It’s almost done. Nearly two years after India and the US first shook hands on a landmark agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, the two nations are reportedly very close to making the deal a reality. It is good that negotiators from both the countries stuck to the job and saw the deal through, despite having to negotiate many obstacles.
On the one hand, the nuclear deal is a sign that the US considers India to be an important player in global geopolitics in the years ahead and is hence ready to accommodate India at the nuclear-power high table—as an equal partner rather than a rogue state. On the other, the deal may well prove to be the greatest achievement of the Manmohan Singh government, ironically one in foreign policy rather than in economic affairs.
While a lot of ink has been spilt over the months on the strategic implications of the India-US nuclear deal—of how Washington learned to stop worrying and love India’s bomb, as an article in Foreign Affairs magazine put it—it is equally important to focus on the benefits it offers us in terms of energy security.
A stable supply of energy to power India’s growing economy is part and parcel of the overall security of the country. Access to nuclear fuel and technology—which will now be easier to get—is an important component of the larger quest for energy security.
By 2010, India will be the fourth-largest energy consumer after the United States, China and Japan. The country cannot rely on hydrocarbon and coal alone for energy. Renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar are unproven. India does have an aggressive strategy to acquire energy resources across the world, but geopolitical considerations dominate the economic ones in this strategy. Buying oil and gas assets in countries such as Sudan or Russia is not as safe as it seems. Ambitious projects such as the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline are fraught with political risk. The heavy dependence on coal, too, has its limitations, especially since it adds to the problem of global warming.
Any multi-pronged strategy for energy security must give due importance to nuclear energy, as much of the world is slowly realizing. Yet, there are the limitations of indigenous nuclear energy development. Installed capacity in the nuclear sector will be a measly 3,900 megawatts (MW), barely 3% of the 132,000 MW at the end of the 10th Plan period. While the atomic energy establishment talks of an ambitious target of 20,000 MW by 2020, it’s not clear how this will be achieved.
It is in this context that the 123 Agreement, which seems to have been finalized in Washington over the weekend, brings glad tidings. Once the usual roadblocks to civilian nuclear cooperation have been set aside, the long experience of the West in nuclear plant fabrication will prove extremely useful for India. Turnkey projects, technical know-how and a host of such knowledge-enhancing experiences will come India’s way. Scientists have long kept the nuclear flag flying in the face of technology-control regimes. Now the returns to such ventures are diminishing and fresh transfers of technology will help. (In the 1950s, the US had helped India’s nuclear energy plans under the Atoms For Peace programme.)
The utility of the deal would have been questionable in the absence of the right to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. India has the expertise to use spent fuel for further power generation, and this is a key part of our nuclear power planning. There is a dedicated facility to do this at Trombay, which was established precisely with this in mind. India also has expertise in handling nuclear waste. This also makes a lot of economic sense. In any case, this fuel is meant for the country’s civilian nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
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