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The nuclear option

Manmohan Singh and the UPA I & II governments had great ideas on power development. Ultra Mega Power Projects (UMPP) and the nuclear deal are two great examples. These had the promise of achieving large additions in quick time. Sadly, both failed to take off on promised lines. The UMPP suffered by faulty ground work and the unrealistic stipulation of supply of power at fixed prices over the long term. Can such a commitment be made when there was no guarantee of supply of coal at fixed prices for decades? Neither the policymakers nor the companies that bade for this bothered to look closely at this premise. When global coal prices shot up, the UMPP idea bombed. Reliance Infrastructure that won 3 x 4000 MW projects just bade for time to get the government agree to revise the original condition of supply of power at fixed price . Tata Power was the only company to proceed ahead with construction and complete the project but had to plead for revision. Thus, the 36,000 MW project cleared witnessed just 4000 MW off the ground over ten years.

In regard to nuclear power it is equally tardy. Singh initiated the nuclear deal with the US in July 2005. He staked his all in getting this passed by the Parliament amidst a stiff opposition from the leftists who supported the UPA I government and did succeed. But, years later there had been slow progress in convincing nuclear suppliers to support the Indian initiatives. The Fukushima disaster further lent strength to the anti-nuclear forces. The Kudankulam power station, construction of which was already tardy with the Russian delays, was further stuck by opposition from lobbyists receiving support from several foreign sources.

The French that won the bid for the Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra, did evince lot of interest, but encountered problems relating to liability. There is disappointment over such a support not coming  from Japan during Prime Minister Modi’s visit. The sea-saw battle received some boost when the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised supply of uranium. There is further hope on China extending such support after President Xi Jinping’s visit.  

Technology is a two-sided weapon. There is need for a firm commitment for using its positive side. Nuclear energy is of great value to India in expanding its capacity for power generation. The country’s record in operating power plants over the past five decades and more has been satisfactory. India did not have any serious mishap or problem in operating its nuclear power stations in this period. The commitment to safety is paramount. Ensuring this can take care of adding large capacity.

I remember my interaction with a director of  the French nuclear company Framatome in Paris. I met him in 1982. He said: “France lacks fossil resources like coal and oil. Close to 80 per cent of power needs of the country are met by nuclear power. Our safety record has been exemplary.” In the 32 years since he made this statement one hasn’t witnessed any slip in this record.


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