The Narendra Modi government has done well to order as many as 10 indigenous nuclear power reactors with a total installed capacity of 7000 MWe. This will be in addition to the 6,780 MWe of existing capacity and an additional 6,770 MWe anticipated when plants already under construction go critical.
According to Power Minister Piyush Goyal, the new orders would create an extra Rs 70,000 crore of orders for domestic industry, resulting in an additional 35,000 jobs getting created. In a country where hundreds of millions are either unemployed or underemployed, this is welcome. Of course, it must be said that the plants will have a peak capacity of 700 MWe each, which is below the behemoths being developed in China, a country that until the 1980s lagged behind India in the field of atomic energy. It is unfortunate but true that successive governments since then have succumbed to pressure from countries that ought to have known better and slowed down its indigenous nuclear program, including that segment dedicated to producing power. If China has become the leader in Asia in the field of nuclear energy, the responsibility for this vests with the United States and other countries that worked harshly and ceaselessly to slow down and where possible reverse and finally eliminate the nuclear industry in India. It would appear that to certain countries at that point in time, only those states with populations of a particular ethnic composition were “mature” enough to responsibly possess a domestic nuclear fuel industry, of course with China as the “dragon in the room”. During the period when Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, those privy to governmental secrets affirm that Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was wholly averse to another nuclear test, with the consequence that this was put off to 1998, when Atal Behari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister. Of course, soon after that burst of independence of action, the Vajpayee government “voluntarily” gave up further testing, self-denial that has been the norm since. Once he became Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh gave primacy to foreign companies and to foreign technology in the nuclear field, making India a happy hunting ground for manufacturers of nuclear plant and equipment the same way as the country has been for foreign arms manufacturers since the 1980s.
Prime Minister Modi has, in a welcome move, reversed such a short-sighted policy and is placing emphasis on domestic industry to meet the country’s needs both in the defense as well as in the nuclear power sectors. Despite neglect by bureaucrats who were only too willing to respond to cues from London, Washington, Beijing and other capitals intent on slowing down and wherever possible blocking the indigenous nuclear power program, the scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission have succeeded in creating technologies that are first class even by global standards. Had previous governments done what the present government has and thrown the sector open to domestic private industry, millions more jobs would have been created. As it is, as much as 38,000 million units of nuclear power were generated in 2016-17 alone. Since 2014, efficiency at the country’s indigenous nuclear power plants has been steadily rising and is expected to reach 90% of capacity by 2019, when the next Lok Sabha polls will take place.
Hopefully, attention will also be paid to ensuring that the constant drain of rare earths that is taking place from beaches across India be put a halt to, and that those responsible for smuggling out such precious minerals be identified and punished. Further, what is needed is a push to the thorium program, so that the incomparable scientist Homi Jehangir Bhabha’s vision of a Three Stage march towards self-sufficiency in nuclear power and technology gets accomplished.
The Manmohan Singh government was lavish in spending the money of the taxpayer to feed the drive for profits of foreign entities, including the deal for reactors from Westinghouse and from Areva. At a fraction of the cost of such mega deals, scientists and technologists in India will be able to ensure better quality equipment and more effective processes, including through the harnessing of the power of domestic private industry. It is time to ensure that each future reactor reach the level of 1000 MWe and even double that. Now itself, export markets should be found for the reactors already designed locally, in particular to countries such as Vietnam and to other markets in SE Asia. The time has come for India to stand on its own legs and to stop living in fear of the reaction of countries such as China, that have in effect insulted India by declining even to support the entry of this country into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This is a clearly hostile step by a country that has been consistently backed by India in the past that will long be remembered.