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India Needs a Big Nuclear Bet to Keep COP26 Promises

The United States can play a key role in civilian nuclear aid.

By , a public policy professional in Washington D.C.
Indian nuclear power plant in Narora
A man walks along a dirt road next to the Narora Atomic Power Station near Narora, India, on March 27, 2018. Xavier Galiana/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew attention at the recent United Nations climate summit, known as COP26, when he said India plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. That’s a worthwhile goal, albeit a faraway one that nobody involved now can be held accountable for. But if Modi wants to prove that he’s actually committed to the target, there’s only one way to pull it off: nuclear power.

India is one of the largest consumers of coal in the world, with its consumption second only to China. A significant portion of the economy runs on coal, the state-owned Coal India is the largest coal-mining company in the world, and coal provides around 70 percent of the nation’s electricity. This also renders India especially vulnerable to price fluctuations, and in October the record price of thermal coal and an easing of coronavirus lockdowns caused national shortages: Some plants had only one to three days of fuel, in part due to significant upticks in demand. October as a whole recorded the highest power shortage in over 5 years.

But the long-term problem with coal is its massive emissions burden—hastening processes of climate change that India is badly exposed to. These issues can’t be left to 2070. Rising sea levels have sunk agricultural land in places like West Bengal, and climate change (through natural disasters like cyclones, floods, and droughts) cost India $87 billion last year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew attention at the recent United Nations climate summit, known as COP26, when he said India plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. That’s a worthwhile goal, albeit a faraway one that nobody involved now can be held accountable for. But if Modi wants to prove that he’s actually committed to the target, there’s only one way to pull it off: nuclear power.

India is one of the largest consumers of coal in the world, with its consumption second only to China. A significant portion of the economy runs on coal, the state-owned Coal India is the largest coal-mining company in the world, and coal provides around 70 percent of the nation’s electricity. This also renders India especially vulnerable to price fluctuations, and in October the record price of thermal coal and an easing of coronavirus lockdowns caused national shortages: Some plants had only one to three days of fuel, in part due to significant upticks in demand. October as a whole recorded the highest power shortage in over 5 years.

But the long-term problem with coal is its massive emissions burden—hastening processes of climate change that India is badly exposed to. These issues can’t be left to 2070. Rising sea levels have sunk agricultural land in places like West Bengal, and climate change (through natural disasters like cyclones, floods, and droughts) cost India $87 billion last year.

The government has been taking steps to shift to cleaner sources. As of August, India had just over a hundred gigawatts of renewable energy capacity, which represents around a fourth of the total installed power capacity. But this isn’t enough to reach Modi’s COP26 goal, and the government is both aware of this and moving to answer it through policies like grants for wind power and slowly decreasing subsidies for coal. However, nuclear energy has to be part of that answer.

Right now, nuclear power is the fifth-largest electricity source in India, and there are multiple reactors spread throughout the country, with more still under construction. However, they are not that important in the grand scheme of things—as of November 2020, they contributed under 2 percent of India’s overall energy supply.

Getting this number higher will be crucial to addressing climate change as well as worries about energy reliability, but it’s not necessarily something India can do alone, and some question whether it should be expected to. In Modi’s speech at COP26, he echoed concerns that the Western world is kicking away the ladder of cheap, dirty power it climbed itself. However, he didn’t shut the door on decarbonization efforts and argued that there should be a commitment from developed countries to assist developing ones through a $1 trillion fund for climate finance.

While the fund is being set up and deals are being worked out, there’s a concrete way for the United States and India to move on such funding. In 2008, then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement with then-U.S. President George W. Bush. The agreement was meant to address decades of sanctions resulting from India’s past nuclear testing. India was required to separate its nuclear energy into civilian and military sectors in exchange for full civil nuclear cooperation.

At the time, the deal was fairly controversial within India—both the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the once-powerful Communist Party of India were vocally against it, even though the latter was part of the government’s parliamentary majority. Despite the intense hostility, the government was able to both pass the deal and prove its majority, although both were done with paper-thin majorities and resulted in the Left Front parties leaving the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Within the United States, there were some worries that the deal meant there was a shift in American nonproliferation policy, but the agreement passed the House 298 to 117 and the Senate 86-13—much stronger margins than in India.

Yet the deal passing in India didn’t address all the issues surrounding nuclear energy, especially popular concerns about safety. There have been a number of protests within the southern state of Tamil Nadu due to worries about the safety standards of a nuclear plant built in collaboration with a Russian energy company. Additionally, in 2014, Modi’s then-energy minister said the government was still cautious of nuclear power.

By 2016, however, the winds had seemingly shifted. The United States and India agreed to move ahead with the construction of six nuclear reactors for delivery by June 2017—the first such move under the 2008 agreement, despite some worries about limited liability. Additionally, while there is still some controversy surrounding waste storage, the Tamil Nadu plant seems to have been largely accepted within the political domain, and the construction of its fifth and sixth units started recently. The United States has been slowly replacing Russia as a key Indian ally in a military context, and there is no reason it should stop in an energy context. India should seek to continue strengthening the energy-based relationship with the United States—both for the purposes of clean energy and to ensure collaboration in a nonmilitary context.

The United States has been reaching out to India in recent years, mostly with an eye on China. While this cooperation is both important and welcome, it is also important that the relationship between the United States and India be more than a military alliance. Policymakers should reap its benefits not only by strengthening India’s energy infrastructure but also by ensuring strong cooperation in a nonmilitary context.

The current energy crisis in India has abated, but that is no guarantee against future disasters. Policymakers should move to ensure a safer, more reliable, greener energy grid.

Anik Joshi is a public policy professional in Washington D.C. His work has also been published in The Bulwark, The Diplomat, and Spectator USA Twitter: @AnikVJoshi

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