The Nuclear Dawn
As the Manmohan Singh Government battles with ill-informed criticism by the Left over its civilian nuclear deal with the US and its courageous stand on Iran's nuclear shenanigans, some of the vital issues involved tend to get obfuscated. With petroleum prices shooting up recently, the world over has seen a major rethink about the role of nuclear power plants in a country's energy strategy. Even in the US, where for decades no nuclear plants have come up, there are in-depth reviews being done about their viability. Other countries like France and Japan, where a majority of the electricity is being generated by nuclear plants, are investing in developing larger and cleaner plants.
For India, being part of the emerging world nuclear energy order is important for several reasons. After the Pokhran tests of 1974, India faced a debilitating technological denial regime that not only impacted its civilian nuclear power plans but also affected its import of critical hi-tech equipment in other areas. Indian scientists made up by indigenously developing bigger and better nuclear power reactors of up to 500 MW. But civilian nuclear power fell far short of the target of 10,000 MW by 2000. Currently there are only 15 nuclear power plants with a capacity to generate 3,100 MW. Nuclear energy constitutes barely 2.6 per cent of the country's total power generation.
India now has plans to set up nuclear power plants capable of generating 20,000 MW annually by 2020. Manmohan even talked in Parliament of doubling that figure during the same period. But India's uranium resources can meet the requirement for just 10,000 MW of the pressurised heavy water reactors that the Nuclear Power Corporation of India is capable of building. So for any expansion, importing nuclear fuel is important. The US nuclear deal, if it goes through, would lift the embargo on India in importing nuclear fuel from other countries as well. Not just that, it would enable India to consider importing nuclear power plants from Europe that can generate as much 1,600 MW each. The Government has also wisely invested in speeding up the indigenous programme of developing fast breeder reactors that could theoretically generate 40 times more power from the same quantity of uranium used by heavy water reactors.
Nuclear energy is now poised to play a critical role in India's power sector calculus. There are important issues of safety of nuclear plants and storage of nuclear power that need to be addressed. But only the foolish would ignore the new nuclear age that is dawning.