The American President is careful not to lie to his Congress – his letter, seeking Congress approval for the Indo-US nuclear deal, stated that assurances of fuel supply to India are not legally binding. The same however cannot be said of the UPA Prime Minister when he addressed Parliament on the issue or of the UPA Chairperson when she spoke to the farmers of Andhra Pradesh about how good the nuclear deal was for India. It is a fact that only Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have actively pushed for the deal while other heavyweights in the Congress and Congress’ allies in the UPA have only been making polite noises; not opposing the deal but not welcoming it either with the kind of fervour that the UPA Chairperson and Prime Minister have consistently maintained. If anything there is a marked lack of enthusiasm both within the Congress and the UPA over the deal.
The ugly charade of seeking Parliament approval for the deal through the tainted vote of confidence was played out in full view of the nation as our honourable members of parliament enacted the sordid bribe-for-vote scandal inside the august house. This much was evident – astronomical amounts of money (domestic, foreign or both) had steamrolled all genuine dissent to the Indo-American Nuclear Deal and it was tainted money that spoke in parliament on that day and not the voice of the people. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, like their partner George W Bush before invading Iraq, contemptuously dismissed domestic public opinion. The world’s largest democracy and the world’s questionably most powerful democracy, trod democracy under their heels and rushed the deal in what amounted to indecent haste, to the IAEA and the NSG. But there is a difference here. While American Presidents may have contempt for democracy as expressed as voice of the people, they take care not to bypass the democratic process as embodied in their ruling elite oligarchy (Senate and House of Representatives). But the Indian Prime Minister and the UPA Chairperson have not only thumbed their nose at Parliament, they have contemptuously thumbed their nose at important voices within the scientific community, within the military establishment and even the political class. So strict is the adherence to the democratic process in the US that neither the American establishment nor the American President has sent even the faintest sign that the deal will be signed during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit now to the US. But bartering away the nation’s dignity, its sovereignty and its interests the Prime Minister has emplaned for the US with no assurances leave alone promises that the deal will be signed.
The Indo-US nuclear deal is touted as the UPA government’s crowning foreign-policy achievement; why this trade in nuclear fuel and technology should pertain to the foreign-policy domain and not simply to trade and commerce, may not be clear at once. The nuclear deal agreement was signed by the American President on December 18, 2006, barely a month before Russian President Putin’s state visit to India in January 2007. Vyacheslav Trubnikov, Russian Ambassador to India had remarked then that nuclear co-operation was the most important agenda on Putin’s diary during that visit. Indian and Russian nuclear officials signed a MoU for construction of four more one-gigawatt nuclear reactors in Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, in addition to the two units already under construction in Koodankulam by Russia’s Atomstroyexport. Pending India’s bilateral agreement with member countries of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group or NSG, Russia had indicated that it expects to win contracts to build at least ten more nuclear reactors in as-yet unspecified sites in the country. It needs mention that the NSG, trading in nuclear fuel and technology, functions like OPEC which trades in petroleum; that, while member countries in these blocs are free to enter into bilateral agreements with non-member countries for purposes of trade, broad policy decisions and guidelines governing the trade are made only by the bloc collectively. Russia, a late entrant to the NSG, became a member of the group only in 1992.
Besides the MoU, the Russian President and the Indian Prime Minister had signed in January 2007 a memorandum to prepare before the end of 2007, a comprehensive document on nuclear power co-operation agreement between the two countries. The nuclear establishment and our strategic experts have not told us the status of this very important intended agreement. My own guess would be that the official document outlining such an Indo-Russian agreement on nuclear power co-operation has probably begun to taxi, but has not received government (read US) signal for take-off. The trading in nuclear fuel and technology and the issue of contracts for the building of nuclear reactors in India had thus begun to acquire foreign policy connotations. A vibrant economy consistently expanding the base of its middle-class, military strength in terms of hard ware and manpower in conventional warfare, an indigenous nuclear science research establishment leading to demonstrable clout accruing from success in the nuclear civil and military sectors, and an indigenous space programme are the contemporary power indicators signaling a country’s power to influence world affairs. The NSG has signaled its readiness to deal with India on the basis of the waiver but Manmohan Singh has not permitted India’s nuclear establishment to start business with Russia and France both of which countries had always been ready to enter into agreements for nuclear co-operation; instead the Prime Minister is holding up all contracts until the US Congress assents to the deal after which India will begin the trading process with the US signing the first slew of contracts. This is not nuclear trade and commerce, this is foreign policy.
Given the power indicators of geopolitics, the US had every reason to fear revival of the traditional ties between India and a re-assertive Putin’s Russia, especially through the nuclear route. It must also be borne on mind that in 1998 the then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov had mooted the attractive idea of an India-China-Russia triangle. To a pointed question on the triangular relations by the media in January 2007, Putin replied, “The Prime Minister and I discussed trilateral cooperation today. We did not discuss the matter in detail, but we noted that it is an interesting and useful format. Furthermore, we are united by our desire to resolve regional problems in a way acceptable to all sides. We therefore think that there are good prospects for work together in a trilateral format”. There is little doubt that Putin’s remarks about trilateral relations being useful to resolve regional issues must have been interpreted (correctly) as a step to reduce and ultimately eliminate America’s influence in the region. It was perhaps the threat of the renewed special relations between Russia and India with China as a potential ally in the group which may have triggered the US to move fast to cement the nuclear deal with a speed hitherto not displayed in any aspect of Indo-US ties.
India’s energy requirements include electricity and non-electric energy in industry for purposes of heat application (process heat and space heating) and energy for transportation. Currently the global average of energy use is one-thirds of primary energy (nuclear energy, fossil fuels and renewable energy) as electricity with the remaining two-thirds used in heat application and for transportation. The general trend in developed nations, where the transportation sector consumes about one quarter of all energy produced, is to replace petroleum-based hydro-carbons like gasoline and diesel with nuclear energy generating energy carriers like hydrogen and electricity. Research in these areas have begun and the objective is to get even aircrafts to fly on hydrogen. Energy carriers are energy sources we use for domestic and industrial purposes, derived from primary energy sources like nuclear energy, fossil fuels and renewable sources like solar and wind power. In short, the movement is towards getting nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels as power source for all non-electric purposes.
For the moment let us set aside the issue of India’s energy requirements and the quantum of deficit in energy production as against demand. Let us examine America’s energy requirements and the state of its fast-declining and almost defunct nuclear industry. It is not just the nuclear industry in America which is in the doldrums; Americans are increasingly becoming aware of the serious trouble in manufacturing, in industry and in infrastructure development. In short, the fundamentals of the American economy are unhealthy and need to be revived and kick-started urgently and for this they are going to need energy and fast. The time has come for the global bully policeman to rein its hubris, stop waging global wars as a compulsive indulgence of this hubris and attend to its home; last week’s collapse of the US financial edifice is not only a symptom of this acute malaise but also in a sense its culmination.
American experts have mooted the idea of no fewer than 100 new nuclear plants within the next decade to revive the flagging American economy and the defunct nuclear power industry. However, the 2005 energy legislation passed by the American Congress has provided for insulation of the power industry from procedural and regulatory delays only with respect to six prospective new nuclear plants. The Bush administration though is contemplating building only three nuclear plants by 2010 – an initiative which falls far short of their gargantuan appetite for power. American misadventure in the middle-east, its modern-day oil piracy combined with a Christian Crusade in Iraq have antagonized even the formerly subservient Saudi Arabia; and since the close of the 1990s decade, White House occupants and hopeful occupants have been articulating the need for America to minimize its dependence on Gulf oil.
So what are the real options before the US? There is practically no more coal-fired power generation in the US and the power generated by natural gas-fired turbines is woefully inadequate and is adding only “part-time power” to put it charitably, to overall power generation. Existing coal-fired electric power plants in the US have all aged or aging and are also greatly polluting with alarming levels of carbon-monoxide, carbon-dioxide and sulphur-dioxide emissions. As regards the economic viability of coal power, the cost of retrofitting aging and aged coal plants to meet anti-pollution standards equals the cost of building new power plants. To add to America’s problems, America’s manufacturing and industry are adversely affected by America’s dependence on coal for transportation. America’s freight railroads are running so many goods trains to carry coal for power stations across the country, that for more than 30 years now, movement of all other freight by rail has been steadily declining. The US therefore has no other option but to turn to nuclear power – to meet rising domestic consumption, demands on infrastructure and consumption from a growing population, to revive its manufacturing and industry and to invest in the flagging infrastructure development industry.
The most worrisome aspect of the Indo-US nuclear deal is what precisely is the US going to give India – build nuclear plants for us, give us nuclear fuel or share nuclear technology? What is the cost that India will be forced to pay for this co-operation and is it worth the cost if we have the capacity to meet a great part of our energy requirements without the deal? The US has refused to share any kind of technology with us because it knows that all nuclear technology is dual-use and it is a thin line which divides the civil nuclear from the military nuclear programme. So the deal is not going to get India any up-to-date nuclear technology with respect to building reactors, fuel enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing. Fuel supply through the deal from the US and from other countries in the NSG comes with the condition of not conducting nuclear tests for military purposes. The UPA government has not told the nation if the ban on nuclear testing includes testing new and advanced missiles carrying nuclear payload. The American President has told his Congress that assurances of fuel supply to India are not legally binding and if India were to conduct nuclear tests then America will be governed only by domestic laws and all further cooperation with India will cease as will supply of nuclear fuel. So, the only economically viable aspect of the deal is America negotiating contracts to build nuclear plants in India – something that will benefit the American economy more than it will benefit India because if building nuclear plants alone is the issue here, then Russia or France or even China could have built them for us with fewer debilitating conditions and more advanced technology. Is the US in any position to build nuclear reactors for India with American nuclear plants as aged or aging as its coal plants?
What exactly is the status of the American nuclear industry?
Of the 430 nuclear plants operational in the world today, 104 are located in the US. However, in 1991, 112 nuclear plants were operational in the country; this means since 1991, several nuclear plants in the US have been de-commissioned. In terms of nuclear energy, since 1991, 7000 megawatts of nuclear power have been removed off the line, of which, units generating 6000 megawatts of nuclear power have been permanently disabled. During the next ten years it is believed that 30 more nuclear reactors may have to be re-licensed because they have already attained the re-licensing operating life-time limit of 30 years. Of these, some reactors have already been re-licensed, some reactors are being reviewed for re-licensing while some have not even applied for review. Since 2000, 22 new nuclear reactors have been commissioned and are now operational in different countries of the world and another 25 nuclear reactors are in various stages of construction; several of the 22 operational reactors and of the 25 under construction are located in Asia. But none among the 22 reactors already commissioned or among the 25 under construction is in the US.
For nearly two decades now, no new nuclear reactor has gone on line in America whereas Russia, China and Japan are racing towards operationalising third generation and even fourth generation nuclear reactors. While Russia is well on the way towards its first floating nuclear plant (stand-alone nuclear reactors on ships and barges which can provide electricity to remote localities in difficult terrain), Japan, China and South Africa (!) are successfully building and operating High Temperature Reactors or PBMR (Pebble Bed Modular Reactors) which seek to transform their countries towards a hydrogen-based economy. Russia is also moving in this direction with its own HTR PBMR at the testing stage. Now, the million dollar question – if the US will not give us nuclear technology (what technology?), if nuclear fuel supply comes with non-negotiable conditions from the American side of the deal, and if the US has not built any new reactor at home for over three decades (going by the laws governing the re-licensing process in that country), why is the UPA government hell-bent on the nuclear deal with the US whose own domestic nuclear industry is out-dated and decrepit?
Getting back to India's energy sector – as per the Eleventh Planning Commission Report, our country's total installed power generation capacity stands at about 1,44,000 MW. The approximate share of the installed capacity between Hydro (coal-fired), Thermal, Nuclear and renewable are 25%, 67%, 3%, and 5% respectively. The contribution from renewable energy sources is mainly from wind, bio-mass and small hydro and industrial waste. Out of the tenth plan target of adding another 41,110 MW to the installed capacity we managed to add only 23,250 MW and the deficit will spill over into the eleventh plan. The eleventh plan itself envisages adding 68,869 MW, not including the deficit from the tenth plan. The country’s target by the end of the eleventh plan is to generate 200,000MW of power. It cannot be gainsaid that India’s nuclear power sector must be geared to contributing a heftier share than the paltry 3%, of the total power generated so far. But does this need to be done only through the Indo-US nuclear Deal route when we have an abundance of thorium and even as we are perfecting our fast-breeder reactors? Opposition to the deal with the US has come from the Indian scientific community and military establishment. The reasons are simple:
A vibrant nuclear weapons programme demands enough Natural Uranium (NU) which has about 99% of the non-fissile Uranium isotope called U 238 and about 0.7% of the fissile isotope called U 235
Natural Uranium which contains just 0.7% of U 235 must be enriched to 3-4% of U 235 for fueling nuclear reactors. Natural Uranium is enriched to about 93% of U 235 to make it weapons’ grade Uranium
Several countries of the world use enriched U 235 to fuel their reactors.
India uses NU because of the indigenously developed Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) which can be fuelled by NU and do not need enriched U 235.
India’s nuclear weapons programme is using, not enriched U 235 but Plutonium
India, by reprocessing its spent fuel from its PHWRs extracts Plutonium which because it decays radioactively, is used in India’s pioneer Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) and is also used for military purposes
India’s test FBR in Kalpakkam and the two prototype FBRs also in Kalpakkam use Plutonium in a Thorium 232 Blanket around the core to breed U 233 which is also breeder fuel
Uranium 233 is fissile Uranium which does not exist naturally but can be manufactured in perpetuity in FBRs using Thorium By using NU to fuel reactors, by reprocessing spent fuel to extract Plutonium which will be used with Thorium in FBRs to manufacture U233, India would not only be nuclear fuel self-sufficient but would also have completed the nuclear fuel cycle.
When new oil and natural gas deposits are being discovered in the KG basin, with functional hydro, thermal and growing biomass power projects, with a hard-earned indigenous nuclear programme are we so desperate for power that we need to sign a slave treaty called the Indo-US nuclear deal? Who is the real beneficiary? With all these facts in the public domain India cannot credibly play Red Riding Hood. That the US has wolfish economic, military, strategic interests in India is well-known and documented. The Indo-US Nuclear Deal is subordinating national sovereignty to development achieved not by our efforts but with the ‘help’ of predatory regimes. Perhaps the financial crisis in the US is our Gods machinating to sabotage the deal.
23 September, 2008.
(The author is Editor, www.vigilonline.com)