It will soon be 10 years since the India-US joint statement of July 18, 2005, which marked a breakthrough, ending many wasted decades in the bilateral relationship. It had set the stage for a comprehensive and qualitative upgrade of the content of this relationship. A mutual understanding on the nuclear issue lay at its core, and it spawned a series of bilateral and multilateral steps to bring India into the global nuclear mainstream. It is worth looking back to assess the transformation in the image and reality of the Indian nuclear enterprise.
The ambitious bilateral trajectory that commenced in 2005 attracted attention at the highest levels — internationally as well as nationally, not only in government but also Parliament, civil society, academia, business and industry. Naturally, issues in the nuclear field came under close scrutiny as never before. The democratic polity in both countries examined in detail the process set in motion, as also the major milestones on the way to its culmination — the adoption of India-specific safeguards on separated civil nuclear facilities, exemption to India by the Nuclear Suppliers group (NSG), and the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement between the US and India in 2008. As high politics surrounding nuclear technology yielded place to global nuclear commerce with India, powerful lobbies and interests too became active.
India’s advanced but modest nuclear industry was exposed to media glare and publicity. There was much commentary, not without a measure of dilettantism, on the minutiae of the ongoing dynamic. This has had a mixed impact.
The rules and procedures of global nuclear commerce and the implications of nuclear cooperation agreements came under a sharp public gaze. At the same time, the strategic significance of India’s inclusion in the evolving global dynamic rankled with some powerful international players. The autonomy of the stewards of nuclear India was forced open, even as it pursued engagement with the global nuclear arena.
Major nuclear-technology countries like the US, Russia, France, Canada, Germany, the UK and South Korea, and their collaborators within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have more than a half century of accumulated practical experience in this regard. Their approaches are informed by a sense of pragmatism, in government and the corporate sector, acquired over decades, as international practices with respect to perhaps the most controversial technology of the past century have evolved. Its entry to this group notwithstanding, India’s public perception showed an uneven grasp of these international practices.
Public perception of issues like nuclear safety, security, liability and associated insurance tended to be fluid and intangible. The promise of opening up to global commerce is yet to bear fruit. The Kudankulam nuclear plant was commissioned between governments, even before the Indo-US nuclear deal. While an abstract and all-encompassing public debate goes on almost as an end in itself, the global scenario, in contrast, has changed rapidly over this past decade. The nuclear renaissance that was round the corner in 2004-05 has all but vanished as crude oil prices plummet from three-digit highs to below $50, and the shadow cast by the Fukushima disaster in Japan endures. The economics of nuclear power has nose-dived in most countries where business and market interests determine the energy-mix.
Those that have moved on nonetheless are China and Japan, whose governments realise the value of nuclear power in energy optimisation.
China commenced and has already commissioned quite a number of nuclear power reactors over the past decade. Their output is much more than the total nuclear power output in India, where the gestation period for nuclear power plants is increasing. Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is slowly getting out of the post-Fukushima nuclear freeze. South Korea is building nuclear reactors, including in the oil rich deserts of the UAE, where money, so far, is no problem. The UAE is building reactors without the experience of man-hours in reactors or of reactor years in operation. It is able to see the horizon beyond hydrocarbons. So do China, Japan and South Korea, which, in contrast, are well advanced in reactor years of operation and trained personnel, just like India. China has big plans to gatecrash into the global nuclear reactor market, with tested and standard designs beyond the four it has already contracted with Pakistan.
Thus, even when falling crude prices knock the bottom out of the economics of new startups, existing plans made by other governments progress with speed. It is extraordinary that for none of these governments, nuclear liability demands such innovative thinking as in India. No one has enacted a law that transcends the existing international conventions on liability — which essentially cover the state versus operator dyad — to extend unqualified liability to suppliers. In the meantime, not just governments but big multinational corporations like Westinghouse, Areva, Toshiba, etc, too have been at work to set rules convenient for nuclear commerce.
Where does the Indian debate take such a dénouement on board? Could the catapulting of nuclear power issues onto the minefield of domestic politics trigger a stagnation worse than what the NSG enforced? Does India assume that it has already arrived at the global scene and has all the time it wants to make up its mind? Or that it is at the stage of Germany or other Scandinavian states, which spurn nuclear power? Solar power alternatives pursued by these countries still demand baseload support of gas-fired plants. Besides, “load following” or problems in coping with large loads and a variable power-mix worry their grid management, where the nuclear component figures better than gas or hydro.
A severe mismatch in the energy planning of diverse economies, thus, compounds the energy confusion. In this situation, what clean and sustainable energy future awaits India? Its urban habitations have several hundred millions who lack assured power and are subsisting on polluting diesel generators and rechargeable inverters. Can India afford to defer indefinitely the far-reaching openings promised by the India-US nuclear deal?
The writer is India’s former ambassador to the IAEA