By K. S. Jayaraman of Nature magazine

An increase in anti-nuclear sentiment after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March has stalled India's ambitious plan for nuclear expansion.

The plan, pushed forward by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, aims to use reactors imported from the United States, France and Russia to increase the country's nuclear-power capacity from the present 4,780 megawatts to 60,000 megawatts by 2035, and to provide one-quarter of the country's energy by 2050. But now there are doubts that the targets will ever be met if safety fears persist.

Officials say that safety precautions are sufficient to make the proposed reactors, some of which are to be sited along the coasts, immune to natural disasters. But protesters are not listening. In April, violent protests halted construction in Jaitapur in the western state of Maharashtra, where Parisian company Areva is expected to build six 1,650-megawatt European Pressurized Reactors.

In August, West Bengal state refused permission for a proposed 6,000-megawatt 'nuclear park' near the town of Haripur, which was slated to host six Russian reactors. The state government said that the area is densely populated, and the hot water discharged from the plants would affect local fishing.

On 19 September, following hunger strikes by activists from the People's Movement Against Nuclear Technology, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state asked Prime Minister Singh to halt work at Koodankulam, about 650 kilometers south of Chennai, where Russia's Atomstroyexport is building two reactors and plans to build four more.

Untried and untested

The agitations have almost stopped the nuclear expansion program in its tracks. "We have not begun work on a single reactor from a foreign vendor; even the land has not been acquired," says Swapnesh Malhotra, a spokesman for the Department of Atomic Energy. "Jaitapur and Koodankulam stations will be completed, but there could be delays."

Adinarayana Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and a critic of the import policy, expects the protests to spread. "What you see in Koodankulam and Jaitapur will be repeated in other nuclear parks earmarked for reactors from US suppliers," he says. "My feeling is that except for the two Russian reactors in Koodankulam whose work has already started, there will be no foreign reactors by 2020."

The opposition has focused mainly on imported reactors, the designs of which are untried. "The French reactor offered to India is not working anywhere in the world and the Russian reactor had to undergo several design changes before we accepted it," says Annaswamy Prasad, retired director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. "If any accident happens in India it will be in imported reactor and not in our home-made pressurized heavy water reactors" (PHWRs), he adds.

Ideally, says Prasad, India should boost its nuclear capacity by building more PHWRs fuelled by natural uranium, instead of importing reactors that require enriched uranium. Although the foreign vendors have agreed to supply fuel for the lifetime of their reactors, overreliance on imports will derail India's home-grown program, the Bhabha scheme, he warns.

The Bhabha scheme involves building PHWRs, which would produce enough plutonium as a by-product to fuel fast-breeder reactors that would in turn convert thorium -- which is abundantly available in India -- into fissile uranium-233. In the third and final phase, India hopes to run its reactors using the 233U-Th cycle without any need for new uranium.

Gopalakrishnan says that building indigenous reactors is not enough: the country must also invest in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. But a survey by Subhas Sukhatme, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, warns that India's renewable energy sources, even stretched to their full potential, can at best supply 36.1% of the country's total energy needs by the year 2070. The balance would have to come from fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 6, 2011.