The Narendra Modi government has surprised many by articulating its position on nuclear power. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Piyush Goyal, minister for power, coal and new and renewable energy, said the government “would like to be cautious that we are not saddled with something only under the garb of clean energy or alternative energy—something which the West has discarded and is sought to be brought to India”.
This is a striking departure from the UPA government’s position which unequivocally embraced nuclear power and planned to increase its contribution to India’s power generation basket from 2.8% to 9% over the next 25 years.
Mr Goyal’s statement does not suggest that India is walking away from nuclear power just yet; he himself said the sector had potential, but maintained the government was considering all options. The minister’s candid statement must be welcomed on several counts. It can first be read as a gesture that concedes the difficulty in unlocking the issue of the nuclear liability legislation which has stalled progress in the sector for years.
As Mr Goyal indicated, several countries are conflicted about the use of nuclear power. Australia, for instance, exports uranium but has no nuclear power facilities. Germany shut down seven nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster and will phase out nuclear power completely by 2022.
The minister did not spell out other areas of concern but they will have featured in government deliberations. Nuclear power is expensive and there are many who contend that the money can be more productively deployed in other sectors including for solar and wind power which sorely need more investment. Then there is the thorny problem about land acquisition.
Thanks to sustained antic-nuclear campaigns over the decades that point to the dangers of nuclear waste and radiation, it is very easy to rally popular opinion against nuclear power. Agitations against plants at Jaitapur and Kudankulam bear that out clearly.
A progressive expansion of nuclear power is likely to generate unrest. The Modi government is likely to take unpopular decisions on land acquisition. Mr Goyal’s remarks point to a more calibrated approach.