More Missiles Than Megawatts

India’s nuclear choices have favored warheads over civilian reactors, and those choices are taking their toll

14 min read
More Missiles Than Megawatts
Illustration: Alex Nabaum

For a developing country, India has pursued a uniquely ambitious and far-reaching nuclear technology program. During the last six decades, it has developed expertise and facilities covering the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and milling to reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. India also operates a pilot fast breeder reactor, one of seven countries to have built one, and it has started constructing an industrial-scale breeder.

The Indian government’s long-held vision is that nuclear energy—and especially breeders, which are designed to produce more fresh fuel than they consume—will play a large part in the country’s ambition of becoming energy-independent by the year 2030. But progress has fallen far short of that goal. Early on, the country’s top nuclear officials forecast that by 1987 nuclear energy would generate 20 to 25 gigawatts of electricity. Later estimates inflated that figure to 43.5 GW by the year 2000. Today, India’s 17 reactors generate 4.1 GW, a mere 3 percent of the country’s total electricity-generating capacity. Although India is the fifth-largest producer of electricity in the world, in nuclear generation capacity it is not even among the top 15 countries. Despite 60 years of development and government support, India’s nuclear establishment has failed to produce either the world-class technology or the large quantity of cheap electricity that it once promised.

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