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Waiting, with caution

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

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The Tarapur Atomic Power Station. Its first and second reactors, built by General Electric, U.S., in the 1960s, are under IAEA safeguards and need enriched uranium as fuel.-VIVEK BENDRE

The Tarapur Atomic Power Station. Its first and second reactors, built by General Electric, U.S., in the 1960s, are under IAEA safeguards and need enriched uranium as fuel.-VIVEK BENDRE

President Bush's offer to work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India has been hailed by Indian nuclear energy experts, but there are misgivings about whether he will be able to deliver on the other promises.

THE nuclear component of the joint statement made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush is like the curate's egg - good only in parts. While Bush's offer that he "will work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India as it realises its goals of promoting nuclear power and achieving energy security" has been greeted with all-round cheers, there are deep misgivings about whether he will be able to deliver on the other promises he has made to India.

And nuclear protagonists in India are disappointed at the conspicuous reluctance of the U.S. to recognise India as a nuclear weapons state.

All that the joint statement says is that India is "a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology".

What has angered some specialists is Manmohan Singh agreeing to continue "India's unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing". A former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) pointed out: "We announced a voluntary moratorium on further nuclear tests after our 1998 Pokhran tests. Pakistan has so far not announced a voluntary moratorium. Pakistan still says that if India conducts nuclear tests, it will also test. So where is the need to reiterate in the joint statement that we will continue our voluntary moratorium?"

Two promises Bush made in the joint statement have come as music to the ears of nuclear analysts. The first is that "he will work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India... " The second is: "The President would also seek agreement from Congress to adjust U.S. laws and policies, and the United States will work with friends and allies to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India, including but not limited to expeditious consideration of fuel supplies for safeguarded nuclear reactors at Tarapur. In the meantime, the United States will encourage its partners to also consider this request expeditiously."

Top officials of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), past and present, have had no hesitation in calling these Bush offers "a welcome development" and "a pragmatic approach" that would boost India's nuclear power generation capacity. In other words, they predict that the U.S., Russia and France would vie with one another to sell light water reactors (LWRs) to India. India could also become "a global player" in the nuclear market. It could sell its small-sized 220 MWe or the medium-sized 540 MWe Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) to several countries that are keen on buying them, they said. If the objectives mentioned in the joint statement were met, India could also break out of the isolation it had suffered in the past 30 years after its first nuclear test at Pokhran in Rajasthan in May 1974 and five more underground nuclear explosions in May 1998, the DAE officials said.

S.K. Jain, Chairman and Managing Director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), called the Bush offer a welcome development. The NPCIL is currently operating 15 nuclear power stations in the country and building eight more. Jain pointed out that if Bush could also convince Congress to adjust U.S. laws and policies and also persuade the U.S' friends and allies like Russia and France to adjust international regimes such as the NSG guidelines, nuclear cooperation between India on the one hand and the U.S., Russia, and France on the other "can happen fast".

Although India was "not dependent on imported LWRs", Jain said, "with our own indigenous resources - natural uranium - we can generate only 10,000 MWe of nuclear power using our PHWRs and then go for fast breeder reactors". The reasons behind India wanting to import LWRs are several. There is tremendous shortage of electricity in the country. India does not have enough reserves of hydrocarbons. Oil prices are shooting up. The coal available is not of good quality. "If additional reactors are imported just to meet our electricity requirements, they are welcome," he said.

Jain sounded optimistic about Russia and France relaxing NSG guidelines to export LWRs to India. These guidelines demand that India place all its nuclear facilities under the IAEA's full-scope safeguards. Russia and France had always called India "a disciplined country which has not proliferated" nuclear weapons. Besides, India had announced a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests. The only "[stumbling] block was the U.S." If the U.S. were also to adjust its laws and policies, "we will not face any restriction" in importing LWRs, he said.

He predicted that India could become "a global player" in the nuclear market. India was the only country that built small-sized PHWRs with a capacity of 220 MWe or medium-sized PHWRs that generated 540 MWe. The technology for building these reactors was "totally alive in India", he said. Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Vietnam wanted to import nuclear reactors. The 220 MWe or 540 MWe reactors were the "right choice" for them. "We can aggressively market" these reactors, the NPCIL Chairman said.

Dr. Placid Rodriguez, former Director, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, was confident that "this positive engagement between India and the U.S. will herald a renaissance in nuclear power technology in the whole world." There were predictions that nuclear power would stage a comeback. "This is the beginning of that comeback," he said. In his opinion, the nuclear cooperation between the two countries spelt out in the joint statement is "first and foremost a pragmatic approach and a pragmatic solution" to the nuclear issues that have bedevilled the relationship between them.

According to projections, the total installed electricity generation capacity in India by 2050 will be 1,344 GWe. Of this, at least one-fourth could come from nuclear power. The proposed nuclear cooperation between India and the U.S. was "a welcome move because by 2020, India's installed electricity generation capacity will be 400 GWe and of this, nuclear power will account for 20,000 MWe," Rodriguez said. He added: "While our FBR and thorium utilisation programme will come into prominence as years go by - we have already begun the construction of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam - we need to import fuel. This is not only enriched uranium for Tarapur 1 and 2 reactors but natural uranium for our PHWRs." India had a choice of reactors to buy from Russia, France and the U.S. "We may prefer to go for the Russian VVER-type of reactors. The French LWRs are also good," he said.

Rodriguez suggested that India resist any attempt to curb its FBR programme or the plan to have thorium-fuelled reactors. "We should aim at becoming one of the most advanced countries in the world in these two programmes," he said. The Generation Four Initiative Forum, an organisation of 10 countries, had identified six reactors as the fourth-generation reactors of the world, he said. It included breeder reactors and thorium-fuelled reactors among these. "We should get honourable membership on equal payment basis in the Generation Four Initiative Forum and the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) programme. And India should be the leader in the FBR and thorium reactor programmes," he said.

Nuclear cooperation between India and Russia, France and the U.S. would provide "great opportunities to nuclear engineers from India," he said. They would be in demand all over the world. Rodriguez pointed out that the U.S. and western Europe had missed one generation of nuclear technology - a generation did not build nuclear reactors there.

But strong misgivings remain about Bush's second promise that he "would seek agreement from Congress to adjust U.S. laws and policies, ... to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India." According to a former Chairman of the AEC, these declarations could not be trusted until "they come out in law". He asked: "What if the Senate says no?" He pointed out that President Bill Clinton had strongly backed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but the Senate, which had a majority of Republicans at the time, had declined to ratify the CTBT, leading to its collapse.

The U.S. had also not accepted the Kyoto Protocol. Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of the U.S. should be relaxed to enable nuclear exports to India. "Until that happens, we cannot say we have received something substantial," the former AEC Chairman said.

What is the guarantee that the U.S. will accept an Indian claim that a nuclear facility of its is a military one and that it will not insist on bringing that under safeguards? Robert O. Blake, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, said in Chennai on July 22 that it was not an issue at all. "It is for you to decide," he said. That is, India could decide what its civil and military nuclear facilities are.

Dr. Anil Kakodkar, AEC Chairman, told Frontline: "It is absolutely our decision." He underscored the reciprocity of the arrangement between India and the U.S. as outlined in the joint statement. As the U.S. offered civilian nuclear cooperation with India, the latter too, in a "phased manner", would assume its responsibilities, he said.

A nuclear analyst put it thus: " I do not know what the compulsions of the government were [in arriving at this agreement]. These are the big objectives of the so-called agreement. What will happen tomorrow, how things will shape up, is a big question."

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 12, 2005.)

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