Nuclear, solar power both hold the key

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The Modi government’s decision to ramp up generation of nuclear power with indigenous reactors is pragmatic and sensible but it has come after six years of wild goose chase in which we went after foreign reactors which proved to be of no avail. In retrospect, the Manmohan-George Bush partnership in the shape of the Indo-US nuclear deal just amounted to going around in circles as precious time was wasted on the domestic front in generation of civil nuclear energy. The recent Cabinet decision to set up 10 nuclear reactors indigenously is a huge challenge to our scientists on which they have the potential to deliver.

The 2010 law following the Indo-US nuclear deal not only scared away foreign investors but also crippled the domestic nuclear industry. That before the recent decision to go domestic a deal was clinched with Japan for collaboration in nuclear power and there was also a breakthrough in terms of a deal with Australia on uranium supplies is an index of the homework done before the decision to re-activate the domestic nuclear front. Before the dalliance with the US India had been making pressurized heavy water reactors for years and had evolved from 200 MW reactors to 700 MW reactors currently and the promise of 1000 MW reactors in the near future.

The Bush-Manmohan deal of 2005 was important in one sense because of how it lifted sanctions against India, and provided access to imported uranium and nuclear technology. In return, the US, France, Japan and Russia were to build six nuclear plants each in India, reviving their flagging equipment industries. Nuclear power then was costlier than coal-based power but much cheaper than solar. With many nations going big on nuclear, scale economies plus third-generation technology promised to make nuclear power as cheap as thermal power, minus the carbon. Then came the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This highlighted the nuclear power risks. It led to the closure of old nuclear plants and cancellation of new ones across the world. Today, while nuclear power costs have escalated sharply, solar power cost has dropped dramatically. While it may be difficult to walk out of nuclear power deals, the focus should in future be to harness solar power which can be a potent source of energy in coming years.

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