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India Seeks to Expand Nuclear Power Capabilities

May 29, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: It doesn’t take long to journey to the heart of India’s nuclear industry. A 60-second elevator ride takes workers and visitors alike 600 feet below ground in Jaduguda, 900 miles southeast of Delhi.

This is India’s largest uranium mine, a strategic site that has never been filmed before by American television. It’s been open for business since 1968 and is one of four sites producing a relatively small amount of uranium that for now exclusively powers India’s nuclear industry.

Uranium is not like coal or gold. The miners can’t see it with the naked eye. Instead, radiation tests guide them to potentially rich seams of rock face. Every day, 2,500 tons of rocks are delivered into an enormous grinder, where they’re pulverized, the start of a process that separates the uranium from the boulders in which it’s encased.

RAMENDRA GUPTA, Uranium Corporation of India, Ltd.: We have adopted the latest mining technology, and we are second to none in the world.

SIMON MARKS: Ramendra Gupta heads the Uranium Corporation of India, the government agency that oversees the mining operation. With 4,000 people on its payroll, it’s one of the largest employers in this part of India, a rapidly developing country with a voracious appetite for energy and a nuclear industry that wants to supply more of it.

RAMENDRA GUPTA: If we want to sustain 8 percent growth, we must have enough power. And to have enough power, nuclear power is a good alternative, because, at present, we are not having enough fossil fuel in India. And most of the fossil fuel which is being imported, it is coming from areas which are politically not really stable.

U.S. support for India

George W. Bush
U.S. President
This bill lays the foundation for a new strategic partnership between our two nations that will help ease India's demands for fossil fuels and ease pressure on global markets.

SIMON MARKS: India's growth is so rapid that the country's demand for electricity is expected to more than double by the year 2015. The call centers that now handle customer service requests for some of the world's largest corporations are just one example of new Indian businesses that need ongoing supplies of cheap, reliable energy.

Today, only 3 percent of the electricity that powers offices like this one in Delhi is generated by India's nuclear power stations. The government wants to see that figure rise seven-fold, and it's found an ally in the USA.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Now it is my honor to sign the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006.

SIMON MARKS: The Bush administration has heavily promoted a proposed nuclear agreement with India. Last December, the president signed legislation that allows the two countries to share peaceful nuclear technology, just one part of a broader administration plan to give India the green light to develop its nuclear industry.

GEORGE W. BUSH: ... helping in the expanded use of safe nuclear energy, this bill lays the foundation for a new strategic partnership between our two nations that will help ease India's demands for fossil fuels and ease pressure on global markets.

SIMON MARKS: Washington's support for India's nuclear ambitions is welcomed at the Tarapur Atomic Power Project in Mumbai, India's commercial capital in the south of the country, previously known as Bombay.

Tarapur is the pride of India's nuclear industry. It's the largest nuclear site in the country, home to two pressurized heavy-water reactors that the Indians proudly claim they designed and built themselves.

Challenging non-proliferation

Anil Kakodkar
Atomic Energy Commission
If you look at the democratic fiber in India, I think it's very strong. If you look at India's track record, India has always behaved in a responsible manner. If you look at India's non-proliferation record, you will find our record is impeccable.

SIMON MARKS: Anil Kakodkar is the chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission. He's the highest-ranking nuclear official in the country, and oversees the industry, including the Tarapur site. He's a firm believer that, as the world's largest democracy, one that's rapidly expanding economically and geopolitically, India not only needs a nuclear program, but can be trusted with one, as well.

ANIL KAKODKAR, Atomic Energy Commission: See, first of all, if you look at the democratic fiber in India, I think it's very strong. If you look at India's track record, India has always behaved in a responsible manner. If you look at India's non-proliferation record, you will find our record is impeccable.

We have controlled, although we have developed all these technologies on our own, through our R&D. We have controlled these technologies extremely well. So, in fact, I would not hesitate saying that India's track record is better than some of the, shall I say, NPT weapons states.

SIMON MARKS: India has never signed the NPT, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been in effect since July 1968, so the Indians have never agreed to the treaty's terms, which would allow them to maintain civilian nuclear programs in exchange for promising not to develop or obtain nuclear weapons.

TV ANNOUNCER: On 11th May 1998, three devices were detonated simultaneously.

SIMON MARKS: India's military nuclear program has conducted a series of weapons tests over the last 30 years that have drawn international condemnation. India is one of only four nations not to honor the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the other three.

Despite that, the proposed agreement with Washington will give India a chance to enjoy many of the benefits previously reserved for countries that have signed the agreement.

PROF. P.R. CHARI, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies: This particular Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, it really drives a horse and carriage through the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

SIMON MARKS: Professor P.R. Chari with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi argues that the proposed agreement will lift virtually all the sanctions India has faced, without seeking any of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's commitments in return. India will be allowed to import foreign supplies of nuclear fuel and may be permitted to engage in broader nuclear commerce, if the members of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group agree.

PROF. P.R. CHARI: It makes it meaningless. In any other country, especially the 180 or so that have signed and have accepted its prohibitions and its qualifications, could very well ask their own question that, "Why don't we also go ahead and explode a nuclear device? If an exception can be made for India, why not for us?"

SIMON MARKS: Because, say officials at the Uranium Corporation of India, the country is poised to become a regional superpower. The Indian government is strenuously pushing back against attempts by the U.S. Congress to water down the nuclear deal. The Bush administration wants the deal approved by the House and Senate this summer.

In its original form, Indians would permit international inspections of some of their nuclear reactors, but the country's weapons program would remain under wraps, allowing the Indians to keep it off-limits to the probing eyes of the global inspection regime.

An arms race ahead?

Praful Bedwai
Former Editor, Times of India
It's absurd. It's going to lead to an arms race, a nuclear arms race, not just with Pakistan, but with China. And that's going to degrade security in the region. It's going to create instability in the region.

SIMON MARKS: India is already believed to have already generated enough fissile material to produce between 60 and 100 nuclear bombs. If the U.S.-India nuclear deal goes ahead, the country will be allowed to import foreign supplies of uranium for its nuclear power stations, permitting much of the uranium mined here to be used in the country's weapons program.

Praful Bedwai is a former editor of the Times of India and is now actively involved in several Indian anti-nuclear groups.

PRAFUL BEDWAI, Columnist: It's absurd. It's going to lead to an arms race, a nuclear arms race, not just with Pakistan, but with China. And that's going to degrade security in the region. It's going to create instability in the region. It's going to create serious problems, drain our budget of the resources that we need for development, to fight poverty, to give food and water to the people. And that's very important.

SIMON MARKS: Those criticisms are rejected by Indian nuclear officials. They argue the country has been in the nuclear business for nearly 40 years and will continue to develop an indigenous nuclear program that includes a military component.

RAMENDRA GUPTA: It's good if we have the access to uranium resources outside India, but suppose it is not coming. In any case, we are going ahead with our program. We are opening up new mines and putting up new process plants, and also exploring new areas for uranium.

ANIL KAKODKAR: India is a sovereign country. India has to take care of its own security requirements. And India has a right to do this, maintaining its own international commitments. So I think it's straightforward.

Fears of proliferation

P.R. Chari
Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
In the case of India, what one finds is that the United States has no problem with an extension of the number of countries which have nuclear weapons.

SIMON MARKS: Also straightforward, assert the Indians, are fears over possible nuclear proliferation. Security is tight at the Jaduguda mining complex, where the authorities express confidence that the nuclear materials produced here can't fall into the hands of terrorists.

And yet, even as we were touring the mine, just five miles away, events were unfolding that suggested the security at the complex might be prudent. The night we arrived in the area, a local member of parliament was assassinated, shot to death by a group of Maoist insurgents operating in the area. As his body left the local hospital the next morning, scenes of grief were televised live across the country. And when his cortege drove through the streets, tens of thousands of people turned out to pay their respects to a seemingly popular local political figure.

The Maoists, called the Naxalites, are waging an armed struggle against India's rapid capitalist transformation. Indian newspapers called the assassination the Maoists' boldest attack yet, and urged the government to take immediate action to stop them from expanding their violent campaign.

The Maoists have not targeted any of India's strategic nuclear sites, and officials at the uranium mine insist their security measures are sufficient to withstand any attempt at proliferation.

RAMENDRA GUPTA: I am very sure we have the necessary security arrangements, as well as the safeguards, in place. So I am very sure none of these things are going to happen. Up to now, it's not happened, so it's not going to happen in the future, also.

SIMON MARKS: India's future, the government argues, is as a powerful economic player in a geo-politically important part of the world. By conferring on India the kind of nuclear agreement states like Iran can only dream about, opponents argue the Bush administration is exhibiting inconsistencies in non-proliferation policy.

PROF. P.R. CHARI: The United States took the point of view that it wanted to reduce the number of countries which had possession of nuclear weapons. But in the case of India, what one finds is that the United States has no problem with an extension of the number of countries which have nuclear weapons.

SIMON MARKS: Indian officials sidestep the issue, insisting the only deal they will accept from the United States is one that honors Indian sovereignty and, along with it, the right to develop nuclear weapons.

ANIL KAKODKAR: What India should have and should not have is for India to decide, and I'll leave it at that.

SIMON MARKS: As negotiations on the nuclear deal continue, the Indians say they're planning to open an additional four uranium mines over the next five years. Their nuclear program will power ahead, they say, with or without U.S. approval.