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On June 01, India and Russia concluded an agreement that would begin work on the fifth and sixth reactors at Kudankulam. The deal was finalised during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to St Petersburg for the 18th annual bilateral summit between the two nations and ironed out the technicalities to a 1988 Memorandum of Understanding signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi for the development of nuclear energy in southern Tamil Nadu. Completion of this project would make Kudankulam India’s largest nuclear park, responsible for 40 percent of India’s total nuclear energy capacity.

Although the original MoU envisioned a total of eight reactors at the Indian site, a subsequent negotiation in 2008 reduced that number to six. No size of the reactor had been mentioned in the agreement but was mutually understood to be the 1,000 MW VVER-1000. In 2014, Russia offered its latest Gen 3+ VVER-1200 for future Kudankulam installations but this suggestion was nixed by India as there were no working models of the design; the first VVER-1200 reactor became commercial just three months ago at Novovoronezh.

The deal for the last two reactors at Kudankulam comes at an interesting time in international nuclear politics. Rosatom has been strongly pushing nuclear exports over the past five years and secured agreements in several countries such as Hungary, Bolivia, Argentina, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Bulgaria, Finland, and others. As the only company in the nuclear sector that is capable of offering the full spectrum of services from mining to reprocessing, Rosatom has a powerful advantage over its competitors in new markets. However, nuclear sales come with financing agreements and it has been questioned if the Russian state-owned company can indeed afford to float such lines of credit. In fact, Rosatom had offered to partner with India in fulfilling its agreements for probably similar concerns. This deal confirms valuable additional business for the Russian nuclear giant when it needs it most, especially considering the short period of 10 years for the $4.2 billion loan Russia has extended India for Units V and VI.

The finalisation of Kudankulam V and VI also comes on the heels of India’s decision to proceed with 10 indigenous 700 MW reactors if foreign suppliers cannot be relied upon to assist with India’s nuclear aspirations. If Delhi does succeed in streamlining the indigenous route, a valuable customer with enormous needs would be lost to the international market. Despite its frustrating vacillations, India still remains one of the hopes of a nuclear renaissance.

It is also hoped in some quarters that indigenous nuclear development will give India additional leverage to force its way into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The emergence of a parallel market in which Delhi can set its own rules while broadly following international non-proliferation and safety protocols is a threat to the Western-led international nuclear regime. Although this is no more than a fantasy, it is hoped that taking even small steps towards such reliance will soften the stand of the nuclear cabal. Given the new mantra of Make-in-India and Modi’s emphasis on developing Indian industry, it is not inconceivable that a few benefits are also seen in domestic Indian nuclear industry.

There is no clear information yet as to what the cost of Kudankulam V and VI will be. The first two units were built for ₹17,270 crores but the price for the third and fourth units skyrocketed to ₹39,747 crores. The agreement for the fifth and sixth units commits Russia to a loan of approximately ₹27,000 crores to cover the construction costs of the reactors but reports make no mention of what the total cost is likely to be. If the agreement on Kudankulam III and IV – in which India secured a $3.4 billion loan towards construction costs – is any indicator, the last two VVER units at the site are likely to cost around ₹51,000 crores.

As usual, India’s Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) will construct the plant with guidance from Russia’s Atomstroyexport. No information has been released on the timeframe for Kudankulam V and VI to begin commercial operation, or for that matter, the earlier two units.

The agreement for the fifth and sixth units follows quickly on the heals of the agreement for Kudankulam III and IV. The infusion of two more foreign reactors will not salvage India’s moribund nuclear energy programme but it comes at a time when more and more people are asking questions about India’s relations with Russia. While Delhi is perceived to have drifted towards the United States, Moscow flirts with Islamabad to India’s chagrin. Despite all the diplomatic packing peanuts, defence (technology) agreements have formed the bedrock of India-Russia relations ever since Stalin and the new Kudankulam will give flagging relations a shot in the arm. As long as cooperationin the strategic realm remains strong, both Moscow and Delhi will be able to weather any storms since their relations are not based on a sense of community or shared international vision.

It also seems clear now that Russia will be exempted, de facto, from India’s asinine nuclear liability regime. The argument for the exemption is that laws cannot be applied retroactively – though such common sense has not always prevailed in India – and the Kudankulam agreement and the subsequent renegotiation were both concluded before the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act. As analysts have pointed out, By reopening the Kudankulam deal to accommodate the CLNDA would provoke Russia into demanding renegotiation of reprocessing rights, the implementation of full scope safeguards, and showing a greater restraint in nuclear cooperation or technology transfer. Russia has already substantially raised the price of its reactors to allow for India’s convoluted workaround of its liability law.

Russia remains the only country that has committed to developing nuclear power plants in India despite the CLNDA albeit no new agreement has been concluded and the reactors presently under construction are still grandfathered into the 1988 accord. India’s early optimism in face of international concern for its liability law now seems hollow and self-deceptive. A good experience with Kudankulam is therefore important to retain India’s only foreign nuclear vendor.

This post appeared on FirstPost on June 02, 2017.