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Atom heart brothers

Globally, nuclear power is playing catch-up. India needs to pick up its policy pace.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2010 21:53 IST

Nuclear power wins so much public praise that its advocacy is developing religious overtones. US President Barack Obama called for a nuclear renaissance in his State of the Union address. French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday called for the developing world to seek radioactive communion. Israel has offered to jointly build reactors with its Arab neighbours. Over the next two decades, as many as 400 new reactors, roughly doubling the number running, could come up around the world.

Though Asia was largely unaffected, the shadow created by the Chernobyl disaster has largely passed. There’re many reasons the nuclear torch has so many bearers. The first is energy. If one believes in the theory of peak oil — that climate change is man-made, or that petrodollars finance Islamic terror — then one believes in the need for a proven alternative to fossil fuels. The second is money. Reactors cost a billion dollars or two, fuelling and maintaining them millions more. Mr Sarkozy inaugurated a nuclear conference this week to showcase his country’s prowess in reactors for export. Others are also offering atomic goodies. Reactor-makers now include upstarts like South Korea. Almost every industrialised country produces reactor components. Another cluster provides reactor fuel and others sell uranium. Because owning a reactor, as Iran has shown, means a country also learns three-quarters of the process for building a bomb and because nuclear power still produces the world’s most hazardous waste, a nuclear renaissance needs to be accompanied by a policy safety check. In tandem with 9/11, this is why the world non-proliferation regime has been tightening.

India has been a nuclear laggard — it plans a dozen new reactors while China plans 300. It no longer has the excuse of sanctions and needs to make up for lost time. This is why the passage of the nuclear liability bill in some form is necessary. It will not only open the door for reactor imports from the US, France and other countries. It will also pave the way for India’s own private nuclear efforts. A further step towards accomplishing the latter is ending the Department of Atomic Energy’s monopoly. Only such reform will allow the sector to develop the finances and innovation needed for India to become a genuine player in a sector that is now achieving critical mass.