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03 February, 2015

Unresolved nuclear dilemma

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In the event of a nuclear disaster, who must bear the cost – manufacturers and suppliers of the faulty equipment that caused it or the unfortunate victims themselves? This, in essence, is the question that has delayed operationalisation of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement.

After the highly hyped talks between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi late last month, the two leaders announced that the issue had been resolved. However, they revealed no details of the breakthrough. Though they still remain a well-kept secret it is becoming increasingly clear that the nuclear dilemma is unresolved.

The agreement of 2006 ended the nuclear isolation imposed on India by the US following the nuclear tests conducted by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in 1998. It was negotiated by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, braving the opposition of the BJP as well as the Left parties which were sustaining it in office with outside support.

By 2008 the agreement was ratified and ready for implementation but there was no forward movement as the US government sought the right to inspect use of nuclear material India obtained from that country and US equipment suppliers were worried about the provisions of the Indian Nuclear Liability Act of 2010. At their first meeting last year Modi and Obama agreed on the setting up of an Indo-US group to sort out the matter.

The breakthrough announced during the Obama visit was worked out by the group in secret confabulations. The US dropped the demand for right to track the projects, which are subject to international inspections anyway. Standing beside Obama, Modi declared that the nuclear deal was the centrepiece of the transformed relationship between the two countries. But observers remain sceptical about the future of nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

The main benefit that will accrue to India from the nuclear deal, according to its domestic supporters, is that it will help generate electricity at as low as Rs 2.71 per unit and reduce dependence on coal and oil. It was Homi Bhabha, known as the Father of Indian Nuclear Science, who first held out the hope of cheap nuclear power. Over the past six decades, India has built and operated seven nuclear plants without being able to realise the dream of cheap power.

A study by Suvrat Raju and MV Ramana, two physicists working with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, has shown that power generated at the proposed nuclear plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, which is to use US equipment, will cost the consumers as much as Rs 15 per unit.  

India, which relies on thermal power, for about 70 per cent of its energy requirements, needs to tap other sources to meet the fast growing demand. At present, nuclear energy accounts for less than two per cent.

Government plans, drawn up long before Modi came on the scene, envisages raising of the share of nuclear power to 25 per cent by 2050. The question is whether this is the best option after the Bhabha theory has proved wrong and the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents have exposed the risk of high human and material costs it involves.

The efforts made so far to increase the use of renewable energy sources have increased the share of wind power to 8.3 per cent. Solar power still accounts for only one per cent of the total. The government’s fatal fascination for nuclear power when the huge potential of safe solar power remains untapped is inexplicable.

The issue is fast assuming the character of a conflict between nuclear power and people’s power. While Modi and Obama were talking, residents of Mithi Virdi, which the Gujarat government has chosen for locating a nuclear power plant, wrote an open letter to remind them that elected councils of four villages which will be most affected by the proposed plant have passed resolutions declaring the region a nuclear-free zone. They asked the two leaders to decide whether they want to channel billions of dollars to nuclear corporations or heed the people’s voice and cancel the unnecessary deals.

There have been protests at all places where work is in progress on nuclear projects. The secret Indo-US agreement is believed to provide for shifting the obligation to compensate nuclear disaster victims from the foreign equipment suppliers to the Indian government and insurance companies. It means the Indian taxpayer will have to pick up the bill. When the secret is out, opposition to the nuclear plants is sure to rise further. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, February 3, 2015.

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