Communist obstinacy could derail India’s nuclear energy plans (Commentary)

June 1st, 2008 - 12:06 pm ICT by admin  

By A. Vinod Kumar
Ever since the 123 agreement was announced, the Communist parties have been raising various issues pertaining to it that have wider consequences on India’s foreign policy. Foremost among their concerns are their references to the Hyde Act that leftist leaders argue would impinge on the autonomy of India’s foreign policy and make India a junior partner of the US. Some of these statements carry merit, considering the fact that the Hyde Act calls for, among other things, congruence with US foreign policy and giving political and material support to US non-proliferation objectives, including support to measures against Iran. Irrespective of the UPA government’s contention that these are not binding on India, it is strongly felt that some of these issues would rise to the fore in future when Washington tries to extract a greater Indian commitment to global non-proliferation efforts.

However, the stand of the Left parties on not allowing any progress on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) exemptions threatens to seriously undermine India’s nuclear energy planning.

The government’s interlocutors seem to have failed to convince the Left on the need to de-link the India-US civilian nuclear deal with the IAEA safeguards and NSG exemption. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had made the case for the India-specific safeguards agreement by suggesting that only the nuclear deal can bail India out of its serious uranium crisis.

Though Mukherjee’s assertions on this count are not technically wrong, it would be politically imprudent, at this juncture, to mix up the India-specific safeguards with the nuclear deal and the uranium shortage. Rather, it is essential to project the fact that the new safeguards arrangement and potential NSG exemption for India could open up the doors for nuclear energy commerce with a handful of politically inclined countries as well as those states with massive uranium resources.

India has a three-stage nuclear energy programme, initially intended to achieve a target of 20,000 MW capacity over a 30-year period. However, this had to be revised to 10,000 MW because of insufficient uranium reserves within the country. While the first phase of the plan depended on uranium-run reactors, the second and third stages were to rely on an assortment of uranium and thorium resources.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had projected that a 10,000 MW capacity, if sufficiently supported by the Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), can produce over 208 gigawatts (GW) of power in the next 30-40 years. India would also need additional reactor imports of around 5,000 MW to meet this target, provided the FBRs also rise to the occasion. Even if the FBRs are to deliver, India’s massive energy needs and insufficient domestic uranium resources have necessitated dependence on external sources for uranium and reactor technologies, and massive capital investments as well.

Besides the US, key players in the global nuclear industry like Russia, France, Canada and Japan have to be roped in to achieve these targets, not to forget countries with massive uranium resources like Australia. While the Left has conveniently blamed the government for not striking nuclear cooperation deals with Russia and France, it is a known fact that these countries cannot embark on nuclear commerce with India unless the NSG exempts India from its 1992 guidelines, which stipulate full scope safeguards as mandatory for nuclear trade with a non-weapons state. Thereby, the future of India’s nuclear energy plans inevitably depends on the NSG exemption and the India-specific safeguards, which would enable a new safeguards arrangement with India.

However, even if the NSG exemption and IAEA safeguards are cleared, India still has to strike nuclear agreements with prospective suppliers. While friends like Russia and France have already agreed to undertake nuclear commerce with India once the NSG exemption comes, others like Canada, Australia and Japan might insist on additional conditions, including NPT membership and commitment to the Test Ban Treaty, for initiating nuclear trade with India.

Further, there are issues like reprocessing and enrichment rights, and fuel supply guarantees that could become spoilers during negotiations with these countries as many of them have stringent national laws on nuclear exports.

At the same time, the questions raised by the Left parties on uranium shortage are pertinent and also consistent with the DAE assessments. The Left had said that the shortage of uranium was a temporary one or created through lack of proper planning, and that there are “known reserves in the country to sustain a nuclear energy programme of at least 10,000 MW”.

Reports quoting DAE officials have confirmed that the current uranium reserves in the country can sustain 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity, while admitting that the pace of uranium mining has not kept up with capacity addition, resulting in “a growing mismatch in the demand and supply despite only around 4,000 MW of nuclear capacity in operations.”

DAE chief Anil Kakodkar has also stated that the country has confirmed reserves of 78,000 tonnes while we need around 100,000 tonnes of uranium in the near future to sustain the new projects.

By these calculations, it sounded strange when the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) reported inability to operate at optimum capacity due to uranium shortage, especially because the current running capacity is well below 5,000 MW, and upcoming projects would roughly add another 1,000 MW capacity. However, news reports quoted NPCIL officials as saying that this shortage and under-utilisation was a “temporary mismatch” as efforts were on to increase domestic uranium production.

The underlying problem here is that despite sufficient uranium being available to meet the existing demands, the shortage has come due to production troubles faced at India’s uranium processing mill in Jaduguda in Jharkhand, where output was not meeting expectations. To tide over this crisis, the DAE is planning to set up five new processing plants in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Meghalaya and Orissa. In fact, the department is also developing an airborne survey system to identify the presence of uranium deposits located below ground level.

While the Left has cornered the government on uranium shortage, it has to realise the operational problems associated with India’s uranium shortage, as well as appreciate the fact that domestic resources would be insufficient to meet the capacity demands for the long term.

Besides being poorly endowed with uranium, India is known to be extracting uranium from extremely low grade ores of as low as 0.1 per cent of uranium compared to ores with up to 12-14 per cent uranium content in countries like Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada. The low-grade variety would have to be enriched to usable levels, which automatically translates into India’s nuclear fuel costing two to three times more than international supplies.

Nuclear scientists have argued that if India manages to import natural uranium from prospective suppliers, it would enable us to raise an additional 10,000 MW pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs), thus raising the total capacity to 20,000 MW.

Another important aspect of participating in international nuclear commerce would be the gains that come through reactor imports. While importing PHWRs would be a good option, foreign investments would also facilitate entry of contemporary technologies like light water reactors (LWRs) and advanced boiled water reactors (ABWRs), widely used in advanced countries.

A primary hurdle in India’s nuclear programme is its dependency on lesser capacity reactors of 500-700 MW, when the industrialised world was moving to 1,000-1,600 MW capacities. Even if India were to envisage a major expansion in nuclear power for the medium term, import of higher capacity reactors along with nuclear fuel would be great value additions.

Thus, importing uranium as well as advanced reactor technologies is not just essential to meet the visionary targets of 300,000 MW by 2052 but would also be crucial in successfully executing the earlier stages of the three-stage programme. This would free up the nuclear planners from anxiety over the fate of the FBRs, and enable the establishment of a vibrant nuclear industry that could cater to the massive energy needs of an economic powerhouse growing at the threshold of a double-digit trajectory.

However, for all this to happen, India has to clear the India-specific safeguards agreement and gain the NSG exemption so as to embark upon nuclear commerce with US and others in the larger national interest, or with Russia and France (or China) to satisfy the Left desires.

(A. Vinod Kumar is an associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at vinodidsa@gmail.com.)

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