By signing an agreement to supply uranium for our civil nuclear energy programme, Australia has clearly signalled its readiness to put the issues of the past — triggered by India’s nuclear test in 1998 — firmly behind it in order to broaden and deepen economic ties with India. It has also cleared the decks for a new strategic partnership between the two countries. Although Australia’s strategic focus on India is part of a larger, US-led attempt to develop a strategic counterweight to China’s rising economic and military power, as well as its growing assertiveness in the Asian region, it does indicate the possibility of a new regional equation emerging. Coming as it does on top of the “significant progress” on talks with Japan on a civil nuclear co-operation agreement, the deal paves the way for India to significantly add to the share of nuclear power in its energy mix.
In the short- to medium-term, India cannot ignore nuclear power. Its current per capita consumption of energy — at 949 kilowatt-hours (kwh) — is less than one-fourth China’s current per capita consumption level of 4,000 kwh. Although India has a current installed generating capacity of 249 gigawatt, actual generation has been averaging only 135 gigawatt. This has been due to a number of supply-side constraints, including the severe shortage of coal and natural gas for thermal plants, and the inability of hydel power to deliver during peak demand. Even reaching half of China’s current power consumption level over the next 20 years would involve more than doubling the present capacity — and more than tripling actual generation. Given the logjam over coal mining, this does not appear feasible.
That said, the Government’s target of generating 63 gigawatt from nuclear sources by 2032 appears equally unfeasible. While the Government has shown commendable initiative in pursuing both nuclear technology and fuel after the 1-2-3 agreement with the US — whose strategic value has only been underscored by the Australian deal and the progress made with Japan — it has failed to move with anything like that speed or purpose at home. With post-Fukushima opposition rising to nuclear plants in the sites shortlisted by the Government, it has its work cut out to build political as well as popular consensus on nuclear power. Political and strategic exigencies have also forced an unprecedented technology mix — India has its domestic fast breeder reactor programme, light water reactors from the West and heavy water reactors from Russia. This has created a regulatory nightmare and raised a question mark over the availability of adequate technical expertise and bandwidth for supervision. All this underscores the need for India to seriously pursue its renewable energy options, especially in exploiting its most abundant and freely available energy resource — solar power.