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N-deal: Sound investment

When the gavel went down to approve the deal at American Congress, it was no instant lottery, writes Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Dec 12, 2006 02:27 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra

When the gavel went down to approve the nuclear deal at the American Congress, it was no instant lottery — some say it is more like putting your money in a fixed deposit.

If India so decides, the U-turn in the American law over the nuclear deal can help New Delhi succeed in an ambitious plan that would provide it sufficient energy for some four centuries.

That involves using India's vast reserves of the radioactive material thorium to make uranium, and convert it into electricity.

Almost a third of the world's thorium is found in India, especially the coasts of Kerala. But India does not have enough uranium reserves to be used to make electricity from thorium in homegrown fast breeder reactors. Now, India can buy as much uranium as it wants from the United States and other countries to meet the soaring energy demands of its booming economy.

In return, India has promised the US government a separation of its nuclear and civilian facilities.

The ongoing fast breeder reactor programme creates more uranium by consuming a smaller quantity, blanketed by thorium. It is currently not open to international scrutiny. But if India was to open it up — since it is devoted to civilian, not military use — the programme can also get access to the uranium to be supplied under the deal and provide a seemingly endless energy source.

For now, though, officials want to keep the programme away from international scanners. "It is under development. At this stage, we do not want to have safeguards," said Baldev Raj, director of the Tamil Nadu-based Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam that is building the reactor.

In the relatively shorter term, over the next few decades, if India manages well the gains it just made on Capitol Hill, there will be fewer power cuts for future generations, and perhaps none eventually because India will take the usage of nuclear energy from the current three per cent of the total energy to a projected eight per cent in 2020 and 30 per cent in 2050.

"The immediate gain will be that our nuclear base will expand. People can eventually look forward to far less load shedding," said Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, spokesman for the Department of Atomic Energy. "In the long term, if the imported uranium is used for the future fast breeder reactors, then we will not have to worry about power shortages for centuries."

But little is going to change right away. Reactors take years to build. Land acquisition and environmental clearances are tardy.

At current levels of 600 units of electricity now consumed annually by an average Indian, and even if the country achieves the stated goal of 40,000 megawatts of nuclear energy by 2020, the desired 20,000 megawatt of energy from imported uranium would directly light up the homes of only 41,600 people every year.

"We should not start believing that some sort of Utopia would arrive right away. Little is going to change over the next 20 years," said RK Pachauri, head of The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

But in the long term, India has just stepped into the business-class of the world's nuclear powers. "I have colleagues who are retired, who say they did not think they will live to see the day when the US would change its laws for the sake of India," said an official with close knowledge of the negotiations. "Now they have."

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First Published: Dec 12, 2006 02:27 IST

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