India's nuclear power plans hit bumps

Today, India's booming economy relies heavily on coal. But coal comes with big environmental costs and so the country is exploring other sources of energy.

�We're trying to maximize our nuclear energy,� says B B.K. Chaturvedi, of the government's power Planning Commission. Today, nuclear power supplies roughly 3 percent of India's energy. But the government wants to boost it by nearly 10 times in the next 20-30 years.

To meet those goals, India is looking for help from other countries including the United States. Two years ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former President George Bush signed a landmark nuclear deal. India agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear sectors. The US in turn agreed to let companies like General Electric and Westinghouse sell reactors to India. Supporters say the treaty is one of the most important agreements ever signed between the two countries.

But as President Obama heads to India, many in the U.S. are apprehensive about its future.

�It would be a shame to see this agreement fail in the last minute because of a very poorly designed law passed by the Indian parliament,� says Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state in the Bush administration and a key player in the 2008 deal.

The law Burns is concerned about is a nuclear liability law recently passed by India's parliament. Most other countries that have nuclear plants protect the manufacturers from financial liability in case of an accident. The Indian law does shield shield manufacturers from lawsuits by victims. And it puts the burden of compensating victims on the operator of the plant, not the supplier.

However, the law allows operators of nuclear power plants to sue manufacturers in case of an accident. The reason behind this clause in the law is partly because of India's history of industrial accidents involving foreign companies.

The worst industrial disaster ever happened 26 years ago in the town of Bhopal, India. A poisonous gas leaked from a factory owned by the American company Union Carbide. More than 15 thousand people died instantly, half a million were poisoned, and thousands more are still sick. Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation to victims, years after the disaster.

�In the public perception, Bhopal is a living example of how not to compensate,� says Siddharth Varadarajan an editor at the Indian national daily The Hindu.

�In other words, the people expected the government to frame a legislation to take care of all the negative aspects that we saw in Bhopal � the cause of the accident, to the holding of whoever was responsible liable to providing compensation.�

But without blanket immunity from liability, American nuclear suppliers are nervous about doing business in India.

�The Indian government needs to act quickly, and resolutely to modify it so that the United States and other countries can have some confidence that, as we move forward commercially, the interests of our companies will be protected,� Nicholas Burns says.

And that is part of what is on President Obama's agenda in his talks here next week. The prospects for a change in the nuclear liability law are uncertain. But even a new agreement with the US may not clear the way for India to achieve its nuclear energy goals. That's because local people in many parts of the country are refusing to give up land for nuclear power projects.

One such place is the village of Gorakhpur, in northwestern India. The government wants to build a nuclear power plant in that village, on farmland owned by village residents.

Hansraj Shivaij is the local chief of Gorakhpur. He says there's no way he'll give up his land for the power plant. His neighbors share that determination. And for the last two months they've been protesting against the proposed power plant.

It isn't nuclear power per se that they're opposed to. In fact, they admit they don't know much about nuclear energy. But they've seen the government take farmland for industrial projects around the country, often disregarding public opinion and even its own laws along the way.

India's environment minister recently promised to ensure that government projects like nuclear power plants follow environmental laws.

But journalist Siddharth Varadarajan says without wider changes, the government will have a hard time building new nuclear plants, even if western countries like the US are willing to build them.

�If the government tries to sweep opposition under the carpet, tries to mislead people, tries to present environmental impact assessment reports that are fudged, as we have seen in several large scale projects,� he says.

�So, if that's the way the government is going to go, tries to ram this down the throats of people I think it'll have a fight on its hands.�