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Indo-French Nuclear Collaboration: Prospects and Challenges by Manpreet Sethi

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Author: Ms (Dr) Manpreet Sethi
This very interesting article evaluates Indo-French Cooperation in the field of Nuclear energy. In the nuclear sector, the two countries share similarities such as a strong role of the government and in fuel cycles. Overlapping interests offer them an opportunity to carve out a productive and constructive nuclear engagement based on a history of a cordial and supportive relationship in the past.

France is keen to export its nuclear technology and expertise to an India that has just entered the field of international nuclear commerce. India, on the other hand, with a fast growing economy is eager to invest in infrastructure for sustainable socio-economic development. The country is eager to dip into the French nuclear kitty in order to meet energy generation projections that estimate the need for electricity supply to grow from present day 200 GW to nearly 800 GW by 2030.

On 30 September 2008, just days after the Nuclear Suppliers Group enabled India’s entry into international nuclear commerce and even before the US Congress passed the 123 Agreement in October 2008, France had signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with India. It envisaged wide-ranging cooperative activities, including in nuclear power projects, research and development, nuclear safety, education and training. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between AREVA and NPCIL in February 2009 which included discussions for setting up the European Pressurised Reactors of 1,650 MW capacity in India at Jaitapur in Maharashtra. The French Parliament unanimously approved the accord on 24 November 2009. By the end of 2010 a General Framework Agreement and an Early Works Agreement had been signed outlining the initial scope of work, division of responsibility for design, material, technology and services and regulatory aspects. The financial appraisal of the project was underway when the earthquake and tsunami struck Fukushima nuclear plants in Japan in March 2011.

The impact of this unprecedented nuclear disaster was felt across the world, including at the nuclear plants planned at Jaitapur. Public apprehension over nuclear safety resulted in protests that also became mixed-up with issues of choice of reactor technology, cost of nuclear energy, land acquisition and compensation etc to form a tangled knot. While the Indian government remains committed to its vision of enhancing the role of nuclear energy in the country’s energy mix, there has been a bit of a slowdown in the ongoing work.

Taking a leaf out of the French experience it would be worthwhile for the government to encourage conducted tours of nuclear stations for school and college students, the general public and most importantly for the media, which can prove to be a powerful tool for educating and influencing public opinion on the relevance and importance of nuclear power in India’s energy scenario

As India seeks to restore public confidence and build public support for nuclear power, the French experience of handling challenges of public acceptance are worth noting. France today has 59 nuclear power plants producing 63 GWe that caters for nearly 80 per cent of the country’s electricity needs. This has been enabled by the pursuit of a resolute and consistent energy policy that the country consciously adopted after suffering the oil crisis in the early 1970s. The shock awakened France to its energy vulnerability owing to the large scale dependence on fuel imports and in its search for energy security, it hit upon nuclear power as the most viable source of electricity.

Through the 1970s-90s, its nuclear programme was projected as a symbol of national pride and contributor to energy independence. The French were able to foster this mindset not only by the safe, consistent and cheap production of nuclear electricity but through a well planned education campaign that included encouraging the common man to visit nuclear plants and related industrial facilities. This helped dispel public fears about nuclear power and reduced the distance between ‘high technology’ and common man.

In India, the nuclear establishment and decision-making has been largely removed from the general public. Taking a leaf out of the French experience it would be worthwhile for the government to encourage conducted tours of nuclear stations for school and college students, the general public and most importantly for the media, which can prove to be a powerful tool for educating and influencing public opinion on the relevance and importance of nuclear power in India’s energy scenario.

Why nuclear energy for India?

That India cannot afford to abandon nuclear energy is an imperative arising from its ever increasing electricity requirements and ever decreasing options. India is a rapidly growing economy which is also simultaneously experiencing population growth. It has a low per capita energy availability of only 778 kWh compared to even the middle income countries that have 5,000 to 7,000 kWh. India is projected to have the highest growing electricity demand in the world at 5.7 per cent per annum.

Nuclear energy, in contrast, is a dense form of energy and needs far lesser land to produce the same amount of electricity. Meanwhile, contemporary trends such as improvements in nuclear plant capacity factors, reduction in construction time etc have rationalised per unit cost of nuclear electricity
How is the country to meet this demand? Coal currently provides nearly 55 per cent of the total electricity production in the country, but dependence on imports is rising by the day since indigenously available coal is of low quality with high ash content and caught in a domestic wrangle of its own. As environmental concerns, which will only increase as extreme climatic events affect populations across the world, compel greater dependence on carbon neutral sources of energy, the focus will have to shift from coal.

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