“Our capability will go waste if we rely on expensive, imported reactors”

: The former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman, A. Gopalakrishnan, has said the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill will lead to clipping the country's indigenous nuclear technology capabilities.

A critic of the New Delhi-Washington nuclear deal, he told The Hindu that the new law would open the doors for the U.S. and the French nuclear industry to “extensively sell their very costly and unproven light water reactors [LWR] to India.”

Back in 2008, he said, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, without consulting Parliament or the people, promised the U.S. that India would purchase 10,000 MWe worth of LWRs from it. This, Mr. Gopalakrishnan claimed, was under pressure from the U.S. administration for getting the ‘123' agreement passed by Congress.

Dr. Singh had also promised French President Nicolas Sarkozy that India would purchase French reactors, in return for his help in circumventing the Nuclear Suppliers Group's conditionalities. Without a liability law that let reactor manufacturers off the hook in the event of a nuclear accident, these companies would not dare do business with India, Mr. Gopalakrishnan said.

The former AERB chief pointed out that India was a leading country in thorium breeder reactor technology and was poised to build thorium-based reactors routinely by 2040. The country had abundant resources of thorium raw material in the sands of Kerala's shores. Moreover, the indigenous nuclear technology capabilities would, in another 10 years, enable India to design and build 1000-MWe pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs).

“This is a natural progression; we started off with 220-MWe reactors, now we are in the process of building 700 MWe units and soon we will acquire the capability to build 1000-MWe reactors.” (The largest LWR India now plans to import is a 1,650-MWe French reactor.)

The plan to import 40,000 MWe-worth reactors during 2015-35 would shelve the thorium-based breeder reactor technology currently under development. “We have two generations of top-class nuclear scientists and engineers who have been painstakingly trained, we have the technological and industrial capability and we have abundant raw materials,” Mr. Gopalakrishnan said. “All these will go waste if we predominantly start relying on import of the highly expensive U.S. and French reactors.”

As for the efficacy of the reactors the U.S. industry will sell India, he said a reactor, like the AP-1,000, had not yet been built or tested even in the U.S. because of lack of demand. The U.S. nuclear industry had been idling for some time and it would take several years for it to get the reactors going in India.

Fatal commitment

Had Dr. Singh's promise (in the form of a letter by the Foreign Secretary to the U.S. Under-Secretary of State) on September 10, 2008 been made public at the time, the Opposition parties and the public would not perhaps have let the nuclear deal through, says Mr. Gopalakrishnan. The commitment was made without a proper techno-economic impact assessment, he alleged, adding it would prove fatal to indigenous reactor technology.

Dr. Singh had also promised the U.S. that the country would “take all steps necessary” to adhere to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) for Nuclear Damage.

“The CSC Annex insists that the national law should legally channel the liability for all nuclear accidents in India absolutely to the ‘operator' of the nuclear facility,” Mr. Gopalakrishnan pointed out. “This sell-out to the U.S. administration has been kept from all the deliberations on the liability Bill.” At the same time, the desirability of India joining the CSC was highlighted by the government, advancing ‘false and baseless' arguments.

“The unwarranted written assurance given by the Prime Minister to help obtain the NSG clearance and the passage of the ‘123' agreement has now come to haunt the government in the context of the liability Bill.”

Through the nuclear deal the U.S. had roped India into its strategic games and to protect the economic interests of its nuclear industry. The U.S. aimed to turn India into its proxy in its bid to contain the growing military and economic power of China.

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