At the insistence of the United States, India has been granted global “nuclear exception” status despite being a non-signatory on nuclear non-proliferation treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal (signed in October of last year), consensus at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group and clearance by the global nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), means that India can now access dual-use nuclear technology to generate electricity.
“India’s energy demand has outpaced the increase in energy production, with the country experiencing as much as a 12% gap between peak demand and availability,” explains Meena Mutyala, Vice President of Global Growth and Innovation at India Westinghouse Electric Company, India. “By expanding its nuclear energy program, India will be able to better meet its growing energy demands.”
India has the fourth largest coal reserves in the world and currently gets over 51% of its primary energy from coal. However, given the consequent high carbon emissions, the country is looking to ramp up renewable energy and nuclear power. Presently, nuclear power contributes only 2.7% of India’s power output.
The IAEA confirms that four new reactors are being constructed in India with the prospect of many more. According to its latest report, Year in Review 2008, the agency says that India is looking to expand its civilian nuclear program by 15 times it current levels. So far, the Indian government alone maintains the authority to produce nuclear energy in the country though there are moves to allow private players as well.
A paper released by the South Asia Analysis Group confirms the importance of outside assistance. “Current progress in India on building its own nuclear power plants at best has a failing grade. Developing (indigenous) nuclear technology is one thing, implementing it is another. For even homegrown technology, India will have to import critical components.”
Many foreign firms from Russia, France, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the US are keen to tap into India’s new nuclear business estimated to be worth over US$100 billion. Private firms, however, will only be allowed to manufacture equipment related to producing atomic power.
This special treatment to India follows its good record as a responsible democracy, unlike neighbors such as Pakistan or Myanmar, which maintain dubious proliferation records and have been accused of pursuing independent nuclear programs with the assistance of “rogue nations” such as North Korea, Libya and Iran. And yet India considers these binding agreements to be skewed in favor of countries that already stockpile nuclear weapons, such as America, Russia, China, Britain and France.
A long-time American ally, Pakistan has made it known that it stands slighted by Washington, which has not offered the country a similar nuclear deal. While Pakistan continues to receive military aid from America to fight jehadi terror and the spread of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington’s relationship with New Delhi has changed the diplomatic climate. Islamabad has instead been reaching out to China and reportedly France to help build its nuclear reactors. It also fears that India could far overtake Pakistan in nuclear technology, which could easily enhance its ability to develop and use atomic bombs.
India and Pakistan have fought several wars in the past resulting in a ceaseless South Asian arms race that has only picked up pace in the past few months. Relations between the two countries have been tense following the brazen Mumbai terror attacks (described as India’s 9/11) in which militants trained in Pakistan stormed luxury hotels killing 172 people in November 2008. Both countries have tested nuclear weapons in the past and are likely to do so again in the future.
But according to an official statement by the government’s foreign ministry spokesperson, “The crux of the nuclear deal, really, is that India, which is growing by 8 percent, has huge energy needs, and we have very, very limited options. The key to understanding this issue is to really look at India's energy needs and not so much on India's weapons program, on which there has been an excessive focus.”
One crucial element in the progress of nuclear energy is fuel. India’s former president and scientist A.P. J. Abdul Kalam says, “We need a steady supply of uranium until we build thorium reactors. The proposed civilian nuclear deal with the US will help us.”
The states of Jharkhand, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have yielded sufficient quantities for uranium production and further exploration. France has agreed to supply India with nuclear fuel while Russia currently supplies the country with fuel pellets. India has also signed agreements with Namibia, Tajikistan, Mongolia and Kazakhstan to source or prospect for uranium.
All of this means that India will become increasingly more confident about its use of nuclear energy. The first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant was launched this summer and India has plans to power some parts of Chandrayaan II, its next unmanned mission to the moon, with nuclear energy.
In July, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India heading a delegation that included prospective nuclear energy players in India.
Clinton provided assurances that America is looking to enhance the transfer of nuclear technology to India. Unlike the Cold War era when India was aligned with the Soviet Union, America today looks at India as a strategic partner to check the growing influence of China in the Asian region. The two countries have already proceeded to sign big defense deals in the last couple of years and are co-operating on terrorism issues.
And, having led the push for India’s case as the global “nuclear exception,” the US does not want to lose out on what are certain to be huge business opportunities. In December, the US India Business Council and Nuclear Energy Institute will meet with top US nuclear companies, led by General Electric and Westinghouse, for the fifth US Commercial Nuclear Mission to India.
Clearly, India’s nuclear power ambitions are on a roll.
Priyanka Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and risk analyst based in Gurgaon/New Delhi, India who has covered diverse issues related to the Indian subcontinent for seven years. Her work has been published in Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia, Siliconeer Magazine, Asia Times, and Business Times (Singapore) among others. Her area of interest spans marginalized social strata, women, children and climate change. Fluent in more than 8 Indian languages, Priyanka is writing a book about her travels and experiences on the Indian subcontinent.