or even a hundred. Modi has shown himself to be an able administrator so far but now he needs a domain expert with chutzpah. As the good Book teaches us, where there is no vision, the people perish (Míshlê 29:18).


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on May 18, 2015.

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