India Grapples with Nuclear Fears

India’s nascent nuclear power program, begun with great anticipation after the United States government lifted sanctions on the country during the Bush administration, is stalling out as emotional protest gets in the way.

In a sign that all is not well, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has alleged that American and European NGOs are funding protests against building nuclear plants, particularly at the yet-to-be operational and already-delayed Kudankulam plant in South Indian state Tamil Nadu.

“The atomic energy program has got into problems because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply,” Singh said in an interview to an international magazine last month.

It is not unusual for Indian politicians, including Manmohan, whose government is accused of massive corruption scandals, to blame “external factors” or a “foreign hand” to cover for their own failings and frustrations.

On a broader political level, New Delhi’s attempts to push reforms, including in the energy sphere, have been severely hampered by the intransigence of coalition partners, reducing the government to near lame-duck status. Defeats in the round of state elections this month, including the politically vital Uttar Pradesh, could turn the Congress Party-led government inward and to try and pass on its inadequacies to others, real or imagined.

Although New Delhi has ordered investigations into nearly 80 NGOs operating in India in the wake of the Manmohan assertions, the allegations have not found resonance with many. Rejecting Manmohan’s charge, a group leading the anti-Kudankulam protests has demanded that the charges be substantiated.

The US meanwhile has denied any role. In a statement, the US State department said: “We are supportive, as a government, of India's investment in civil nuclear power. That's not what we support NGOs to do in India. Our NGO support goes for development and it goes for democracy programs.”

Indeed, there may or may not be a basis for Manmohan’s allegations, but they definitely point towards deeper problems the country continues to encounter in the atomic field, especially concerning safety of nuclear reactors.

It is apparent that India’s political leadership has failed to convince its own people about the efficacy of atomic power as a clean and safe source of power, especially in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima crisis last March. If NGOs are involved in creating a negative atmosphere, as Manmohan has claimed, they can only fan angst and fears that already exists.

Tens of thousands of people in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana where major new NPPs are planned have taken to the streets vehemently opposing atomic power generation. The concerns are about safety, adequate long term compensation for land acquisition and ensuring re-habilitation.

Among the plants that have been stalled include the two 1000MW Russia-backed Kudankulam NPPs. Frustrated with the delays, Russia's ambassador to India, M Kadakin, said last month: “We cannot allow our scientists to remain idle endlessly. For months together, they are without work.”

Meanwhile, concerned about the mounting protests, France has assured the most stringent standards at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, where a 9900MW French-backed mega atomic park is planned. Currently, French major Areva is in the initial process of building the first two 1650MW reactors in Jaitapur.

The Way Ahead

Last month, India’s commerce minister Anand Sharma said that the country hopes that US$100 billion in foreign investment will pour into the nuclear power sector in the next two decades, with a quarter coming from France.

Given its big electricity needs and in order to reduce dependence on coal, India has announced plans to raise nuclear power from current 3 percent of total power generated to 25 percent by 2050. By 2032 India’s nuclear power capacity has been targeted at 63,000MW from current 4,500MW.

India has found support for its atomic plans internationally, with companies from America, France, Russia, in particular looking to tap big business opportunities. New Delhi has meanwhile also signed civil nuclear deals with Namibia, Mongolia, Canada, Angola, Australia, Kazakhstan, South Korea and the European Atomic Energy Community.

The Manmohan Singh government has handled well the diplomatic aspect of India as a global “nuclear exception” despite being a non-signatory to proliferation treaties, to allow the country to trade in dual use atomic material and technology.

Further, Manmohan has reiterated, including in the latest controversial interview, that his government will continue its atomic energy push. In a reflection of such a mood, India's nuclear operator, the state-controlled NPCIL said last month that it expects normalcy to return at Kudankulam and the project would be commissioned by August this year.

NPCIL has also ensured that the routine annual International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection at Kudankulam last month was completed as scheduled. India has also officially assured France that it remains committed to Jaitapur.

But all is not going well on the domestic front. New Delhi has failed to convince its own people in a transparent manner of the efficacy and utility of nuclear power in India’s energy mix.

Local populations are clearly uncomfortable about plants being set up at their backyards, fearing radiation hazards to their families and the consequences of any mishap. Blaming NGOs is clearly an attempt to escape the real issues.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)