As expected, Russian President Valdimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi covered all the usual areas of cooperation during the former’s visit to New Delhi on 11 December, 2014. Russia has been India’ close partner over decades and the latter has reiterated the importance of the relationship in contemporary times too. The Druzhba Dosti Vision Statement (VS) covers the period of the next decade, anchored in a special strategic partnership.
Obviously, the nuclear component of this relationship, which traverses the entire range of activities from fuel fabrication to plant decommissioning, is especially noteworthy. Building on the agreements signed by both in 2008 and 2010, the 2014 Strategic Vision for Strengthening Atomic Energy Cooperation envisages the construction of a dozen nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years. It may be recalled that Kudankulam (KK) 1, India's first Russian reactor, attained full-rated power in 2014, and KK 2 is nearly ready too. Meanwhile, a General Framework Agreement was signed in April 2014 for the construction of KK 3 and 4 at the same site.
The next tranche of Russian nuclear reactors will require fresh site(s). The 2014 nuclear cooperation VS mentions that the construction of future nuclear plants would take into account “India’s demand for power, the then available nuclear technologies including those that may be developed jointly, mutually acceptable technical and commercial terms, and the prevalent electricity tariffs.” Evidently and wisely, a lot has been left to the consideration of factors prevalent in the future.
The Agreement also emphasises the involvement of Indian suppliers of manufacturing equipment, fuel assemblies and spares for Russian reactors to be constructed in India. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of India's decision to import reactors from the international nuclear market has been the insistence on including a large local component into their construction. Even before Modi vocalised ‘Make in India’, the nuclear sector has always been bound by this dictum. In fact, until 2008, it did not have the option of foreign material, technology or components. Retaining that focus while realising the ambitious national nuclear expansion plans would certainly open employment opportunities for the millions of young engineers and technicians passing out of the Indian education system annually. In fact, another important aspect of the VS in this context is the prospect of exploring “opportunities for sourcing materials, equipment and services from Indian industry for the construction of the Russian-designed nuclear power plants in third countries.”
Given that the Russian nuclear industry is keen on exports, this would enhance the capability and capacity of the Indian nuclear industry through necessary transfer of technology.
The Statement also mentions joint extraction of natural uranium through technical cooperation in mining activities, “within their own territories and in third countries.” This would be significant for India if it is to fulfill its nuclear expansion ambitions without having to worry about the availability of fuel. At the same time, collaboration on radioactive waste management, research and development on fusion reactors etc. are all forward-looking aspects of the VS.
So, what stands in the way of realising the potential of the vision of the statement? A few issues must be given due consideration. First, the identification of fresh site(s) for the new Russian reactors may not be as easy as it sounds. Given that public acceptance issues have acquired a worrisome dimension in the post-Fukushima environment, the acquisition of necessary land will call for much greater investment, and not just monetary, by the nuclear establishment to reach out to the constituencies to inform and educate them with the objective of winning them over.
Second, the Indian nuclear liability law will require amendments to become palatable to the nuclear industry anywhere, at home or abroad. While rather cryptically, Russian government officials have “in principle” agreed to the Indian nuclear liability law, this has been done after factoring in the costs involved in the process. According to some reports, the first and second units of the Kudankulam nuclear power plants had cost India $1 billion each, but new units will cost triple the amount in view of India's nuclear liability law. Even if this may be an exaggeration, it must not be forgotten that any nuclear industry, including Russian, is in the business of doing business. The cost will be handed down to India only.
In such a situation, critics of nuclear power will jump at the opportunity to drum up opposition to construction of new nuclear plants on the ground of the high costs. Economics of nuclear reactors has always been a matter of concern. In the past, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. has contended that its Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors have been comparable in cost to other sources of electricity. But, a high cost of imported reactors, owing to the nuclear liability law imposing a huge burden on any nuclear industry, would put a black mark against nuclear power.
Therefore, it would be a good idea to take a fresh look at the issue so as to be able to make use of the opportunities that have opened up for India in the field of international nuclear commerce. Amendment of the law is not to appease outsiders but to make nuclear power an implementable viable option for India itself.
A VS may be crafted when the decision-makers see potential, but it can only be realised when they also see and address the challenges that stand in the way.