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Nuke breakthrough: Loaded in US' favour at India's cost

‘Administrative arrangements’ for civil nuclear cooperation will only contribute to the US’ economic recovery at India’s expense

columns Updated: Jan 27, 2015 02:02 IST

The media is agog with the bubbling effervescence of the Modi-Obama chemistry. The centerpiece of this excitement is the so-called ‘breakthrough’ achieved over the India-US nuclear deal.

The contentious issues have been two: First, after a long bitter struggle in Parliament, the Opposition had succeeded in forcing the Manmohan Singh government to insert Section 17(B), allowing the liability costs (in the case of an unfortunate accident) to apply to the supplier as well. Major American companies, eagerly waiting to sell civilian nuclear technology to India, have refused to accept any such liability placing the entire onus, even in the case of manufacturing defects, upon the operator alone.

In India’s case, the operator, by law, can only be State-administered units by the Department of Atomic Energy. Second, the US’ insistence on ‘tracking’ all supplies of nuclear equipment to India to ensure that they are not misused for nuclear weapons. The US apparently is now satisfied with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections instead.

Notwithstanding the accompanying euphoria in the Obama-Modi joint statement ‘Shared Efforts; Progress for All’ (available on the ministry of external affairs’ website), the civilian nuclear deal finds mention in a small paragraph towards the end (Article 43). “Noting that the Contact Group set up in September 2014 to advance implementation of bilateral civil nuclear cooperation has met three times in December and January, the leaders welcomed the understandings reached on the issue of civil nuclear liability and administrative arrangements for civil nuclear cooperation, and looked forward to US-built nuclear reactors contributing to India’s energy security at the earliest." No further details.

When the civil nuclear cooperation was legislated in 2010, the then BJP supported the Left parties demanding the incorporation of supplier’s liability. As the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, today’s external affairs minister had castigated the Manmohan Singh government on this issue, saying the prime minister had “betrayed the country’s sovereignty for his own prestige”. Likewise the BJP’s leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, today’s Union finance minister. After the Modi government was formed, the external affairs minister said on September 8, 2014, “Scandals like the Bhopal tragedy took place. That is why suppliers’ liability is already included into the Nuclear Liability Act. We will not pass any (revised Bill) …I think we will reiterate our stand before US President Obama. This time a strong government will be talking to Obama; that will make all the difference.”

Betraying this, the Modi government appears to have gone ahead to permit a circumvention. Reports indicate that Section 15(B) of the Act will be interpreted in the Rules to enable Indian State-owned insurance corporations to offer a cover of Rs 750 crore while a government backup will extend this to Rs 1,500 crore. India will pay the premium for such an insurance policy to the foreign suppliers. What does this mean? Already the law caps the compensation to victims to be borne by the operator (Government of India) to Rs 1,500 crore. If suppliers’ defective equipment is the cause for the accident, then this insurance policy will be redeemed to increase the limit by another Rs 1,500 crore. The liability for paying compensation, hence, is completely to be covered by the Indian government and State-owned insurance companies, funded by the taxpayers’ money, while American corporates get away without any liability.

Far from any ‘breakthrough’, this only suggests India succumbed to the US’ pressures. American corporates — GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse — eager to sell nuclear reactors to India (as the US has not placed any order for a nuclear power reactor since 1979 after the Three Mile Island accident) will enthusiastically lap up this ‘arrangement’.

This subterfuge is being justified in the name of India moving towards ‘clean energy’. At the joint press conference, when asked if the US-China deal on climate change is putting pressure on India, Modi replied that there is no such pressure, but there is pressure to ensure that India’s future generations receive cleaner energies. Hence, India subordinates itself to the US’ pressures to buy greenhouse technologies, helping its economic recovery. This, despite our contribution to global cumulative emissions being 2.2% (1850 to 2000) compared to the US’ contribution of 29.3%.

Further, the reactors we are buying from the US are not in operation anywhere else in the world today. Hence, there is no assessment of associated risk. Additionally, the cost of 1 MW produced by US reactors is estimated to be Rs 20-25 crore while our Thermal Power Projects with the latest carbon emission limiting technologies costs only Rs 5-7 crore.

Even if the Modi government is willing to pay the extra costs for ‘clean energy’, do we need to buy foreign reactors? Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, argues that we have indigenously developed and are operating today 700-MW pressurised heavy water reactors that can be extended up to 900 to 1,000 MW, costing only 30-50% of the imported reactors. Instead of developing ‘Made in India’, the Modi government is promoting US economic recovery.

Further, India’s indigenous nuclear technologies can be vastly improved by access to technology related to enriching natural uranium and re-processing spent fuel for plutonium extraction (essential to use our vast thorium deposits) for nuclear energy. Such technologies, known as ENR (enrichment and reprocessing), were supposed to be available to India, breaking our so-called ‘nuclear apartheid’ following the nuclear deal. Manmohan Singh gave such an assurance to us in Parliament in September 2008. Within two months, however, under the US’ pressure, the Nuclear Suppliers Group reframed its rules to deny ENR technologies to India! Such is the US’ track record.

Despite this, Modi has now vastly enlarged Indian market access to American companies in nuclear energy, climate technologies and defence production (by renewing the defence treaty for another decade), contributing to the US’ economic recovery at our expense.

Today’s ‘bubbles’ will soon burst. Wither ‘(Made) Make in India’!

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 26, 2015 23:18 IST