While environmental, safety and economic concerns have for long been held against nuclear energy, India's finite sources of uranium the basic raw material could be the more important limiting factor for the nuclear programme.
The maturing of the country's technological capabilities, and the impressive performance of the 14 operational nuclear power plants (plant load factor of over 90 per cent), have emboldened the nuclear establishment to take up the construction of eight more (3,960 MWe), the largest programme anywhere in the world.
Whichever coalition has been in power at the Centre be it the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance or the present Congerss(I)-led UPA Government the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), has been able to convince it of the need to increase the percentage of nuclear energy in the overall energy mix. Consequently, nuclear power projects have been progressively getting state support.
The DAE has drawn up an ambitious power programme to achieve 20,000 MWe capacity by 2020. However, to fuel this large programme, new sources of uranium have to be located quickly and mined.
Second, the programme needs a high level of reliable funding. Finally, critical equipment have to be put in place that would make the generation of nuclear power competitive vis-à-vis such traditional sources as thermal power.
A cause of concern is the DAE's Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) running into problems in the Jaduguda mines in Jharkand in its efforts to fuel its expanding power programme.
Its efforts to open up new mines at Domaisat in Meghalaya too have encountered stiff resistance from the Khasi tribes and from environmentalists. Similarly, its plans to mine uranium in the Lambapur-Peddagutta belt of Nalgonda district in Andhra Pradesh have got delayed.
Even if the last two virgin areas, which promise significant ore deposits, are to get the regulatory nod , it would take several years to establish them as reliable sources. The existing resources, atomic experts feel, will not sustain the DAE's ambitious programme.
The only option left, therefore, is to import uranium. Since India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is outside the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG), it is not possible to source uranium from anywhere.
Therefore, even DAE insiders grudgingly concede that on nuclear fuel, India is in a desperate situation. Unless the US relaxes the rules or allows NSG countries, including France, Russia, China, Canada and Australia, to supply not only to Tarapur (which uses enriched uranium), but also other reactors, India could find the going tough to achieve the level of energy security envisaged.
The best outcome of the India-US agreement is the country being allowed to import uranium and a simultaneous acceleration in the UCIL's mining projects.
The Corporation has lined up projects in Bhatin, Turamdih, Bagjata and Banduburang, all in the Singhbhum belt around Jaduguda.
Canada, Australia and also a few African nations have rich resources of the `Yellow Cake'. Also, the international prices are quite competitive.
The rising cost of crude oil, the high cost of alternative energy sources and the finite fossil fuels seem to have weighed heavily on the Government in opting for a greater share of nuclear energy (now, it is less than 3 per cent).
Nuclear scientists argue that for a growing economy such as India, its small hydrocarbon reserves and fast-depleting coal reserves present a strong case for the development of nuclear energy, fully exploiting the limited uranium and large thorium deposits.
According to estimates, India needs to have around 5,000 Kwh/capita of annual electricity availability to assure its people a good quality of life. This is possible only if the share of nuclear power is substantially scaled up. The DAE has been pursuing technologies such as the Fast Breeder Reactor and the latest Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, which use thorium as fuel, to make the leap in nuclear power generation.
For the DAE establishment also, the pressure to deliver on its promises is high, especially in the current power-deficit situation. It perhaps does not want a repeat of what befell its vision of reaching 10,000 MWe by 2000.
Despite knowing that the uranium fuel availability was finite, the DAE set its eyes on the magical 10,000 MWe in the mid-1980s, and ended up with a paltry 2,720 MWe. This shortfall was blamed largely on the funds crunch.
The second big issue the Government and the DAE need to address is the involvement of the private sector in building nuclear power reactors. In the last decade, considerable groundwork was done, with expert committees suggesting certain changes to the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, to facilitate entry of the private sector.
The Atomic Industries Forum, consisting of several Indian companies, also argued for four-five power plants to be taken up for construction by private outfits.
The idea was that these companies could then sustain a dedicated group with expertise and set up hardware manufacturing facilities to participate in the programme with the NPCIL. A few big Indian corporates also showed interest in the joint venture participation in building nuclear reactors.
Internationally, the French energy giants are interested. So also are American companies such as GE and Westinghouse Corporation. These companies are willing to bring in the latest equipment and components, in addition to offering expertise in setting up the power plants itself.
Two 1,000-MWe, light-water reactors (run on enriched uranium) are coming up at Koodangulam, in Tamil Nadu, with Russian collaboration. The funds crunch, the major issue during the 1990s, seems a smaller problem now.
If private participation happens, through joint ventures or companies setting up new plants of course, under the supervision and safeguards of the DAE establishment then, there could be a major acceleration in the country's nuclear power programme.