Russia first, France second, US last in nuclear race

When President George Bush pushed through the Indo-US nuclear deal, analysts claimed that he aimed to generate multi-billion orders for US nuclear equipment suppliers. Some Indian scientists opposed the deal fearing that it would lead to US dominance in our nuclear power plants.

However, the race for building new Indian nuclear power plants has begun, and Russia is way ahead. Areva of France is a distant second. The US-Japanese contenders ( GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse) are still at the starting line. The big winner of the Bush-Manmohan agreement is going to be Atomstroyeksport of Russia, with US firms coming last. So much for conspiracy theories about how the US military-industrial complex determines foreign policy.

Identifying new nuclear plant sites, getting state governments on board, and getting environmental and safety clearances can take years, with anti-nuclear NGOs resorting to extensive litigation. Russia is first in the race because it is already building two power plants at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu under old contracts unaffected by the 1990s ban on nuclear supplies to India. Koodankulam suffered the usual delays and NGO agitations, but that phase is long over.

The site can accommodate eight reactors of 1000 MW each. These will basically be repetitions of reactors 1 and 2, so issues like design, the supply chain, manpower and indigenisation of equipment have already been sorted out. Indeed, India and Russia long ago signed an agreement for Koodankulam reactors 3 and 4, to be activated after the clinching of the Indo-US nuclear deal and subsequent agreements and protocols with the International Atomic Energy Association. The Russian Parliament has recently ratified the bilateral agreement for reactors 3 and 4, so the road ahead is clear.

Private sector companies won’t supply equipment to India until it enacts a nuclear liability act capping the liability of foreign suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident. Such a bill has been drafted and vetted by the Law ministry. But so many other bills will get priority in the budget session that it is unclear when the liability act will be passed. That could delay deals with France, Japan and the US. Russia’s Atomstroyeksport will not be inhibited, since it is government-owned and so already has implicit government insurance against any liabilities.

Indian committees have identified five new sites for nuclear parks, each of which will have six to eight reactors of 1000-1,650- MW each. The sites are Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Haripur in West Bengal, Patisonapur in Orissa, Mithirvirdi in Gujarat and Kowadi in Andhra Pradesh. Of these, Jaitapur has been approved by the government, and allotted to Areva of France. That puts Areva in second place in the race. The French Parliament has yet to ratify the bilateral agreement on Jaitapur, but this should happen soon.

No site has yet been finalized or offered to GE-Hitachi or Toshiba-Westinghouse. There was some talk of Haripur in West Bengal being offered to GE-Hitachi, but this would be politically difficult: the Left Front government there cannot be expected to favor a US-build nuclear plant, and Mamata Bannerjee opposes land acquisition for large projects.

Japan disliked the Indo-US nuclear deal, but gave in to US pressure. However, Japanese politicians and NGOs oppose exporting nuclear power equipment to countries like India and Pakistan that have exploded nuclear bombs. For this reason Japanese export licences will not be easy to get.

Export licences are notoriously complex and difficult to get in the US too. The Bush administration may have pushed through the deal with India, but the nuclear establishment there will continue to treat exports to India with caution. Toshiba now owns Westinghouse, and so has plants in the US and Japan. Yet to get over licensing difficulties, it may prefer to supply India from its manufacturing facilities in Korea and Britain.

The lead established by Russia and France is evident in the supply of uranium fuel too. Already 300 tonnes of uranium has arrived from France, and Russia has sent the first instalment of 30 tonnes out of 2,000 tonnes to be supplied over the next 5-6 years. India is also in talks with Kazakhstan for another 2,000 tonnes. But no nuclear fuel deal has been negotiated with the US or Japan.

The truth is now uncontestable. Global analysts were completely wrong in seeing the Indo-US nuclear deal as a commercial triumph for the US military-industrial complex. In India, the Left Front said the nuclear deal would make India a junior partner of the US. Yet this was always untrue. It was always true that India would get most of its nuclear supplies from Russia and France. Prakash Karat, please admit that you were comprehensively wrong.

What do you think?