The nuclear option for emerging markets

Written by Reuters | Updated: Mar 12 2014, 09:34am hrs
Last year, greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high of 39 billion tonnes. Emissions actually dropped in the United States and Europe, but substantial increases in China and India more than erased this bit of good news.

That is all the more reason to focus on innovative solutions that slow the growth in emissions from emerging markets. The US-India civilian nuclear deal is one such solution.

The key principles of this agreement were signed by President George W Bush and Prime Minster Manmohan Singh eight years ago this week. The deal brought Indias civilian nuclear program under the International Atomic Energy Agencys inspection regime. In return, Washington removed sanctions and permitted India to build nuclear power plants with foreign help. Most of the discussion leading up to the deal has focused on its potential effect on non-proliferation treaties and on the partnership between the US and India.

The deals most lasting effect, however, may well be its role in reducing the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, while giving India the electricity it desperately needs.

India is growing rapidly. In recent years its economy has expanded by 6% to 7% per year. This growth is exacerbating a voracious appetite for electricity that Indias bankrupt utilities are unable to satisfy. Indias electricity generation still relies almost 60% on coal. Blackouts are common.

Given its acute need for electricity, India has great ambitions for the civilian nuclear deal. It now plans to build new nuclear reactors with 25 gigawatts of capacity before 2020enough to power four cities the size of New York. By comparison, India had only 3 gigawatts of nuclear energy in 2006.

Under the deal, Russia will build up to 18 nuclear plants in India, with France and the United States also interested.

Understandably, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan aggravated the concerns of those who are worried about potential accidents from nuclear power plants. Germany has decided to phase out nuclear energy completely by 2022. Japan shut down its nuclear reactors after the disaster, though its new government recently announced a return to nuclear energy use. These are, however, high-income countries that dont face the enormous energy supply-demand imbalance that India confronts.

Without additional nuclear power plants, the Indian think tank CEEW estimates that by 2095 India will produce an extra 1 billion tonnes of carbon per year. A frightening figure. If India chooses to abate those carbon emissions through the use of alternatives without turning to nuclear power, it would spend a full 2% of its gross domestic product annually to do so.

By contrast, a Stanford scientist estimated in 2006 that by increasing the production of clean nuclear energy to just 20 gigawatts, India would reduce its carbon emissions by more than 130 million tonnes each year. (For comparison, the full range of emission cuts planned by the European Union under the Kyoto Protocol will total 200 million tonnes per year).

If new nuclear power reactors can be constructed with the latest safety featuresand international monitoring ensures that accidents are unlikely to occurthe US-India civilian nuclear deal will be a massive win. This type of large-impact, bilateral initiative may help the world get around the multilateral bickering of the Kyoto process and have a lasting positive impact on the environment.

Anja Manuel