| Aditya Phatak |
MUMBAI (AFP) – India’s new prime minister is turning to nuclear energy to ease a power crisis made worse by the cancellation of hundreds of coal mining permits, but he faces scepticism both at home and abroad.
Energy-starved India relies on coal to produce two thirds of its electricity, but power blackouts are common and demand is rising quickly as the economy and middle class expand.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court cancelled over 200 coal mining permits because the licensing process was deemed illegal, making the need for alternative energy sources yet more pressing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made nuclear a priority as he seeks to fulfil his campaign pledge to kickstart the country’s flagging economy.
But to succeed, he will need to convince a sceptical public that nuclear is safe, and dispel foreign proliferation concerns to secure the imports of uranium and technology that India needs to produce atomic energy.
“Concerns of power disruptions raised post the Supreme Court judgement on the coal issue show how reliance on single source of energy is unhealthy,” said Amit Bhandari, energy and environment fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think-tank.
“It makes sense investing in nuclear energy, which provides clean power and a hedge against coal supply shocks.”
Nearly 400 million Indians still have no access to electricity, according to the World Bank.
India’s 20 nuclear plants currently account for less than two per cent of its power capacity, but the government wants to boost this to 25 per cent by 2050.
Modi has quickly set about trying to achieve that. He secured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge to speed up discussions on a nuclear agreement during a visit to Japan last month, before signing a deal with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott that will pave the way for uranium sales to India.
China’s President Xi Jinping also showed willingness to talk nuclear cooperation with India on a visit last week, although no specific pact was announced.
But foreign allies remain wary of providing such assistance to a nuclear-armed country that has not signed the non-proliferation treaty to prevent the spread of atomic warheads.
Japan wants assurances that no more nuclear weapons will be tested, a promise India is unlikely to give publicly.
A long-standing boundary dispute has meant Beijing has kept its distance, although India remains hopeful of securing Chinese technology.