NUCLEAR ENERGY: Fukushima Disaster Impacts India

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By Shastri Ramachandaran* in Mumbai

Uncertainty looms large over India's ambitious civilian nuclear programme as a consequence of the triple disasters that have struck Japan. For one, the civilian nuclear agreement, which New Delhi and Tokyo were negotiating, is certain to be indefinitely delayed.

Also, operationalisation of the India-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement -- touted as the biggest strategic and diplomatic accomplishment of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is a ruling coalition of centre-left political parties heading the government of India-- may take much more time than either New Delhi or Washington anticipated.

The India-French civilian nuclear agreement may be hit harder given the increasing stridency and widening protests against the Jaitapur nuclear power project.

Tthe crisis in Japan would set back bilateral economic relations that were at an unprecedented high. While there may be a slowdown on some tracks, on others, there might be cessation of work altogether.
India-Japan relations, which thrived in the last decade and grew to become a strategic and global partnership, would lose much of the momentum it had gained in recent years.

The proposed civilian nuclear agreement would have been a high point of a bilateral relationship marked by more downs than ups (particularly after the first golden phase in the 1950s), with India’s 1998 nuclear tests taking it to the worst level.

The turning point was U.S. President Clinton’s visit in 2000. It opened Japan's eyes anew to India's potential and made it put behind the bitterness caused by the N-test. Since then, there has been no looking back with economic, political and strategic engagements moving at full speed.

Three ministerial summits every year, including of the two prime ministers, testify to the strength, depth, and potential of bilateral ties.

Although the bilateral trade volume at $10 billion is far from impressive, taken together with ODA (official development assistance, which India tops worldwide), FDI (foreign direct investment) and FII (foreign institutional investors), the level of economic cooperation is exceptionally high. The only other country in that league with Japan is the U.S. This explains why the number of Japanese companies in India trebled from 250 to 750 in the last five years. Besides, two major Japanese initiatives -- the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and the Chennai-Singapore corridor -- are under way.

With the calamity claiming Japan's resources and efforts, all projects, especially those involving construction and infrastructure companies, would be badly hit. The exception might be the Chennai-Singapore project. Strategic and defence cooperation would take a backseat though political relations have reached a stage where changes in either country are unlikely to cause upsets.

While India can take the investment pullout in its stride, the blow to civilian nuclear projects threatens more than power and infrastructure development. It might turn the clock back on the pursuit of N-power as an energy option and undermine the existing N-pacts with both the U.S. and France.

Japanese nuclear technology is rated as the best and most sophisticated. That is why GE, Westinghouse and Areva have partnered Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi. Japanese expertise, technology and components are at the heart of most N-power equipment. For that reason, India's N-agreements with the U.S. and France can come unstuck in the absence of Japanese consent; which may not be forthcoming in the absence of a bilateral accord with Japan.

The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe might rekindle the historical memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the radiation unleashed, and the moral issues when it comes to nuclear plants.

A traumatised people would resist Tokyo even considering a nuclear agreement with India in the near future. The prevalent sentiment in Japan may boost opposition to nuclear power in India and worldwide, too. Ongoing protests, such as the one against the Jaitapur project, would acquire a new urgency.

China is calling a halt to all its nuclear projects, Germany's closure of seven N-plants and the U.S. and India ordering a safety review may not raise public confidence. On the contrary, it might add to the prevailing opposition.

The issue is not about the safety of N-plants as such. It is about public sentiment and perception driven by an emotional charge. This bodes ill for India, for the future of nuclear power, and for the present model of growth and development.

*A similar version of this article first appeared in DNA-Daily News & Analysis (www.dnaindia.com).

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