Unperturbed by protests against its proposed nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, the French civil nuclear energy major Areva is now in the closing stages of striking an “early works agreement” with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited.

This agreement, which is actually a series of studies to ensure that the reactor is in conformity with local conditions, is likely to take nine months. “Areva’s discussions with NPCIL are on. We hope to achieve closure as soon as possible. We are eager to start [on the studies] so as to fully define the project,” said diplomatic sources.

They drew attention to French Ambassador Francois Richier’s observations at a recent Indo-French nuclear seminar. “I hope the discussions will be completed soon,” he had said, which would make the Jaitapur project “the first to come up since the 2008 Nuclear Suppliers Group exemption to India.”

While Kudankulam I and II will be the first mega units to come up in India, the agreement with Russia [then Soviet Union] was signed over two decades ago and negotiations over the next two units are deadlocked over the Nuclear Liability Act. Similarly, the American bid to set up nuclear plants in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh is also held up.

Commenting on the Act, which has been opposed by all companies vying for business in India because of a clause that puts the onus of an accident on suppliers, the sources said Areva’s basic principle was to abide by the law of the land and at the same time ensure that the company’s interests were protected. But as the Rules have not entered into force, there is uncertainty about how it will all end up. In addition, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition on safety in civil nuclear plants. “But this question is not for us to solve,” they said.

Protests

The second issue facing the French company are mass protests in and around Jaitapur that has led to the loss of a life in police firing. Unlike the Russians, who suspected a foreign hand in protests at their site in Kudankulam, the French are taking the protests at Jaitapur in their stride.

“It is the beauty of democracy that all are allowed to demonstrate. France had such demonstrations for long and one good effect was it obliged the industry and the government to take care of safety concerns and also accept transparency. This approach helped the French to accept nuclear energy without fears. Today France has 60 reactors or one reactor for every 10 lakh people. Demonstrations are legitimate and we will try to address their safety related concerns,” the sources said.

The third stumbling block after the Limited Nuclear Liability Act and the protests is the absence of an India-Japan civil nuclear cooperation agreement. This will make it next to impossible to source crucial parts for the reactor vessel made by the Japan Steel Works.

Indian officials expect Areva to approach South Korea with which India has a civil nuclear agreement. According to South Korean diplomats, Areva and Korean Electric Power Company (Kepco) have worked together in the past, but have also competed against each other for a major United Arab Emirates tender, which was won by Seoul.

Kepco’s stand

At the same time, it remains to be seen whether Kepco will be content with supplying a few parts for the reactor, when South Korea feels that after signing the civil nuclear agreement with India [after just three meetings], New Delhi might award it a nuclear reactor park of its own.

Diplomatic sources are confident of surmounting these issues. “This is not the first time France is central to India’s nuclear energy programme. Our cooperation started in 1951 and the long term commitment to work together in nuclear and space segments triggers all kinds of cooperation easily and solves all problems.”

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