India’s Energy Interests

Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, August 27 2006, The Statesman August 28 2006, Editorial Page Special Article,

Americans are shrewd and practical people in commercial matters, and expect the same of people they do business with. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”, is the motto they expect those on the other side of the table to be using. Let us not think they are doing us favours in the nuclear deal ~ they are grown-ups looking after their interests and naturally expect we shall look after our own and not expect charity while doing business. Equally, let us not blame the Americans if we find in later years (long after Manmohan Singh and Montek Ahluwalia have exited from India’s stage) that the deal has been implemented in a bad way for our masses of ordinary people.

That said, there is a remarkable disjoint between India’s national energy interests (nuclear interests in particular), and the manner in which the nuclear deal is being perceived and taken to implementation by the two sides. There may be a fundamental gap between the genuine positive benefits the Government of India says the deal contains, and the motivations American businessmen and through them Indian businessmen have had for lobbying American and Indian politicians to support it. An atmosphere of being at cross-purposes has been created, where for example Manmohan Singh is giving answers to questions different from the questions we may want to be asking Montek Ahluwalia. The fundamental gap between what is being said by our Government and what may be intended by the businessmen is something anyone can grasp, though first we shall need some elementary facts.

In 2004, the International Energy Agency estimated the new energy capacity required by rising economic growth in 2020 will derive 1400 GW from burning coal (half of it in China and India), 470 GW from burning oil, 430GW from hydro, and 400 GW from renewable sources like solar or wind power. Because gas prices are expected to remain low worldwide, construction of new nuclear reactors for electricity will be unprofitable. By 2030, new energy expected to be required worldwide is 4700GW, of which only 150GW is expected from new nuclear plants, which will be in any case replacing existing plants due to be retired. Rational choice between different energy sources depends on costs determined by history and geography. Out of some 441 civilian reactors worldwide, France has 59 and these generate 78 per cent of its electricity, the rest coming from hydro. Japan has 54 reactors, generating 34% of its electricity from them. The USA has 104 reactors but generates only 20 per cent of its electricity from them, given its vast alternative sources of power like hydro. In India as of 2003, installed power generating capacity was 107,533.3MW, of which 71 per cent came from burning fuels. Among India’s energy sources, the largest growth-potential is hydroelectric, which does not involve burning fuels ~ gravity moves water from the mountains to the oceans, and this force is harnessed for generation. Our hydro potential, mostly in the North and North-East, is some 150,000MW but our total installed hydro capacity with utilities was only 26,910MW (about 18 per cent of potential). Our 14 civilian nuclear reactors produced merely 4 per cent or less of the electricity being consumed in the country. Those 14 plants will come under “international safeguards” by 2014 under the nuclear deal.

It is extremely likely the international restrictions our existing nuclear plants have been under since the 1970s have hindered if not crippled their functioning and efficiency. At the same time, the restrictions may have caused us to be innovative too. Nuclear power arises from fission of radioactive uranium, plutonium or thorium. India has some 8 million tonnes of monazite deposits along the seacoast of which half may be mined, to yield 225,000 tonnes of thorium metal; we have one innovatively designed thorium reactor under construction. Almost all nuclear energy worldwide today arises from uranium of which there are practically unlimited reserves. Fission of a uranium atom produces 10 million times the energy produced by combustion of an atom of carbon from coal. Gas and fossil fuels may be cheap and in plentiful supply worldwide for generations to come but potential for cheap nuclear energy seems practically infinite. The uranium in seawater can satisfy mankind’s total electricity needs for 7 million years. There is more energy in the uranium impurity present in coal than can arise from actually burning the coal. There is plenty of uranium in granite. None of these become profitable for centuries because there is so much cheap uranium extractable from conventional ores. Design improvements in reactors will also improve productivity; e.g. “fast breeder” reactors “breed” more fissile material than they use, and may get 100 times as much energy from a kilogram of uranium as existing reactors do. India has about 95,000 tonnes of uranium metal that may be mined to yield about 61,000 tonnes net for power generation. Natural uranium is 99.3 per cent of the U-238 isotope and 0.7 per cent of the radioactive U-235 isotope. Nuclear power generation requires “enriched uranium” or “yellow cake” to be created in which U-235 has been increased from 0.7 per cent to 4 to 5 percent. (Nuclear bombs require highly enriched uranium with more than 90 per cent of U-235.) Yellow cake is broken into small pieces, put in metal rods placed in bundles, which are then bombarded by neutrons causing fission. In a reactor, the energy released turns water into steam, which moves turbines generating electricity. While there is no carbon dioxide “waste” as in burning fossil fuels, the “spent” rods of nuclear fuel and other products constitute grave radioactive waste, almost impossible to dispose of.

The plausible part of the Government of India’s official line on the Indo-US nuclear deal is that removing the international restrictions will ~ through importation of new technologies, inputs, fuel etc ~ improve functioning of our 14 existing civilian plants. That is a good thing. Essentially, the price being paid for that improvement is our willingness to commit that those 14 plants will not be used for military purposes. Fair enough: even if we might become less innovative as a result, the overall efficiency gains as a result of the deal will add something to India’s productivity. However, those purchasing decisions involved in enhancing India’s efficiency gains must be made by the Government’s nuclear scientists on technical grounds of improving the working of our existing nuclear infrastructure.

It is a different animal altogether to be purchasing new nuclear reactors on a turn-key basis from American or any other foreign businessmen in a purported attempt to improve India’s “energy security”. (Lalu Yadav has requested a new reactor for Bihar, plus of course Delhi will want one, etc.) The central question over such massive foreign purchases would no longer be the technical one of using the Indo-US deal to improve efficiency or productivity of our existing nuclear infrastructure. Instead it would become a question of calculating social costs and benefits of our investing in nuclear power relative to other sources like hydroelectric power. Even if all other sources of electricity remained constant, and our civilian nuclear capacity alone was made to grow by 100 per cent under the Manmohan-Montek deal-making, that would mean less than 8% of total Indian electricity produced.

This is where the oddities arise and a disjoint becomes apparent between what the Government of India is saying and what American and Indian businessmen have been doing. A “US-India Business Council” has existed for thirty years in Washington as “the premier business advocacy organization promoting US commercial interests in India.… the voice of the American private sector investing in India”. Before the nuclear or any other deals could be contemplated with American business, the USIBC insisted we pay up for Dabhol contracted by a previous Congress Government. The Maharashtra State Electricity Board ~ or rather, its sovereign guarantor the Government of India ~ duly paid out at least $140-$160 million each to General Electric and Bechtel Corporations in “an amicable settlement” of the Dabhol affair. Afterwards, General Electric’s CEO for India was kind enough to say “India is an important country to GE’s global growth. We look forward to working with our partners, customers, and State and Central Governments in helping India continue to develop into a leading world economy”.

Also, a new “US-India CEO Forum” then came about. For two Governments to sponsor private business via such a Forum was “unprecedented”, as noted by Washington’s press during Manmohan Singh’s visit in July 2005. America’s foreign ministry announced it saying: “Both our governments have agreed that we should create a high-level private sector forum to exchange business community views on key economic priorities…” The American side includes heads of AES Corporation, Cargill Inc., Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Honeywell, McGraw-Hill, Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd, PepsiCo, Visa International and Xerox Corporation. The Indian side includes heads of Tata Group, Apollo Hospitals Group, Bharat Forge Ltd, Biocon India Group, HDFC, ICICI One Source, Infosys, ITC Ltd, Max India Group and Reliance Industries. Presiding over the Indian side has been Montek Ahluwalia, Manmohan’s trusted aide ~ and let it be remembered too that the Ahluwalias were Manmohan’s strongest backers in his failed South Delhi Lok Sabha bid. (Indeed it is not clear if the Ahluwalias have been US or Indian residents in recent years, and if it is the former, the onus is on them to clear any perception of conflict of interest arising in regard to roles regarding the nuclear deal or any other official Indo-US business.)

Also, before the Manmohan visit, the Confederation of Indian Industry registered as an official lobbyist in Washington, and went about spending half a million dollars lobbying American politicians for the nuclear deal. After the Manmohan visit, the US Foreign Commercial Service reportedly said American engineering firms, equipment suppliers and contractors faced a $1,000 billion (1 bn =100 crore) opportunity in India. Before President Bush’s visit to India in March 2006, Manmohan Singh signed vast purchases of commercial aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, as well as large weapons’ deals with France and Russia. After the Bush visit, the US Chamber of Commerce said the nuclear deal can cause $100 billion worth of new American business in India’s energy-sector alone. What is going on?

Finally, the main aspect of Manmohan Singh’s address to America’s legislature had to do with agreeing with President Bush “to enhance Indo-US cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear technology”. What precisely does this mean? If it means the Indo-US nuclear deal will help India improve or maintain its existing nuclear infrastructure, well and good. There may be legitimate business for American and other foreign companies in that cause, which also helps India make the efficiency and productivity gains mentioned. Or has the real motivation for the American businessmen driving the deal (with the help of the “CEO Forum” etc) been to sell India nuclear reactors on a turn-key basis (in collaboration with private Indian businessmen) at a time when building new nuclear reactors is unprofitable elsewhere in the world because of low gas prices? India’s citizens may demand to know from the Government whether the Manmohan-Montek deal-making is going to cause importation of new nuclear reactors, and if so, why such an expensive alternative is being considered (relative to e.g. India’s abundant hydroelectric potential) when it will have scant effect in satisfying the country’s energy needs and lead merely to a worsening of our macroeconomic problems. Both Manmohan Singh and Montek Ahluwalia have been already among those to preside over the growth of India’s macroeconomic problems through the 1980s and 1990s.

Lastly, an irrelevant distraction should be gotten out of the way. Are we a “nuclear weapons” state? Of course we are, but does it matter to anything but our vanity? Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had control over vastly more nuclear weapons and they declared together twenty years ago: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought”, which is how the Cold War started to come to an end. We need to remind ourselves that India and Pakistan are large, populous countries with hundreds of millions of materially poor, ill-informed citizens, weak tax-bases, humongous internal and external public debts (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), non-investment grade credit- ratings in world financial markets, massive annual fiscal deficits, inconvertible currencies, nationalized banks, and runaway printing of paper-money. Discussing nuclear or other weapon-systems to attack one other with is mostly a pastime of our cowardly, irresponsible and yes, corrupt, elites.


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