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It’s about options, not co-option

It is difficult to understand why nay-sayers want to foreclose India’s nuclear options, even before the door opens, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury.
Hindustan Times | By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
UPDATED ON MAR 20, 2008 03:13 AM IST

Whether the India-US civilian nuclear deal goes through or not, it is now simply a matter of politics. But what is difficult to understand is why nay-sayers want to foreclose India’s nuclear options, even before the door opens. The most important aspect of the deal is that it widens the choices on offer for India — for environment-friendly and sustainable sources of energy, for access to technologies that have been long denied, and for a chance to arrive at the international high table of the UN Security Council.

There is no specific compulsion, but there is an additional, much-required choice if the government of the day wishes to exercise it. Not to mention that a plethora of companies and entities that have long been blocked out from international high technology commerce, will also get the option.

There is nothing in the much discussed 123 Agreement that says that India has to enhance its energy basket by setting up atomic power reactors. It certainly does not say that India has to get its nuclear reactors or fuel or whatever only from the US. But what it does do, most importantly, is to open up another set of options to access power and technology required for India to sustain its economic growth story.

For the past few decades, Indian scientists have managed to bypass the technology-denial regime and achieve very impressive results and growth. However, given the rapidly changing environment and the fast pace of globalisation, much more is needed just to sustain current levels. This deal provides India not only a hugely enhanced global stature, but also the choice to access and shop around for its specific needs from those that have the goods, if we want to. Today, we do not have that option. We have to make do without it.

A key argument against nuclear power is the enormous expense involved in setting up reactors to produce electric energy, a view the Left has been at pains to point out. However, with depleting reserves of good quality coal, the international price of fossil fuels like crude oil crossing $ 100 a barrel and gas pipelines fraught with security threats, even the cost effectiveness of other options is open to debate. The capital cost of converting renewable sources of energy, like solar, hydro and wind power is equally prohibitive. But India needs energy to continue powering its growth.

Nuclear power at the moment accounts for about 16 per cent of the global electricity supply. France, which uses nuclear energy to power almost 80 per cent of its domestic electricity requirements, finds the usage competitive and cost-effective. According to the World Nuclear Transport Institute, the environmental fallout of a tonne of nuclear fuel is equivalent to burning about 120,000 tonnes of coal. Also uranium, unlike fossil fuels, can be recycled.

A study conducted some years ago by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) estimates that the cost of nuclear electricity generation in India remains competitive with thermal power for plants located about 1,200 kms away from coal pit head, when full credit is given to long-term operating cost, especially in respect of fuel prices. Prices and cost-effectiveness, however, are again not the most critical issue about the 123 Agreement. Saving the environment, while critical for our existence and survival of this planet, is also not the issue. Neither is the vitally important matter of energy security. The issue is that the country must have as wide a variety of choices as possible.

Critics from the Left have slammed the UPA government’s foreign policy, claiming that with the deal, the government has lost its non-aligned moorings, sold out and become allies of the ‘ugly’ superpower, the United States of America. Have critics of the deal, from the Left and the Right, who steadfastly and virulently refuse to allow the government to bring the civilian nuclear deal to fruition, stopped to consider that the more choices a country has, the more non-aligned it is? Or have Messrs Karat, Bardhan and Advani decided that non-alignment as a concept is dead and India should remain aligned to an idealistic, completely fossilised terminology that signifies nothing, while ignoring its own critical needs?

Today, to legitimately access nuclear fuel for its atomic power reactors to function, India has to scout the world for supplies of enriched uranium. Russia and even China have bailed us out when lack of fuel supplies threatened closure of power plants. Why should a proud sovereign country have to go begging to find loopholes just to meet its legitimate requirements? Why, when after decades of nuclear isolation, India is getting a chance to return to the international mainstream, is the opportunity not being seized upon? Why can we not act as mature citizens of a country whose time has come?

Every diplomat I have encountered from countries across the world can’t fathom why India is not grabbing the deal. Certainly, the intense internal domestic debate in this country has further enhanced our strong democratic credentials. Certainly, universal nuclear disarmament is a goal that needs to be pursued.

But isn’t it pointless to be idealistic to the point that the country ignores its specific needs to wait interminably for an international order to become more equitable and egalitarian? At the least we should have the option.

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