NEW DELHI - In hopes that nuclear power will meet its rising energy needs,
India has embarked on a spending spree since a civilian nuclear deal with the
United States last October removed sanctions that had long denied it access to
the international atomic energy market.
India has signed agreements with an array of nations to share and access
nuclear fuel and technologies since the deal was completed. The most
significant have been with Russia, the US and France.
The government last week allocated sites for Russian, French and American firms
to build five new light-water reactors. French firm Areva is earmarked to build
a reactor in Jaitapur in Maharashtra state; Russian firms will build two
plants, in Kudankulam, Tamil
Nadu, and in Haripur, West Bengal; and US firms are set to build a plant in
Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, and in Chayamithi Virdi, Gujarat.
"This important announcement [of the allocation of sites] comes in welcome
recognition of the trust and confidence as well as the growing partnership
between our two countries," said United States ambassador to India, Timothy
Roemer. He said the power plants would bring greater access to clean and
affordable energy and electricity for all Indians as well as create business
opportunities for India and the US.
The government has approved a total of 15 new nuclear plants to be built at
eight different sites, with firms including GE Hitachi, Toshiba Westinghouse,
Areva and Rosatom vying for contracts worth an estimated US$100 billion. India
has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its plans and 14
of its reactors will come under the nuclear watchdog's ambit by
India has signed nuclear and technology deals with Namibia, Mongolia,
Tajikistan, South Korea and Kazakhstan since October, and is close to signing
an agreement with Canada. Argentina this month became the latest nation to sign
a civil nuclear agreement after the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group lifted a
34-year-old ban on nuclear commerce with India, in September, 2008.
Australia, however, has refused to supply uranium to India as Delhi remains a
non-signatory to non-proliferation treaties such as the Non-Proliferation
Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The chairman of the state-controlled Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar,
has announced plans to construct four 700-megawatt (MW) pressurized heavy water
reactors that could run on indigenous natural uranium as well as imported
low-enriched uranium. India's present capacity of electricity production from
nuclear power plants is 4,120 MW, but it has targeted 20,000 MW by 2020 and
nearly 65,000 MW by 2032, according to the Planning Commission's 2006
integrated energy policy report.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that India could increase its
atomic electricity generation capacity to 470,000 MW by 2050, if new power
plants and technologies were in place. This would translate into nuclear power
contributing 40% of estimated total power, from 2.7% currently.
"This would not only sharply reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels
but also contribute to global efforts to combat climate change," Manmohan said.
As the push for nuclear energy grows, so are the murmurs about India's nuclear
safety record. Some analysts say there could be cause for alarm, given the
non-transparent nature of India's state-controlled nuclear energy sector -
there is no way to estimate whether safety issues will be carefully followed.
Data on the sector are closely guarded by the nuclear establishment, which
functions under the purview of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
The Indian chapter of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear
War, in a 2008 survey, found that "sterility was found to be more common in
people residing near uranium mining operations." Birth defects and congenital
deformities followed a similar pattern.
In the early 1990s, the Tarapur plant near Mumbai leaked radioactivity from
faulty cooling systems. Incidents of genetic disorders have been recorded in
populations at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan state and in the sea near Kalpakkam in
Tamil Nadu, where nuclear power plants are located. In 2004, the Kakrapar-1
reactor in Gujarat was shut down.
In the 1990s, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A
Gopalakrishnan, expressed fears about the safety status of some nuclear
installations under the DAE.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached