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Singh’s $175 Billion Nuclear Dream Threatened by Japan Quake

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

Manmohan Singh, who risked his premiership to secure India’s access to atomic reactors and supplies, faces opposition to his $175 billion investment plan after Japan’s strongest earthquake triggered a nuclear accident.

Inspectors will review safety at India’s 20 nuclear reactors, Singh told parliament yesterday, two of which are the same design as those in Japan that were at risk of a meltdown. The Department of Atomic Energy and Nuclear Power Corp. of India will check “they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes,” he said.

Singh plans to double the number of reactors over the next two decades to propel expansion in the fastest growing major economy after China and reduce reliance on imports of oil, gas and coal. India in December struck $9.3 billion of accords for two nuclear reactors to be built by Paris-based Areva SA, whose shares tumbled 10 percent yesterday on concern the accident will stall global nuclear expansion.

“The earthquake is going to reopen the controversial debate over nuclear energy in India,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, a research group. “Democracies are reactive and an accident of this magnitude will raise concerns among the population about the safety of the technology.”

Workers in Japan battled to prevent a meltdown after a stricken nuclear power plant 135 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo was today rocked by two further explosions and a fire. Prime Minister Naoto Kan appealed for calm as he said the danger of further radiation leaks was rising.

Cooling Systems

Reactor cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant failed after the 9.0-magnitude March 11 earthquake, that may also have killed more than 10,000 people.

Singh’s government came close to toppling in 2008 after communist party coalition allies and opposition groups including the Bharatiya Janata Party rejected an accord with the U.S. that gave India access to nuclear reactors and fuel. The pact, forged with then-president George W. Bush in 2005, ended three decades of isolation imposed after India tested atomic weapons in 1974.

The BJP and communists yesterday called for Singh to review plans to increase India’s use of nuclear energy, saying the potential risks from an accident are too great.

“The government brushed aside the safety concerns at the time,” Yashwant Sinha, a BJP leader and former foreign minister said in an interview. “Our entire policy of getting nuclear energy should be looked at afresh. We should now look at safer options because of the dangers involved.”

Communist Opposition

Sinha’s comments were echoed by Gurudas Dasgupta, a lawmaker of the Communist Party of India, which also opposed the civil nuclear accord with the U.S.

“The disaster in Japan shows the inherent and potential danger in setting up nuclear power plants,” Dasgupta said. “The same natural calamity can take place in India and even taking effective safety measures you cannot avoid the dangers.”

Opposition parties last year forced Singh to extend liability in the event of a nuclear accident to suppliers of technology, breaking with international conventions that hold plant operators solely responsible for compensation claims.

India’s nuclear industry, the second fastest growing in the world, has attracted foreign interest after the government announced plans to spend $175 billion by 2030 on nuclear generation to meet the rising demand for electricity.

“We will certainly look into additional safeguards,” Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters today. “Nuclear Power Corp. is relooking at all its safeguards and at the designs” after the Japan earthquake, he said.

‘Big Dampener’

“This event may be a big dampener for our program,” Shreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of India’s state-run monopoly producer, said in a telephone interview from Mumbai March 13. “We and the Department of Atomic Energy will definitely revisit the entire thing, including our new reactor plans, after we receive more information from Japan.”

Nuclear energy provides about 3 percent of the electricity consumed in India, the International Energy Agency said in a report published last month. That compares with coal-fired plants that produce about 53 percent, helping make the country the world’s fourth biggest carbon dioxide polluter.

“There is no way we can say no completely to one form of energy,” said V.S. Ramamurthy, a nuclear scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. “It’s a difficult decision but people understand that if we say no to nuclear energy we don’t have too many options.”

Energy Imports

India meets about three-quarters of its annual energy needs from imports, with rising oil prices helping sustain inflation above 8 percent for the last year, triggering the most aggressive monetary policy in Asia.

Provisional figures from India’s Central Electricity Authority point to an 8.6 percent peak power deficit in the 11 months to end February. Power cuts are common in most parts of India, including technology-services centers on the outskirts of New Delhi and Mumbai, hurting industrial production.

France’s Areva, the world’s largest nuclear supplier, and Nuclear Power Corp. signed a preliminary contract for reactors and services worth about 7 billion euros ($9.3 billion), during President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to India in December. In the same month, Moscow-based Rosatom agreed to help build 18 nuclear reactors during a visit to New Delhi by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

“There is a conscious choice to be made about the risks involved in using nuclear power,” A.V. Kameswara Rao, executive director at PricewaterhouseCoopers Pvt. Ltd. in Hyderabad, said yesterday. “The energy shortfall is a situation waiting to explode because in many states the situation is fairly grim.”

-- With assistance from Archana Chaudhary, Natalie Obiko Pearson in Mumbai, and Bibhudatta Pradhan and Abhijit Roy Chowdhury in New Delhi. Editors: Mark Williams, Stephen Foxwell

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