India has a nuclear opportunity and, so far, it seems to be doing its best to miss it. The doors to a new atomic era continue to open. Australia’s Labour government, which has long seen itself as a high priest of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has bitten the bullet and said it would seek to lift the ban on uranium sales to India.
But this growing international acceptance of India’s nuclear status has to be contrasted with the domestic agitations against new reactors. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam has been staging a one-man public relations campaign extolling the virtues of nuclear power in an attempt to win over a sceptical or indifferent Indian public. New Delhi has also repeatedly committed itself to completing the Koodankulam reactor project and pursuing nuclear power — though the Centre has had a poor track record of getting its own way when it comes to things nuclear in the past two years.
The unpleasant truth is that India cannot do without nuclear power. The first is the obvious fact that India needs energy and it needs it from any source it can find. It’s not a choice between natural gas or nuclear, petrol or wind. India’s energy demands are soaring and they will rise further as its economy grows, and about 400 million Indians transit away from dung and wood-burning. The second is the fact that the future of energy is volatile and unpredictable. Oil may be running out. Shale gas may prove environmentally too destructive to exploit. On the other hand, solar and wind may become economically and technologically viable. Because there can be no certainty on this front — other than that power is necessary if the country is to prosper — India needs to keep a foothold in every possible energy source. The third is that if climate change is a genuine concern, than the domination of coal and oil in India’s energy portfolio spells disaster. Either India will collapse from the lack of energy or commit suicide by accelerating global warming. Of all the non-carbon emitting energy sources, none are as tried and tested as nuclear. In none of them can India claim to such a wealth of indigenous experience and know-how.
At present, India is crippling its nuclear capability partly due to the drift and opportunism being practised by both the ruling coalition and the Opposition. The civil nuclear liability law is more than a problem for foreign companies, it endangers the hundreds of Indian firms that make reactor components. While one can be sympathetic to protests over land compensation, ones driven by imported green scare stories should be treated as hysteria rather than honest understanding. There is unfortunate irony in Australians acceding to years of Indian pressure just at a time when the Indians are doing such a good job of ensuring they may never need uranium.