Monday, July 25, 2005

"Does the US-India nuclear deal augur well for the country?

Energy security gets a leg up, as nuke power is cheap

Posted online: Monday, July 25, 2005 at 0000 hours IST"

The Manmohan Singh-George Bush statement at the end of the former’s visit to Washington DC two days ago reveals a clear adherence to the ideology of our political parties. Though the Left is critical, as expected, it is unlikely that it would withdraw support to the government in power over this issue.

Setting polemics aside, the statement deserves to be welcomed for a number of reasons. First, it opens many doors for a significantly higher percentage of nuclear power in the grid, at present as low as 2.5%. Second, the prospect of reducing our energy production deficit through building and commissioning more power reactors (based on low enrichment uranium and unit size of 1,000 mwe or more) in a short period (now about four years, compared to seven-eight years earlier) brightens considerably.

Third, the spiralling price of oil would upset the kwh cost of distributed electricity from non-nuclear plants and customers and may not be forever docile. Fourth, there is a finite probability of disruptions in assured fuel supply over the lifetime of coal or oil plants, due to factors beyond the producer’s control. Generally, such disruptions in nuclear facilities are overplayed, while those in non-nuclear plants are underplayed. Fifth, the pace of building nuclear power plants with foreign assistance has been poor, due to a twisted interpretation of ‘self-reliance’ and the price being paid for ‘indigenisation.’ This price is increasing by the day.

An important factor seems to be missed by critics, who perceive this development in Indo-US relations as a Faustian bargain. Nuclear majors in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), like Germany, Canada, France and Russia, have not been able to make their presence felt much in India, mainly due to the position held by the US that nuclear cooperation with non-NPT countries should be actively discouraged. The Manmohan-Bush statement effectively makes this opposition a thing of the past. It goes a step further. Enriched uranium supplies would be smooth and uninterrupted.

The nuclear power reactor design and manufacture industry in the US has been dormant for nearly three decades. So, the prospect of a US firm building power reactors for India is zero or negligible—assuming that India would approach US industry. Hence, concerns raised in this regard do not appear to be based on US reality.

However, the withdrawal of US opposition to India’s nuclear power reactor programme sends a clear signal to France, Canada, Germany and Russia. They can breathe easy and do not need to be apprehensive of US reactions. In the long term, if US nuclear industry is nursed back to its feet by US domestic polices, there would be viable competition to Europe and Russia. Which would, almost certainly, be to the customer’s advantage.

There is sound technical analysis to support the position that the plutonium generated in power reactors is quite unsuitable for building up a nuclear arsenal. It is doubtful that strategic planners and the armed forces would accept an arsenal with weapons of unpredictable (call it statistical, if you wish) yield. And, it is also doubtful whether ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons with yields in the few kilotons range using reactor-grade plutonium need to find a place at all in the Indian arsenal.

The Minimum Credible Deterrence doctrine declared by India in May 1998 does not need tactical weapons. The Koodangulam power reactors built in Tamil Nadu by Russia will reduce the energy deficit in the southern grid when it goes critical and gets synched with the grid in the coming years. The contract says that spent fuel (containing plutonium, of course) would be returned to Russia, thank you. We need electricity, not this spent fuel.

The writer is former director, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Delhi


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