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Japanese Disaster May Affect India’s Import of Foreign Nuclear Reactors

The country's nuclear power expansion depends on imports of equipment, including a new European reactor design under heavy scrutiny for safety risks

By Ranjit Devraj

Apr 4, 2011
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India

NEW DELHI—India's ambitious plans to quadruple its nuclear output by 2020, from the current 4,650 megawatts to 20,000 megawatts, may have taken a hit from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. 

The country's nuclear power expansion depends heavily on imports of nuclear equipment, leveraging the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which was sealed in 2008, and the India-specific waiver that Washington pursued with the 45-member nuclear suppliers group (NSG) of nations. 

But in the wake of the Japan disaster, concerns are being raised about the safety risks of a new type of third-generation European reactor that India has selected for its next nuclear wave.

At the same time, Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment and forests, is urging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to commission homemade reactors only.

For Singh, who oversaw three years of difficult negotiations with U.S. officials and steered the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal through India's parliament, such calls represent a major setback.

With the NSG waiver, India got permission to engage in international nuclear trade for the first time, making it the world's only nuclear-armed country to have won that privilege without having signed the non-proliferation treaty.

For decades before that, India's domestic nuclear energy program languished due to the international ban on supplying this country with nuclear equipment, technology and fuel — though there were some successes in developing reactors designed to use locally available thorium deposits as fuel.   

Once the waiver was signed, India declared plans to set up a series of mega-nuclear parks along its extensive peninsular coastline. The announcements threw open a $270 billion market for nuclear reactors.

But there were problems. 

United States suppliers such as Westinghouse and General Electric were leery of Indian nuclear liability legislation, passed in August 2010, which allows the state-run operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to sue nuclear suppliers in the event of a mishap. 

State-owned French and Russian nuclear suppliers were quicker to strike deals with NPCIL because they are covered by sovereign immunity in the event of liability issues. But they ran into stiff opposition from Indian farmers' groups and anti-nuclear activists.

Areva, the French supplier, landed the biggest of the deals to supply six 1,650 MW reactors for a nuclear park in the Jaitapur-Madban area of the western state of Maharashtra, at a minimum estimated cost of $15 billion. 

Areva and NPCIL were expected to sign a final contract in mid-2011, though a delay is likely. The original commissioning date set for the plant was 2018.

Following Crisis, 50 Prominent Indians Call for Nuclear Review

The more than 2,000 farming families and activists fighting the nuclear project since 2007 became embroiled in a seemingly losing battle with India's government, which was allegedly using forcible land acquisitions, police brutality, arrests and eviction orders to move the facility along.

But then came news of the Fukushima disaster.

Suddenly, top members of India's secretive nuclear establishment, who previously would not dare to speak with so-called "nuclear illiterates," found themselves sparring with activists on TV talk shows, clamoring that nuclear energy was safe.

For his part, Singh declared that India's nuclear energy program would not be affected by Fukushima.

But as critics of India's nuclear power expansion grew to include P. Balaram, director of the venerable Indian Institute of Science and a member of Singh's scientific advisory council, there were signs of a rethink.

Balaram's signature appears on a list of 50 prominent Indians who are calling for a review of India's nuclear power policy, and, pending that, a "moratorium on all further nuclear activity, and revocation of recent clearances for nuclear projects."

Singh Calls for a More Transparent Atomic Agency

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