This Article is From May 20, 2017

On Nuclear Front, Modi Government Redeems Itself A Little

The government of India has finally decided to go ahead and set up ten nuclear reactors to produce 7,000 MWe of electricity at the rate of 700 MWe each. All these reactors will be pressurized heavy water reactors and will be indigenously produced. We are celebrating because never before has the construction of so many reactors been cleared in one go. We should also celebrate because we have finally rid ourselves of the paralysis which had affected our domestic nuclear programme since the beginning of the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2005.

The BJP under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had decided in July 2005 itself that the deal was not in our national interest and therefore the party would oppose the deal. Under his guidance l, we continued to oppose the deal therefore at every stage. How the UPA government secured the so-called parliamentary approval for it in July 2008 is too well known to be recounted here again. But the spectacle of MPs waving wads of currency notes on the floor of Lok Sabha is one of the most sordid chapters of our parliamentary democracy and cannot be easily forgotten. There were some in the BJP even then who were unhappy with the position taken by the party and believed wrongly that it cost us the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. 

The country was subjected to a barrage of false propaganda by the ruling coalition at that time. I remember coming across a propaganda vehicle of the Congress in a remote part of my constituency which was telling the people how the government was committed to bringing electricity to every household in every village through this deal and how some anti-national people were trying to scuttle these plans by opposing the deal. It is another matter that 12 years down the line, there is still no possibility of a single imported nuclear reactor being erected in the near future. The possibility of electricity from such reactors is even more distant.

The new NDA government in Delhi, like in many other matters, had no use for the stand taken by the party on this issue during the period 2005-14. It quickly reversed our earlier stand and went full speed ahead with the implementation of the deal, so much so that in the process, a law passed by parliament was also treated with scant respect. What happened needs recounting in some detail to refresh our memory. When the deal was done and the 123 Agreement with US finally signed, we had to pass another law to determine the civil liability of the foreign nuclear reactor suppliers in case of an accident involving their reactor. There is an international convention, prepared no doubt under the influence of the powerful supplier countries, which limited such liability to around 1,500 crores. India was not a signatory to the convention when the civil liability law came for consideration before parliament. The BJP insisted, especially in view of the experience we had in the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy case, that if the fault for the accident was that of the supplier, the liability should be unlimited. This law was passed by parliament after  a lot of discussion between the BJP and the UPA government, and became the law of the land.

The foreign suppliers, specially the American suppliers of nuclear reactors, did not like this law at all. They kept insisting that the provisions of the law relating to their liability must be changed and their liability limited to the amount specified in the international convention, namely Rs 1,500 crores. The UPA government did not muster the courage to bring amendment to the legislation before parliament and the matter rested there until the new NDA government took office. The foreign suppliers subjected the new government to the same pressure as the previous government. Some of the secret supporters of the nuclear deal in the BJP were part of the government now. They prevailed upon the government to find a way of satisfying the foreign suppliers' demand without going back to parliament.

So it was decided that the general insurance companies in the public sector would set up a special fund for which money would be collected by levying a special charge on the electricity produced and supplied from these imported reactors. Any amount of liability of the foreign supplier in excess of the Rs 1,500 crore as stipulated by the international convention would be paid out of this fund and not by the foreign supplier of the nuclear reactor. Thus, in the end, the people of India are likely to end up paying for the damage caused by the mistake of the foreign supplier, a contingency that parliament was keen to avoid. The subject being extremely complex, the development escaped everyone's attention, and the provisions of the act passed by parliament were compromised. Those in the party who were opposed to the deal when in opposition and were now part of the government, either did not understand the implications of the new arrangement, or preferred discretion as the better part of valour.

The Indo-US nuclear deal has proved to be a non-starter. The US companies for which the whole deal was done are now insolvent. None of the supposed benefits of the deal are likely to accrue to us, but we are trapped by all the liabilities, the most important being the loss of autonomy of decision-making in the nuclear strategic area.

Our three-stage nuclear programme prepared by Homi Bhabha almost six decades ago went into a limbo as a result of the deal. There was hardly any major capacity addition in this field during these years. The thorium programme fortunately is on course thanks to our brilliant scientists and the successful completion of the advanced fast breeder reactor. This in turn will lead to thorium-based reactors and will release us from the present critical dependence on uranium. Once we have mastered the plutonium-thorium technology, we shall not be short of nuclear fuel and can generate as much nuclear power as we want. The only consideration will be the cost of nuclear power. With solar power costs falling like ninepins, the viability of nuclear energy will become the most important issue for the future.

In the meanwhile, the good news is that our indigenous nuclear programme has once again picked up speed.    

(Yashwant Sinha is a senior BJP leader and former Union Minister of External Affairs.)

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