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The Debate India Must Have

by Team Young India

The Indo-US nuclear deal has been at the centerpiece of controversy in the Indian Parliament in the past few weeks. Debate and rational arguments are the heart of a working democracy, and hence the expression of differing views on this topic is a healthy sign. Detractors of the deal have mostly expressed concern over the operationalizing of the deal, based on compromised sovereignty and a lopsided favorable bias towards the US. However, a comprehensive debate on the fundamental driving forces behind the deal and an objective evaluation of its implications has been largely been lacking.

The fundamental question that needs to be answered: “Is nuclear energy a good option in the Indian context and at what cost?” Young India, Inc. has tried to explore this question over the last one year and among other things hosted a world-class panel on Capitol Hill on the issue. While there is no denying that India needs to diversify its energy portfolio, there needs to be a thorough evaluation of available alternative sources of energy to assess its costs and benefits, both short-term and long-term. Conducting such a costbenefit analysis for nuclear energy reveals that there are several factors that make it unattractive for the people of India.

Firstly, the security hazard that nuclear energy poses with regard to national security as well as public safety is enormous. Given India’s high population density, the damage that could be caused by a potential accident or negligence could be devastating. In such an unfortunate event, the question of liability becomes significant. The administration must share its plan for how it would adequately compensate those who suffer the harms of radioactive exposure. It is noteworthy that accidents at a nuclear site need not to be the only event that compromises citizens’ safety, but negligence or accidents during transportation and handling of nuclear fuel and subsequent waste could be equally disastrous. A nuclear waste management report is owed to the nation.

Safety concerns aside, another negative implication of this deal on India would be dependence on foreign sources of raw material for the new nuclear reactors. India has documented large deposits of Thorium, but relatively scarce deposits of Uranium and Plutonium. With this new agreement, India would be building new nuclear reactors that run on Uranium/Plutonium, which India will need to procure largely from the international market. Although, the United States has assured supply of nuclear fuel to India, it is not immediately clear that they are in a position to live up to such assurances without a similar stance from other countries in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. It is not unreasonable to envision a scenario where this dependence would ultimately put India in a vulnerable position and hamstring its foreign policy. Thus, the deal actually hurts India's goal to be more energy independent and thereby weakens its energy security.

Another important fact to keep in mind while addressing India's energy concerns is that decentralized and diversified sources of energy are more effective in India than centralized sources of energy like nuclear plants because the transmission and distribution systems are highly lossy and inefficient. Therefore, several energy experts believe that Indian energy needs would be much better served by promoting localized sources of energy generation from renewables like solar-energy, wind energy, and small hydro to minimize transmission distances and thus losses. Detractors of this deal must urge the administration to focus energies and resources by incentivizing the development of alternative sources of energy and the necessary entrepreneurship to make these technologies market competitive. It is estimated that the Indian government will spend around $100 billion on purchasing nuclear technology as a result of this deal. This begs the question – Is this magnitude of capital better spent on other alternative forms of energy to serve India’s long term energy interests?

Lastly, the most regrettable aspect of this agreement has been the primacy it has achieved within the context of Indo-US relations. It is a mistake to earmark this deal, one that is hardly universally accepted in both countries, as the platform for bilateral ties between these two great democracies. Instead of this narrow focus on nuclear energy, we would like the two countries to collaborate on a broader platform, which includes other aspects like developing alternative fuel sources, implementing zero-emission coal plants, improving end-user efficiency by allowing exchange of power-efficient devices, etc. Young India is already engaged in drafting such legislation.

Looking ahead, even if this deal goes through and results in new nuclear plants being built in India, it is imperative that the government takes some responsible measures. The operation of these plants has to be made more transparent to the public. The government must also adopt a fair policy in choosing sites for building these new plants, and periodically assess the impact of these plants on the human population and natural environment close to these sites. The government’s responsibility to have a carefully planned strategy for proper handling of radioactive waste from the power plant cannot be overstated.

We are non-committal on this deal until the questions we raised are reasonably answered. India and the United States have to move in tandem to shape this young century to empower their people and in the process their democracies. This, however, must be done on a sustainable basis not a strategic one. Ours is an attempt to urge policymakers and the public to objectively evaluate the Indo-US nuclear deal thoroughly and hopefully add dimensions to a debate that has been at best woefully inadequate.


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