Representative image of nuclear power plant. (Image source: GE Power)

In the face of uncertain future of climate change accord, nuclear energy is an important component of India’s overall energy matrix. The third largest energy consuming country in the world is riding on domestic and regional demand to become South Asian nuclear energy hub. However, experts also see obstacles like stringent civil nuclear liability regime impeding its growth as nuclear exporter.

Since 2005 when a civil nuclear deal with the US ended India’s nuclear isolation, India has entered civil nuclear pact with various countries including France, Russia and Japan. In the immediate neighbourhood it has entered civil nuclear agreement with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, to whom it will be helping building nuclear production capability to meet the need of their energy starved economies.

Domestically the Indian Government has approved development of 10 indigenous pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWR) of 700 MWe each. Presently, there are 21 nuclear power plants operational in India supplying a meagre 3 percent of the country’s energy requirements. The present Indian government has vowed to triple the country’s nuclear energy production by 2024. By the middle of the century, New Delhi envisages the nuclear power to be 25 percent of India’s total energy requirements by 2050.

Dr. Manpreet Sethi, nuclear policy expert with the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi told Nuclear Asia that India’s safety record will give it credibility to become a nuclear exporter. “We have the capability and a high credibility because of our safety record and performance. It will have to be a political decision to engage in nuclear exports,” Dr Sethi said. Two of India’s nuclear plants – Kudankulam and Kalpakkam – are located on its Tsunami-prone south-east coastline and it has managed to operate them without any accidents. Sethi avers that India has the expertise in ‘small and mid-sized’ nuclear reactors that could meet needs of many countries.

She added that emergence as a nuclear exporter can help India in becoming “de facto Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) member”. “One of the reasons that China does not want India inside the NSG is the emergence of India as a global supplier in the nuclear energy business that its own nuclear industry is most interested in,” Sethi opined talking about the increasing nuclear energy demand in the Indian sub-continent and the competition it might ensue amongst the two fastest developing economies.

India’s bilateral nuclear ties with Russia have progressed well. The two countries in December 2015 put “The Programme of Action” signed by India’s Department of Atomic Energy and Russia’s Atomic Energy Corporation ‘Rosatom’ in place. This entails specific roadmap and timelines in consultation with Russian technology providers and Indian private and public sector manufacturers to begin localisation in India. Gradually all major equipment, spares and nuclear fuel assemblies presently manufactured in Russia will be shifted to India.

The Programme of Action also links the localisation capabilities developed in India with Russian-assisted nuclear power projects in third countries. India and Russia are giving defining their civil nuclear ties to pave way for greater nuclear energy cooperation with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. While Russia will be building Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant in Roopur, India will be providing training to personnel from both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to operate them.

“At this stage, the only country in South Asia which has Russian reactors is India. Potentially, India could be an exporter, together with Russian entity depending upon our quality assurances and cost effectiveness,” Rakesh Sood, former Envoy of Prime Minister for disarmament and Non-Proliferation said.

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, nuclear expert from Observer Research Foundation (ORF) agrees that India is doing “nuclear diplomacy” in the neighbourhood by helping smaller countries in nuclear capacity building. “There is diplomacy that comes into play when we want to assure the fact that we remain the primary country to whom they (South Asian countries) reach out to in times of need. But at the same time how much we are able to deliver remains to be seen,” said Dr. Rajagopalan.

As India lacks in nuclear fuel resources, market expects more collaboration between India and other nuclear suppliers. The government is also expected to put national nuclear export policy in place to guide its future course of action.

After coming to power Narendra Modi government have taken steps to give momentum to India’s nuclear energy quest. But it has been unable to change the stringent civil nuclear liability bill that expert term as a “monstrous law”. Dr. Rajagopalan considers the law as the most “critical” legislation that will guide the growth of India’s nuclear energy productivity in the future.

“There is going to be lot of focus on this (nuclear energy) area. The question is how quickly we can resolve the liability issue to the satisfaction of all the different players – both domestic and international. If you are not going to do that then there is going to be slow progress,” Dr. Rajagopalan added.

Realistically speaking Dr. Rajagopalan said it would be “political suicide” for the government of the day to make any changes in the domestic liability law. But she sees the Indian government’s ratification of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage that puts the liability of paying compensation to the victims in case of an accident on the operator rather than the domestic or international nuclear suppliers.

“Since Modi government came to office India has signed an additional thing on international liability regime proving to the international partners that we are serious about the issues and we will play by international liability regime. It is going to be tricky how we quickly move on this front. This remains the biggest obstacle,” Dr. Rajagopalan said.

The turning of the developing countries in the South Asia is imperative to meet clean energy goals to counter the impact of climate change and India aims to play a pivotal role in it.