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India's ambitious nuclear expansion plans face setback

India plans to build dozens of new nuclear plants, including the world's largest, to meet its massive energy needs. But analysts say the Japan crisis and new corruption revelations could hamper atomic expansion.

The Kalpakkam Atomic Center, south of Chennai in India

Energy-ravenous India is looking to boost nuclear power production

While the crisis in Japan has led some European nations to rethink atomic power, energy-hungry India is determined to keep on track its ambitious plans to ramp up nuclear power production.

India currently has 20 nuclear power plants, among them the world's oldest operating boiling water reactor at Tarapur in the western state of Maharashtra. General Electric, which built the Tarapur plant, also designed the reactors at the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan.

Most of the existing reactors are built locally with some Russian help. So far, India gets only a tiny fraction of its electricity from nuclear power. That is set to change. The country plans to spend around $150 billion (106 billion euros) on building new reactors in the coming years.

By one estimate, nuclear power is projected to supply about a quarter of the country's electricity needs by 2050 - a tenfold increase from now.

"Ours is a very power-hungry country," Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India's Atomic Energy Comission, said at a news conference in Mumbai this week. "It is essential for us to have further electricity generation," he said, pointing out that nearly 40 percent of India's 1.2 billion people do not have regular access to electricity.

'Drawing lessons from Japan'

Despite the pressing need for energy fuelled by its booming economy, the crisis at Japan's tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has sparked a debate in India about the safety of its existing nuclear plants.

"The confidence in nuclear energy is badly shaken after the disaster in Japan," Rajan Nayan, a senior research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, told Deutsche Welle. "That's why we must draw lessons from Japan's experience and improve safety standards where needed."

Two nuclear research reactors, Dhruva, left, and Cirus, right, within the Bhabha Atomic Research Center on the outskirts of Bombay,

Between 1999 and 2009, there have been 13 accidents at nuclear facilities, according to Indian magazine Tehelka

Many of India's reactors are located near the coast and in seismically active zones. Nayan pointed out that Indian regulations already required all nuclear plants to withstand seismic activity. "But I believe that in future, the government should ensure that all new reactors must be able to withstand a high intensity on the Richter scale to assuage people's concerns," Nayan said.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced earlier this week that the country's Department of Atomic Energy would review all safety systems at India's nuclear plants, in particular to ensure that they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes.

Nuclear plant dogged by protests

But it's unclear whether those assurances will ease concerns. The Japan crisis has, in particular, renewed focus on controversial plans to build a huge nuclear facility in Jaitapur, located on the Arabian Sea about 300 kilometers (186 milies) south of Mumbai.

The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan has rekindled fears among environmental activists who point out that the Jaitapur plant too is located in a earthquake-prone region. According to the Indian government's geological service, the region experienced 92 tremblers between 1985 and 2005.

People celebrate the US-India nuclear deal in Ahmedabad, India

Celebrations marked the US-India civilian nuclear agreement in 2008

In addition, local farmers have been protesting for months against the government's plans to buy their land for the planned nuclear facility. Environmentalists also say the region's rich ecology and fertile soil would be threatened by the nuclear power complex.

"The grassroots opposition will be energized by the fallout from Fukushima," Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi, told Deutsche Welle. "It will become much tougher now for the government to acquire land."

Nuclear imports under scrutiny

The planned Jaitapur plant has also drawn attention to India's moves to push through major civilian nuclear imports ever since it signed a series of deals ending its status as a nuclear pariah. A number of countries including France, Russia and the US are hoping to grab a slice of India's lucrative civilian nuclear energy market.

Critics say many of these business deals are marked by a lack of transparency and open the door to large-scale corruption.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh

The Areva deal was signed during French President Sarkozy's visit to India last December

In December, India signed a $9.3 billion deal with French nuclear energy giant Areva to build six reactors at Jaitapur, each with a capacity of 1,650 megawatts - making it potentially the world's most powerful nuclear energy complex.

Chellaney pointed out Areva's design for the Jaitapur plant, which he said is not in operation anywhere in the world, was not evaluated for earthquakes or tsunamis. Nuclear power imports, he said, are likely to be subjected to much more scrutiny in the wake of the Japan crisis.

WikiLeaks fallout

In a further blow to India's nuclear ambitions, on Thursday Indian newspapers reported that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government used cash to win a trust vote in parliament in 2008 over a landmark US-India civilian nuclear agreement.

Citing a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, newspapers reported that an aide to a politician from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ruling Congress Party showed a US Embassy employee two chests containing cash to bribe parliamentarians ahead of the vote.

"The nuclear deal has returned to haunt India," Chellaney said. "If the agreement was indeed lubricated by big bucks and corruption, then the question is how India can ensure nuclear safety in the long term. We have to have more transparency and debate."

Experts say India's ambitious atomic expansion plans may eventually see the light of day. But, for now, the battle between advocates and opponents of nuclear power is expected to get much tougher.

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Rob Mudge

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