Even today, nearly 70 years after independence, one of India’s greatest challenges is providing sufficient energy to its citizens. There is not an Indian who is not familiar with frequent load shedding, grid failure, and the failure of power companies to generate enough electricity due to administrative and physical inefficiencies. It is even more depressing when poor electrification across the country is considered in the context of how the Government of India defines the term: a village is considered electrified if ten percent of the households have an electric connection of even one light bulb!
During Narendra Modi’s tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, the state became the first large and industrialised state to achieve uninterrupted power supply. It is this record, among others, that has inspired Indians to vote the man into the highest non-ceremonial office of the land. If Modi is to replicate his magic in Gujarat across India, there is no way but to rely heavily on nuclear power.
The single most daunting hurdle to the growth of nuclear power in India is the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, ironically effusively supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party when sat in Opposition. After the demoralising defeat of their party at the polls in 2009 and in the wake of a transformative civil nuclear cooperation deal removed India’s pariah status in the nuclear community achieved under the Congress Party, the BJP adopted a scorched earth policy and sabotaged any chances of the Congress’ sole major achievement reaping rewards. Painting fearful pictures of the thirty-year-old Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal, Sushma Swaraj and Yashwant Sinha led the charge in the adoption of a strangulating CLNDA.
It will be politically difficult to walk back those steps taken in in 2009 and the law has left few loopholes. Yet this is exactly what is required to encourage nuclear vendors to set up reactors in India. If India insists on retaining its liability rules, vendors will keep away, or, in a best case scenario, India will end up paying through the nose for its policy via higher reactor prices that have been adjusted to consider the higher insurance premia. It is impossible to overestimate the the importance of dumping the CLNDA on India’s nuclear future.
Admittedly, there are a few things that can be done to increase public confidence in nuclear power. Improvement in transparency and accountability would go a long way in not only winning the public trust but also streamlining operations and problem-solving. India’s reactors, so long used to running at half capacity or less, have been working significantly closer to international standards since the Indo-US nuclear deal and the ready availability of fuel; the increased wear and tear are bound to raise engineering and manufacturing shortcomings that would need to be addressed.
A clear policy on the development of nuclear energy would encourage private participation in the sector. At first, permission may be given for manufacturing reactor components and experienced companies may be invited to set up shop in India with local partners. This will play well with Modi Sarkar’s other stated objective of making India a manufacturing hub.
Even this bare minimum of a nuclear agenda will keep the government busy for the rest of its term. The average time to construct a reactor – assuming there are no delays due to protests, government policy, or other reasons – is about five years. More realistically, the international average is closer to 6.5 – 7 years; in India, that figure is too embarrassing to reveal but consider this: the idea of a nuclear power plant in Gorakhpur, Haryana, was first raised in 1984 and the foundation stone was laid in January this year.
It is virtually impossible to provide India with continuous power within one political term. Any nuclear plan must proceed with several new-builds at once, possibly even two dozen or more – China presently has at least 28 reactors under construction simultaneously. By way of comparison, India’s entire nuclear establishment has about 20 reactors in operation.
While India cannot compete with China reactor for reactor, it can and must embark on a Messmer Plan of its own. This can come about only with a clearly articulated government policy that galvanises public potential and encourages the private sector to follow suit. So far, the Indian nuclear conclave has hidden behind a shroud of secrecy that has only hurt itself institutionally and the nation developmentally.
Energy has a multiplier effect across all realms of development. Nuclear power offers the scale, reliability, and environmental benefits that fossil or renewable energy cannot and though India is desperate for any kind of energy, ignoring nuclear power will come at the cost of future generations. The CLNDA is one Gordion knot Modi must cut if he is to forge a new energy future for India.