India's access to nuclear power is set to grow, but not everyone is pleased by the recent developments.
Two recent developments have brightened the prospects for India’s nuclear energy sector despite widespread opposition linked to safety concerns.
First, on December 4th, Australia’s ruling Labor Party lifted the ban on the sale of uranium -- a critical fuel that runs nuclear plants -- to India.
Second, on December 16th, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced in Moscow, after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that the first unit of the controversial Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) Project in Tamil Nadu will start functioning in a couple weeks, and the second within six months.
Anti-nuclear activists were outraged by these developments. "People are not yet convinced about its safety. Why rush with nuclear energy projects? It doesn't make any sense," Praful Bidwai, a columnist and activist, told Khabar South Asia on Thursday (January 5th).
In 2007, then-Prime Minister John Howard approved uranium sales to India, despite Australia’s policy not to sell nuclear fuel to countries outside the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The move was annulled by the Rudd government that followed.
On December 4th, Prime Minister Julia Gillards reversed that decision and went ahead with the sale. "Our refusal to sell uranium to India is not going to cause India to decide that it will no longer have nuclear weapons," she told a party conference in Sydney.
Indian nuclear experts called the Australian decision a victory.
"In Australia, uranium sale is an internal political issue. The ruling party has been influenced by American advice as well as by consideration of better bilateral relations with India," T.P. Sreenivasan, former Governor of India at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Khabar South Asia. "The Australian decision increases our choices and increases the relevance of the nuclear deal, even if it does not result in immediate orders or supplies."
According to C.M.A. Nayar, a former nuclear industry executive, Australia’s decision was driven by commercial interests.
"Australia is foreseeing a steep fall in the market for uranium because of strong resistance to nuclear power in the developed world," he said. "It is now reconciled to the fact that China and India will be its biggest market for uranium."
Australia has the world's largest reserves of uranium, holding 23 percent of the total, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Australian Uranium Association chief executive Michael Angwin said it could sell about 2,500 tons of uranium a year to India by 2030. However, it might take years before India receives the first shipment.
The countries will need to work out a new agreement for the uranium sale, and this could take a long time. Besides, India already has agreements with Russia, France, Kazakhstan, Namibia and Mongolia for nuclear fuel.
India's quest for enhanced nuclear power is primarily driven by the looming crisis in the energy sector. According to Nayar, neither the Department of Atomic Energy nor the National Power Corporation of India has a clear strategy for meeting India's energy demand.
"India would need an addition of at least 700,000 MW of power by 2040," Nayar said. "I am not at all confident that India will be able to have more than 50,000 MW of nuclear power by 2050."
Out of India’s total installed power generation capacity of 177,000 MW, nuclear production accounts for only 4,560 MW.
Experts are concerned India’s nuclear future may be rocky due to safety concerns.
India must protect citizens living in the vicinity of plants with welfare measures such as lifetime medical care and a sum of at least one million rupees ($19,042), to be reviewed every five years, in the event of death due to an accident, Nayar said.
S.P. Udayakumar, a resident of Nagercoil, just 35 km from Kudankulam, accused the government of siding with "filthy rich countries" that want to do nuclear business with India.
"If the government has any democratic credentials, they should listen to the people, the ordinary people," he said.
A government-appointed Expert Group has deemed the Kudankulam project safe. "The EG has reviewed the design safety aspects of KKNPP and have concluded that an accident similar to what occurred at Fukushima is not conceivable at KKNPP," the group said in its report.
Sreenivasan, the former IAEA governor, advocates a gradual switch from nuclear energy to alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind and tide energy.
In the wake of the Fukushima accident last year, Kudankulam witnessed massive rallies by locals who wanted the plant shut down permanently.
"The people are worried not just about a tsunami or earthquake damaging the plant. They are more concerned about their livelihood than anything else," Udayakumar said.