In Wake of Protests, India Confirms Commitment to Boosting Nuclear Power

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took his moment at the podium at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul this week to reassert India’s commitment to nuclear energy. “We must continue to harness the numerous developmental benefits that nuclear science and technology offer, especially for developing countries,” Singh said in his speech at the summit. “Given India’s growing energy demands, we see nuclear energy as an essential component of our energy mix.”

Singh’s comments, in which he also called for a “world free of nuclear weapons,” sought in part to counterbalance ongoing protests at home over plans to increase India’s nuclear power from less than 5,000 MW today to 62,000 MW by 2032. Last week, some 200 antinuclear activists were arrested in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, where protesters have been stalling the construction of two 1,000-MW reactors for more than half a year. The arrests took place the day before construction was scheduled to resume.

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The nation’s ambitious nuclear-energy program, kick-started in 2008 after India and the U.S. signed an agreement to end a three-decade ban on nuclear trade, has come under scrutiny from environmentalists and residents in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, two states where new reactors are slated to be built. The demonstrations have intensified in the year since a tsunami and earthquake crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, leading to the evacuation of over 150,000 people and the contamination of a large area around the plant. In Seoul, Singh assured the summit (and South Korean investors) that the nation’s nuclear-energy program will not have its own Fukushima moment, having “undertaken comprehensive reviews of nuclear safety measures at our nuclear facilities” and strengthened “emergency preparedness and response to nuclear accidents.”

It remains to be seen whether activists will be convinced. Last April — just weeks into Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis — heated clashes between police and protesters over plans to build six reactors supplied by French energy company Areva in Maharashtra ended in one death and several injuries. “While we have no presence, nor involvement, on the site, as everybody, we deeply regret the tragic death of a villager during protests,” Areva COO Luc Oursel said in an interview. “We sincerely share the wish that differences of opinion about the project would be settled peacefully and without violence.”

(MORE: A Year After Fukushima: Japan’s Unquiet People)

India’s energy demands are only going to increase, and nuclear power features prominently in how New Delhi envisions the nation’s economic and social development over the next few decades. The government’s planning commission estimates that in order to maintain 8% growth through 2030, the country will have to triple its energy supply, according to the Journal of Energy Security. Coal now provides for the vast majority of India’s power demands, but with pressure to lower emissions and domestic opposition to mining in some of its richest coal reserves, the government has been banking on developing a closed-cycle nuclear power program as a cleaner and more self-sufficient energy source. By 2050, New Delhi wants 25% of the nation’s electricity to come from nuclear power, up from less than 5% today. The move has not escaped the attention of countries like France, South Korea, Japan and Russia, all of whom are eager to get in on the growing industry.

Officials, of course, are correct not to underestimate the importance of getting power to the people. In 2009, just 67% of the rural population reported having electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. It’s a figure that has been rising, but slowly. Affordable, reliable electricity for all can literally be the difference between life and death; to give one small example, the World Health Organization attributed over 450,000 premature deaths in India in 2008 to the use of open-burning stoves. Access to energy will be crucial to keeping India on the path of growing prosperity that its citizens and investors have come to expect. And the prospect of being able to secure a domestically produced source of steady power is especially powerful today. Many of India’s key assets are in regions wracked by violence last year, and New Delhi faces increasing pressure from Washington to decrease oil imports from its second largest crude oil supplier, Iran.

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Fair or not, the centrality of all these things to India’s domestic and foreign policies packs a bigger punch than the voices of a few hundred demonstrators. In a recent interview in the journal Science, Singh chalked the recent protests up to bad foreign influences. “The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply.” But, he added, dissension will be heard. “We are a democracy,” he told Science. “We are not like China.”

No, but some officials may be looking on a little wistfully as Beijing pushes ahead with its own nuclear power expansion at a breakneck pace. And in Tamil Nadu, official patience has shown signs of wearing thin. A few NGOs involved in the antinuclear protests have been under government investigation for alleged misuse of foreign donations to fund the protests, and some have had their funds frozen, according to Indian media reports. In February, a German national was deported for violating the terms of his tourist visa after he was accused of raising funds for the protests.

Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr.