Critics are waxing eloquent about what has been said, or not said, in the US legislation authorising nuclear cooperation with India. But almost none of them are confronting the reason why India so desperately needs the US deal — lack of adequate domestic natural uranium and a nuclear power programme that is way behind schedule.
All the countries who can assist us constitute a cartel, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, whose goal is to deny technology or material to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, like India. The US legislation is a major step towards ending India’s isolation in the world nuclear market. "Separating the civil and military part of our nuclear programmes will benefit both of them," says K Santhanam, the nuclear scientist who ran India’s nuclear weapons programme at the time of the Pokhran test.
The Planning Commission’s mid-term appraisal of the 10th Five Year Plan (2002-2007) of June 2005 was the first public confirmation that India’s nuclear power programme was in trouble. It pointed out that "given the limited natural uranium resources", India must seek 20,000 MW on a "turnkey basis", or "alternatively India must seek nuclear fuel on competitive terms" for a similar level of capacity to be built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). This was a roundabout way of saying that India needed to either get foreign companies to build reactors in India or import fuel and build them indigenously.
In a paper for the International Panel on Fissile Material published a few months ago, four leading scientists — Zia Mian, AH Nayyar, R Rajaraman and MV Ramana — referred to NPCIL data showing how existing nuclear reactors are running at lower capacity factors over the past few years. The authors said their estimates are that India has been using uranium from past stockpiles and "in the absence of uranium imports or cut-backs in India’s nuclear power generation, this stockpile will be exhausted by 2007". The second major reason why India needs the deal is that it is vital for the future of our indigenous power programme.
On Saturday, CPI-M politburo member Sitaram Yechury declared that the US was aiming to scupper the thorium programme. If anything, the deal will salvage the programme, which is doomed minus the import of natural uranium (U238). According to Santhanam, "Without adequate plutonium, India cannot successfully transit to its second stage. And to transit there requires uranium, imported or otherwise."
According to Homi Bhabha’s plan, in the first stage, India would use its natural uranium in Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors to produce power as well as plutonium as a by-product. In the second stage, this plutonium would be used in Fast Breeder Reactors with natural uranium to breed more plutonium and power. In the third stage, thorium would be irradiated in reactors and yield U-233, a fissile material. But as of now there is simply not enough plutonium to create a sustainable fast breeder economy.
To get that going, India needs to scale up to 20,000 MW of nuclear energy originally targeted for 2000, but will now be achieved only by 2020, and that too only if the NSG embargoes are lifted. To reach that stage, India also needs better and larger reactors. The average Indian reactor-size is 220 MW and going to 540, while the international norm is 1,000 MW and growing. Finland, for example, is making a reactor with a capacity of 1,600 MW.
Almost all authorities believe that this can be done by opening up the nuclear power sector. But this can happen only after the US has prised open the NSG door by working out a bilateral agreement with India on the parameters of cooperation.