Indo-US nuke deal helped fuel domestic power plants, gave India access to critical tech: Experts

The Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement gave a fillip to the ties between the two nations, which since then have been on an upswing.


New Delhi | A decade after the historic Indo-US nuclear deal, experts said the pact did not lead to India setting up foreign-built reactors, but helped fuel domestic power plants and give access to critical technologies in strategic areas.

They also felt the pact, signed on October 10, 2008, gave India the recognition of being a responsible nuclear weapon state with strong non-proliferation credentials.

The Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement gave a fillip to the ties between the two nations, which since then have been on an upswing.

India conducted a nuclear test in 1974, following which a torrent of sanctions hit the country’s defense, nuclear and space programmes hard.

“We knew that we had limitations on nuclear trade, so there was a need for progress within,” said Anil Kakodkar, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and former secretary, Department of Atomic Energy when the deal was signed.

India developed Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), which are currently the backbone of the Indian nuclear power generation. In 1998, after conducting nuclear tests, India declared itself a nuclear weapon state.

“The feeling in the West was that the rationale behind sanctions did not hurt India’s nuclear military programme,” Kakodkar, who is also the member of the AEC, said.

On the other hand, as the number of nuclear reactors rose, the need for uranium hit the domestic reactors, adversely affecting their performance, said R K Sinha, the former chairman of AEC and former secretary, DAE.

“At that time, the concept of global warming was also gaining ground,” Kakodkar said, noting India required energy for its growing economy.

Sinha said by 2006-2007, the performance of Indian reactors had reduced 50-55 percent due to a shortage of nuclear fuel.

He also pointed out an instance of Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant (RAPS) unit 5, whose operations had to be delayed due to the shortage of uranium. The plant later went on to create a record of a continuous run of 765 days on Saturday at its full capacity of 220 MWe.

A major aspect of the Indo-US nuclear deal was the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that gave a special waiver to India that enabled it to sign cooperation agreements with a dozen countries, said former diplomat Rakesh Sood and India’s special envoy of the Prime Minister for Disarmament and Non-proliferation Issues from 2013 to 2014.

The pact also enabled India to separate its civilian and military programmes. The country currently has 15 of its reactors under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Post waiver, India signed nuclear cooperation agreements for peaceful means with the US, France, Russia, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Japan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, and Korea.

Following the pacts, there have been specific agreements for import of uranium from France, Kazakhstan, Australia, Canada, and Russia.

Sood said the long-term uranium arrangements enabled India to run the existing plants at 80 percent efficiency.

According to the responses by the government on questions in Parliament, India imported over 7841.51 metric tonnes of nuclear fuel from 2008-2009 to 2017-18.

Work is also on to create a uranium reserve by importing the element to ensure the power reactors under IAEA safeguards do not face fuel shortage.

The building of foreign nuclear reactors was a major aspect of the Indo-US deal. For this, two sites were earmarked—Mithi Virdi for General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Kovadda in Andhra Pradesh—for building 12 reactors.

M V Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security Liu Institute for Global Issues School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia said in terms of building foreign reactors, despite the waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, there was “absolutely no construction” at any sites identified for imported reactors.

“Even the government doesn’t have much hope that they would be importing large numbers of light water reactors anytime soon,” Ramana said.

Requesting anonymity, a former senior DAE scientist claimed the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is reluctant to take up the project citing the Civil Liability Nuclear Damage (CLND) Act, 2010.

In case of Westinghouse, it is yet to submit a techno-commercial offer, including “reasonable” tariff and a working reference plant. “Unless these criteria are not fulfilled, we will not be going ahead with the deal,” the scientist said.

In terms of electricity generation, nuclear power’s share of the total power production in the country in 2008 was 2.03 percent, which rose to 3.2 percent in 2017, Ramana said.

Another aspect which Kakodkar pointed out that the deal helped “build confidence” of other countries in India and the cooperation has now been extended to other areas like defense technology.

Kakodkar said after the deal India has joined three major control regimes like the export control regimes—the Missile Technical Control Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement, and Australia Group, while work is on for India’s entry into the elite NSG.

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