Why India Should Say No To US Nukes

26 05 2007

The more I read about this hoopla about the pending India-US nuclear co-operation treaty, the more I find myself wondering why India needs this deal. Let’s get a few facts straight first. India needs to harness nuclear energy to be able to meet its electricity needs for the future. No other alternative to current fossil-fuel based power technologies provides as much bang for buck today. Alternative energy sources like solar, wind, or tidal energy are too nascent to be able to provide the kind of mass energy production needed to match India’s increasing hunger for electricity. As it is, the current infrastructure is barely able to meet demand, and brownouts and power outages are increasingly occurring throughout the country.

Having said that, I don’t think the US nuclear deal will really help us move forward to meeting our growing energy needs, despite what our politicians would have us believe. If you take a look at the current nuclear technology used for power generation in the US, all of the 104 commercial reactors in use today are based on either pressurized water reactors (PWRs) and boiling water reactors (BWRs) designs. The last commercial reactor commissioned in the US was in 1996. The Nuclear Authority of India already has several nuclear power installations that are based on PWR and BWR technology that have been in operation for over 10 years. So, doesn’t that mean that we already have a lot of the know-how we’re supposed to be getting from the Americans now?

US technology still has its roots in the cold war ethos of dual-purpose reactors, energy and plutonium production. But, we’ve already got military nuclear capability so we don’t need that. And we already have the ability to build PWR and BWR reactors. So, just what are buying? What exactly are we getting from the Americans thats so valuable?

I don’t think this deal is about nuclear technology, but more about money and the US selling more military hardware to the India. Nuclear technology is a deal-sweetner being offered by the Americans to coerce India into signing the deal. After all, US nuclear power technology can be considered somewhat ancient.

What really gets my goat is when you consider how becoming dependent on US technology seriously weakens our national and economic security, which is contrary to what our “exalted leaders” say on how it will strengthen India. US nuclear technology is primarily based on using uranium ore as the raw material for nuclear fuel. This is fine for the US maybe since Canada is the largest supplier of uranium ore in the world [and we know that Canada is a quasi-US state in all practicality.], so they are assured supplies. Unfortunately for India, we have no significant reserves of uranium anywhere within our borders. Plus, we have a hostile neighbor in Pakistan so obviously friendly sharing of resources is out of the question, even if Pakistan had uranium reserves, which they don’t. So we’d have to import uranium from countries like Canada and Australia if we intend to use US technology.

What we do have is thorium, and plenty of it. It’s estimated that at least 25% of the world’s thorium reserves are inside Indian borders. What’s so special about thorium? Thorium is a radioactive ore considered by many to be an alternative nuclear fuel source to uranium, with the added benefit that it actually is a more efficient fuel for nuclear reactions, and produces less plutonium and other highly radioactive byproducts. If you’re interested in the mumbo-jumbo, check out the Wikipedia reference to thorium. The downside to thorium is that the ore needs to be processed more extensively than uranium before it can be used as nuclear fuel, making it more expensive.

But here’s where we need to starting thinking in a bigger picture. India has been conducting extensive research on building thorium-fueled nuclear reactors for years. In 2005, India unveiled its revolutionary “A Thorium Breeder Reactor” (ATBR) in Mumbai capable of producing 600MW for 2 years without any refueling. The design was specifically tailored to enhance the safety of the nuclear reactor. It was even proclaimed “The World’s Safest Nuclear Reactor”. [More details on the ATBR can be found here.]

For the past 50 years, we have relied on indigenous solutions to our nuclear problems, even in the face of international obstacles and opposition. Should we seriously consider throwing all that away just because we’re being “allowed” access to US technology? Especially when the basic raw material needed is not even available in India and has to be imported? Yes, thorium might be more expensive to process than uranium. But, it’s easy to obtain and since it’s indigenous the cost of transport and handling is reduced significantly. So it could work out to be as or even less expensive than handling uranium ore.

But the main advantage of going this route is that it safeguards our national security and economic interests. Just consider how easy it would be to cripple India if there was an international embargo on shipping uranium to India and we were running nuclear power stations based on US technology and uranium? It’d be like kicking us back to the Stone Ages with the flip of a switch. By denying us uranium, they could cripple our power grids, and our economy would grind to a halt. By using an ore that is available locally, we ensure that no outsider can interrupt the supply of fuel that will drive our country forward. Our esteemed politicos might want to listen to the local boffins doing thorium research before kowtowing to the “great Americans”. Jeesh, you’d think we were still ruled by the frigging Westerners.

But you got to hand it to the Americans. They’ve taken an asset with diminishing value, i.e. their aging commercial nuclear technology, and are using it as a major carrot to sell more military hardware. For that’s really what this whole stupid treaty is about. If you read some of the fine print and press about this so-called “breakthrough in Indo-US nuclear relations”, you’ll see that as part of the deal that the Americans are expecting India to place orders for over US$5 billion for conventional military equipment for a start, with future purchases also expected.

It’s obvious that the US wants to divert India’s allegiances away from countries like Russia and China, who have more in common with India strategically than the US does. And they’re using our pathetic Indian fascination with all things American to try and maneuver our “enlightened leaders” [read as “bulbs”] into committing us to a relationship that diverts Indian taxpayers money into American coffers, coerces us to abandon over 20 years of indigenous research which is more suited for our particular geography, and above all puts us in a position where the controlling factor to our national wellbeing is in the hands of outsiders.

I wouldn’t be this upset if this was more of a two way street. And I’m not normally so xenophobic. But this is so patently biased in favour of American interests you have to wonder why our government is actually trying to pursue this. Yes, there may be things that I am not aware of. But from a layman’s perspective, it just looks like a really bad deal for India. And I want my government to justify it to me before they accept it. Especially when there are more beneficial alternatives to this deal, why is our government insistent on pursuing it?

Nuclear power does not contribute significantly to Indian’s current electricity output today. But, it is being touted as the way forward to meeting the electricity demands of tomorrow. With that in mind, I believe that nuclear power is an essential part of our national infrastructure, and needs to be treated as a national security issue to ensure that India truly does benefit tomorrow from it.

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19 06 2007
nuclear power technology » Blog Archive » Why India Should Say No To US Nukes

[…] can be considered somewhat ancient. What really gets my goat is when you consider how becoming dependent on US technology seriously weakens our national and economic security, which is contrary to … …more […]

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