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Saturday, December 04, 2021

No more vacillation

Anil Kakodkar has again raised the prospect of a fast-expanding nuclear power generating industry in a public-private mould.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh |
April 29, 2009 1:01:03 am

Anil Kakodkar has again raised the prospect of a fast-expanding nuclear power generating industry in a public-private mould. This is the latest move in our blow-hot-and-cold policies. Kakodkar is in the solid tradition of a number of distinguished policymakers who have raised this prospect for the last decade,opposed mainly by some Luddites who won’t unshackle industry and,at the other end,those who don’t want India to develop capabilities in this area and pooh-pooh the country’s capabilities. The new government must clearly follow up on the initiative Kakodkar has taken. 

It is instructive to recount past experience because we seem caught in some kind of time warp; every time someone makes what looks like progress,the opposite argument,at least a decade-and-a-half old if not more,is raked up and we are back to square one. The argument that India should allow the private sector in nuclear power generation is at least a decade and a half old. That there is stop-go in these arguments is brought out by two somewhat difficult to reconcile statements attributed to the highest level in India in the mid -’90s. On February 8,1997,the influential Nihon Kezai Shimbun reported from Tokyo that the then prime minister “says his government intends to allow complete foreign ownership of nuclear power plants in India”. On February 9,Khergamwala reports this again from Tokyo,in The Hindu. But on March 5,1997,according to the Agence France Presse,the PM tells Parliament that “no decision has been taken” to allow 100 per cent foreign ownership of nuclear installations in India and “there is no question of deviating from our nuclear policy”. Global think-tanks like the Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies reported this dutifully.

Notice it is by the Japanese,by the French,and at Monterey,that the arguments are tracked. Only the occasional Indian newspaper butts in. To be fair,on May 7,1997,AIR reports on me,speaking in officialese,as minister for science and technology,telling the Lok Sabha that “The government is open to specific offers for private sector participation in nuclear power generation… based on technical suitability,economic attractiveness,and conditions attached …”. Since I was looking after the work on atomic energy also,the Monterey people and others dutifully reported this. On June 19,1997 this newspaper reported that a private sector Indian group had planned cooperating with the public sector Électricité de France for a nuclear power plant,and reported that on a professional visit to France,as an economist,I had discussed nuclear cooperation with the French minister of science and technology. That this was not a party issue was brought out by the fact that the Left parties were in or supporting the then government.  

A few weeks ago,the minister of state for power said the private sector would not be involved in nuclear power generation,which would remain in the public sector. Kakodkar,however,told the CII a few days ago that the Indian nuclear market “should be opened to private and foreign players to fully capitalise on the opportunities available. A conducive environment,removing regulatory barriers and ensuring a level playing field would be required….” And then,on April 17,2009,Montek is reported asking Canadians at a Toronto energy conference to sell nuclear reactors to India. By now the Indian and global press and media are savvy on nuclear issues,and we get full coverage. No wonder the world believes in Incredible India. Except,in this case,it is perhaps Incredulous India.  

Kakodkar pleaded that “we must conduct ourselves in a manner consistent with strategic wisdom” and makes the point that this column has been making all along of uranium being in short supply and thorium aplenty — underlining the need for a fast-breeder reactor. This one too,has a history. Rajiv Gandhi,who had a straight vision,made some of us negotiate with the Soviets over light-water reactors in 1987. By the late ’90s,the Russians made it clear that they would stand by these agreements. The Koodankulam reactors become a major part of the design of creating 20000 MWs of capacity. This idea,of minimising uranium imports,too has its detractors,ranging from the Left to those who would undermine India’s quest for self-reliance in energy. My friend Deb Bose,former chair of the Bengal planning board,has criticised my calculations on the first-of-a-kind fast-breeder by taking historical costs,underplaying energy transportation costs and going by historical efficiency parameters. I do not agree with the view that nobody learns from experience; besides,there have been periods when nuclear plants ran at near full capacity and made money. The other critics are in fact in the government,in senior advisory capacities. They deny that India has an experimental fast-breeder reactor which works and has been synchronised with the grid. They want import of uranium and that’s about all. It is wrong; and the new government will need to scotch both the Luddites and these Cassandras and show the guts to move along. 

The writer,a former Union minister,is chairman,Institute of Rural Management,Anand

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