The word ‘nuclear’ was once associated with economic promise and technological prowess. Today it is said with a slight degree of dread thanks to its association with the Japanese tragedy of Fukushima and the threat of nuclear terrorism. The Seoul Nuclear Safety Summit has only underlined this thanks to the provocative antics of Pyongyang. North Korea has used the opportunity to threaten to fire a space rocket at the time — knowing full well it is impossible to determine for a third country whether the payload is a warhead or merely a satellite until it is nearly too late. So has the fact that Japan, at one time proud owners of the one of the world’s largest nuclear power sectors, has shut down all of its 54 reactors bar one. The only really positive sign for nuclear power, and it is a knock-on effect, is that the ever-rising price of oil, gas and even coal are keeping the atomic attraction alive though not necessarily kicking.
New Delhi also has nuclear ambitions. But these are presently on hold. The multiple impact of a faulty civil nuclear liability law, the Fukushima accident and the government’s own political weakness have meant that India’s nuclear programme has been in a limbo for the past few years. The Kudankulam reactors — which were built without a squeak of protest over the past several years and where there is no land acquisition problems — faced much resistance and became a subject of political controversy. This could not have come at a worse time. India’s energy situation has gone from bad to worse, with peak hour electricity deficits in some parts running to 30%, fossil fuel prices inexorably rising higher and higher and the renewed global impetus for climate change policy putting a focus on India’s increasing dependence on carbon-heavy energy sources.
This is why the resurrection of the Kudankulam reactors is a welcome decision. Unfortunately, such has been the regression in the acceptance of the nuclear power programme that this only takes India back to where it was a few year ago. New Delhi is still seeking administrative solutions to the fact that its liability law is not in consonance with international norms. While South Korea has bravely offered to sell reactors to India, the truth is it, like every other international vendor including Russia and France, can’t sell new reactors until the liability knot is untied. One of the more positive signs is that the secretive priesthood that runs the Department of Atomic Energy is becoming more responsive to public concerns about nuclear safety and its own inner workings. Seoul will help a little in a much larger hearts and minds battle. But the real struggle in almost every country is overtly local. India has just taken baby steps in restoring faith and then revitalising an energy sector that’s essential to the country’s future economic and political success.