Despite Japan, Despite WikiLeaks, India's Nuclear Program on Track

Asia Society Associate Fellow Mira Kamdar.
Asia Society Associate Fellow Mira Kamdar.

In the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and spokesmen for its nuclear industries rushed to reassure the country's citizens that its nuclear industry was safe. No other country in the world has as much national pride wrapped up in nuclear power than India. Of necessity, India painstakingly built up its nuclear capability, civilian and military, largely on its own. The ambition of India to achieve total energy self-reliance for a rapidly industrializing economy via thorium-fuelled reactors seems on the verge of being realized. India is no more likely, whatever the risk, to abandon nuclear power than China, the United States, Russia, or France.

At most, India may be forced by public worries to make a few compromises, such as abandoning the highly unpopular and expensive Areva nuclear park in Jaitapur, or leave standing the liability rule under which nuclear suppliers remain vulnerable in case of a catastrophic accident. But France and the United States will put tremendous pressure on India to keep the former on track and to change the latter: their profitable nuclear sales to India depend on it.

The 2008 US nuclear deal with India was the global nuclear industry game-changer. Potential profits—$100 billion for US corporations alone—were incentive enough to pour millions of dollars into lobbying for the deal. In India, the Congress-led government pulled out all the stops to secure its passage. The Obama administration has strongly reiterated its commitment to the nuclear deal in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Meanwhile, a WikiLeaked US diplomatic cable from 2008 when the nuclear deal awaited approval by India's parliament recounting an eager Congress operative showing off boxes of cash, and boasting of the money the party had at its disposal to buy the needed votes, has been published in India by The Hindu and Outlook magazine. This latest revelation adds further injury to India's government, already reeling from a series of spectacular corruption scandals, leaving it with little credibility left with citizens. Its reassurances about India's nuclear program sound hollow before the evidence of Fukushima.

Countries and corporations around the world want in on the global nuclear boom. India's major business houses are no exception, from Larsen & Toubro, to Reliance and Tata, India Inc. sees the nuclear boom as a tremendous profit-making opportunity and a chance to become global suppliers themselves. Japan succumbed to this temptation as well, signing on—over the vehement protests of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors—to civil nuclear agreements with Vietnam and India. In fact, among the more cynical Indian responses to Fukushima were worries the meltdown would adversely affect India's nuclear deal with Japan.

(Adapted from "Delayed Reaction," an article forthcoming in the April issue of The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture.) 

Mira Kamdar is an Asia Society Associate Fellow and a former Bernard Schwartz Fellow. She is the author of Planet India: the Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2007).

About the Author

Profile picture for user Mira Kamdar
Mira Kamdar is a Paris-based Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York and an Asia Society Associate Fellow.