India’s quest for nuclear energy

As India sets about generating more than twelve times its current level of nuclear power by 2035, it seldom encounters countries insisting on the letter of the Nuclear NPT.
Rupakjyoti Borah
5 January 2011

As India’s economy booms, India is perennially short of energy. India and China have been scouting for energy resources across the world with missionary zeal. With fossil fuels fast draining out, India’s only recourse seems to be looking out for alternate sources of energy, including nuclear energy. Although, at present, India generates only 4.7 gigawatts of nuclear power, which constitutes only about 3% of the total electricity generation, it has an ambitious plan to increase that to 60 gigawatts by the year 2035.

India’s nuclear programme has a long history, which harks back to its beginnings in the mid-1950s at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre(BARC) in Trombay, a suburb of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital.  India had acquired dual-use technologies under the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme which aimed at facilitating the civil use of nuclear technologies.  Under this programme, India acquired a Cirus 40 MWt heavy-water-moderated research reactor from Canada while the heavy water required for its operation was purchased from the US.  

India went on to conduct its first nuclear test on May 18, 1974 calling it a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). This took the international community by surprise, which responded by establishing the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which aims at the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons through the implementation of strict guidelines for nuclear and nuclear-related exports. It was after a long hiatus of 24 years that on May 11, 1998, India conducted its second series of nuclear tests. Many nations, including the US, imposed economic sanctions and technological curbs on India in the aftermath of its nuclear tests in 1998. Those sanctions did not have the desired effect as India’s economy had already grown strong enough to withstand the impact of the sanctions.

The NSG and the India-specific wager

In a major success for India's nuclear ambitions, the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) granted it a crucial waiver on September 6, 2008, enabling India to carry out nuclear commerce and ending the 34 years of isolation which began after the 1974 Pokharan nuclear tests. The decision to grant India a waiver is unprecedented in the history of the NSG since India has neither signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Though some countries like Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland had expressed strong reservations over this waiver, hectic behind-the-scenes negotiations ensured that the naysayers were won over.  The then Indian external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee had to step in on September 5, 2008 when in a statement, he reiterated the Indian stand of adhering to a unilateral nuclear testing moratorium and offered to negotiate an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Nuclear cooperation with the US, France and Russia

However it was the India-US civil nuclear deal that led to the end of India’s nuclear isolation. The contours for this agreement were laid down in a July 18, 2005 joint statement by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then U.S. President George W. Bush, under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards while in exchange, the United States promised to work towards full civil nuclear cooperation with India.  On October 1, 2008 the US Congress gave its final approval to the nuclear deal. The Indian government has already designated two sites for nuclear power plants to be established in cooperation with the US. However some sections of the US business community has raised questions over India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill passed by the Parliament in August 2010.

France was one of the few countries that did not take a harsh stand towards India when it conducted its nuclear tests in 1998.  The two countries had been working closely in the field of nuclear energy. During the recent visit of the French President Nicholas Sarkozy to India between December 4 and December 7, India and France signed a general framework agreement and four other pacts for deepening bilateral cooperation in the atomic energy sector, paving the way for construction of French nuclear reactors at Jaitapur in India’s province of Maharashtra. A general framework agreement was signed between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and French company Areva for the construction of nuclear power plant (NPP) units at Jaitapur.

Russia has been one of India’s closest allies in the field of nuclear energy. In December 2009, India and Russia concluded a bilateral agreement on cooperation in civil nuclear energy. This agreement contains assurances on uninterrupted supplies of uranium for India’s atomic reactors and on transfer of technology, thereby making it much more profitable for India than the agreement signed with the US.

In March 2010, during the visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to India, it was announced that Russia will build 16 nuclear reactors in India and six of the reactors would be built by 2017. It must be mentioned that Russia is already building two reactors at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu.

However, India's quest for nuclear energy received a setback in early 2008, when the then Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, officially declined to supply uranium to India. Though the John Howard government had in principle decided to support the sale of uranium to India, his successor Kevin Rudd did a complete volte-face and refused to supply uranium to India unless it signed the NPT. The present government of Julia Gillard seems to be in no hurry to do a rethink on the Rudd government’s decision.

Bright future 

In order to meet its nuclear energy requirements, India has signed agreements with a host of countries to obtain uranium for its nuclear power plants. In January 2009 NPCIL signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom for the supply of uranium concentrate over a period of six years. In September 2009 India signed uranium supply agreements with Namibia and Mongolia.

The future of nuclear cooperation for India with various countries is bright, as India tries hard to increase its nuclear power output. However, India needs to carefully choose between the various countries, keeping in mind its national interests, and avoiding putting all its eggs in one basket.


This piece has also been published in Eurasia Review

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