With All Chips Down, Modi Tries Selling A Swadeshi Nuclear Dream To India


The recent announcement that India will build 10 new Nuclear reactors took observers by surprise. In technical terms, India will set up ten new pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) which are indigenous. Purely from a scientific point of view, this is utter nonsense because of India’s complete lack of experience with this type of reactor. But this article is not about PHWR technology. It is about why this announcement was made and more importantly why now.

Here is a country that is setting new price lows every week for renewables, has aggressively promoted solar and wind energy and which has shown it’s commitment to clean energy at Paris. Why then this sudden urge to declare setting up 10 new unclear reactors? But that is the BJP for you. A party which is totally bereft of any principals which are supposed to be sacrosanct.

When the party was in opposition, senior BJP leaders including then Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the current Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj was particularly vocal against the deal. In a speech in the Rajya Sabha in 2005, she noted that the deal was a “big, great blunder”. In 2010, when the nuclear liability Bill was debated, she and many other BJP leaders pointedly talked about the Bill being anti-people. After Modi became PM and met US President Obama, he signed new Nuclear agreements and the party claimed that they had achieved a “breakthrough.” after the meeting. And in Japan inking an Indo-Japan deal was a major victory for the BJP. Suddenly, they seemed to have forgotten that they were shouting from rooftops about Congress selling out to foreigners and acting through “weakness”. Nothing had changed, except that now BJP was in power and doing exactly what the previous government had been doing. A few years ( years to be precise) down the line and once again the BJP is being forced to change its narrative. Why?

The reasons are simple and fit with all the geo political, strategic, economic, domestic and, diplomatic needs of the current leadership.

Let’s look at the important ones:

1) These are NOT new reactors. These have been planned for years but for some reason or the other, they never really got off the ground. In true Modi style, the PM wants to take credit for these projects as if he is the architect of the program. For the past three years he has been doing the same – inaugurating project after project which were conceived and started by the previous Congress government and have now completed. It also fits his style of making big bang announcements. Each one of the ten reactors has been on the drawing board for a long time and substantial ground work had already been done before Modi became the PM. It is also pertinent to note that when the BJP was in opposition, they were vociferously anti unclear and had objected stridently against the dilution of the CLND(Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages) Act. In true political opportunistic style, they have gone back on everything they stood for while in opposition. New laws framed that sought to favor foreign companies by transferring liability to the government owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) and also leaving out the Indian contractors out of the loop. Result? All the cost of a nuclear accident, cleanup etc would fall on NPCIL – a government owned company i.e. on Indian citizens. Far from what it was opposing, it went and trampled upon whatever civil society had gained by getting the CLND Act passed in parliament. Apart from Chutka (MP) Mahi (Rajasthan) and Gorakhpur (Haryana) the others are brownfield expansion projects at Kaiga (Karnataka) & Kota (Rajasthan)

2) All the best laid plans to build reactors with foreign collaboration have gone astray. First GE walked away from Kovadda (AP) saying that the Indian liability laws are too stringent (although the real reason is that GE worldwide has shown no interest in new reactor builds, preferring to focus on the maintenanceand decommissioning end of the business). Toshiba/Westinghouse got embroiled in land acquisition issues at Mithivardee (Gujarat) and was allotted land on the opposite coast of India in Andhra Pradesh. But there too it found stiff resistance from locals. Meanwhile, past sins caught up with Westinghouse which went bankrupt in the USA taking Toshiba into a nosedive.

Jaitapur (Maharashtra) has been a battle ground for over a decade. Areva of France had plans to bring it’s much hyped EPR reactors there. But once again, Areva could not survive its own murky doings. With it’s EPR projects in Finland and France way behind schedule, the giant was also bankrupt and it’s new reactor business wound up and transferred to EDF. Both Areva and EDF are French government owned but now EDF can pick and choose which projects to continue and which to exit. From all indications, it is trying to renegotiate JNPP which is already too costly. This could mean that it is using renegotiation as an excuse to save face and walk away (the same can be said for the government)

3) That leaves only the Russian Rosatom with it’s VVER at KKNPP (Tamil Nadu) for reactors 5/6. This too is a brownfield expansion project. The GFA (General Framework Agreement) for this project has not yet been signed with the Indian side hinting that it is reconsidering the proposal unless Russia leans on China to allow India’s entry into the NSG. China is no pushover and will never allow smooth passage to India into the NSG.

In this global scenario, India had no option but to show the world that it can survive without foreign technology and assistance. China has done it and is now a formidable player in the global nuclear suppliers group. India’s desperation to be a part of this cost group has long been evident. But China has the right to veto and will not allow entry to India which will create competition for itself.

Besides, if China supports India then it will be forced to allow Pakistan entry into NSG. After all, Pakistan is an ally of China. But other countries would not allow Pakistan into NSG because of it’s reputation as a “nuclear rogue nation.” Both India and Pakistan are not signatories of the unclear on proliferation treaty (NPT) and as such ineligible for NSG membership. To make an exception for one and not for the other will set off a literal “chain reaction” because there are two other unclear nation’s out of the NSG – Israel and North Korea.

At this point of time when the world is on a brink due to the repeated actions of ISIS and N. Korea among others, it seems unlikely that any sensible nation would want to the applecart. If the Indian side wants China to vote for it, the Chinese will want a slice of the Indian Nuclear pie. That rather difficult as India is (justifiably) wary of Chinese entry into strategic areas. Just a few days back, the Ministry of Power changed rules which make entry of foreign (read Chinese) companies impossible in the transmission and distribution segment. Again, the outright rejection by India to the Chinese plan of One Band One Road (OBOR) shows the increasing uneasiness between the two traditional enemies.

All this fits well with the governments supposed push for clean energy. Few people are aware that unclear power is a very dirty source of energy. Not only is it highly carbon intensive, but is a huge guzzler of water and adversely affects the environment. Over and above, there is no solution to the highly dangerous radioactive waste that must be stored safely for centuries to come. Neither is nuclear energy cheap to build not the cost per unit anywhere near that of solar or wind – the conservative cost of a new Nuclear plant is over ₹7/unit which is three times solar. Eventually the tax paying citizens will pay for this. But BJP wants to fit this into their pseudo nationalistic plank along with swadeshi and sell it to unsuspecting Indians.

All in all, the announcement of ten Nuclear reactors is for domestic consumption by a government which is trapped without any options. The government is in damage control mode and even there, it is portraying itself as a “nationalistic” party. That there are huge stakes for the private sector in building nuclear power plants is well known. Big construction, mechanical and electrical engineering companies have been publicly jumping in joy ever since the announcement, saliva drooling at the profits they will make. L&T (a major cement and construction engineering conglomerate) will be among the biggest beneficiaries. While the government said that these projects will cost ₹70.000 crores, a director at L&T was quoted next day saying that it is a ₹100,000 crores project. Obviously, cost escalation is the biggest profit for the nuclear industry.

Modi is trying to kill many birds with one stone. Appeasement and popularity is one, membership to NSG is another, renegotiation with foreign suppliers in terms that suit his government rather than the Congress is another. Keeping the domestic private sector happy is probably the most important. Elections are due in two years, and elections are a costly business.

Anuj Wankhede is an environmentalist and writes on all things nuclear. A keen observer of politics and business, he is a major in science with a post graduate degree in Business Management. He is based out of Mumbai and can be reached on [email protected]

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