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Power shortage haunts India as nuclear deal cleared
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  • NEW DELHI, Oct 3 (AFP) Oct 03, 2008
    Power outages that stretch hours are a regular event in Shaila Kapoor's life in a smart suburb of energy-hungry India's national capital.

    "It's a nightmare," said Kapoor, a teacher. "We've power back-up (from a battery) but it doesn't last long and then we either literally drip from the heat or drive to a mall."

    India's massive electricity crunch is a key reason why the government said it was determined to go ahead with a controversial civilian nuclear technology pact with Washington that was cleared by the US Congress and Senate this week.

    The deal's approval was the icing on the cake for India after the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group lifted an embargo on civilian atomic trade with the country last month.

    The nation of over 1.1 billion people now has the right to buy nuclear reactors, fuel and technology on the global market after 34 years of being an atomic outcast.

    But for Kapoor, who during the scorching summer sometimes goes without electricity for eight hours or more in her stylish house, the deal will deliver no quick-fix to her energy woes -- even with the proposed import of eight 1,000-megawatt reactors within the next four years.

    Because of the long lead time for construction and commission, the imported reactors won't start producing electricity for nearly a decade, notes Brahma Chellaney, who teaches strategic studies at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research.

    Currently just 2.5 to three percent of India's electricity comes from nuclear sources. By 2020, that figure is expected to rise to four to five percent.

    "It (the agreement) won't make much difference in the next few years but by 2050 the government hopes 25 percent of power will come from nuclear sources -- and that would be a big deal," said Alok Brara, publisher of national utility magazine PowerLine.

    In the meantime, the power situation is bleak.

    The gap between electricity supply and demand nationwide averages up to 16 percent at peak times, according to government figures, and 25 percent according to industry estimates.

    And according to the Planning Commission of India, around 600 million people -- more than the entire population of the European Union -- are not even on the national grid.

    In some states, like poverty-hit Jharkhand, 90 percent of rural households have no electricity and still use oil lamps for light.

    "We sit around one lamp on the floor in the evening and my mother cooks with wood. There's one rich man in the village who has a black-and-white TV that's operated by battery," said Ajoy Kumar, who came from Jharkhand and works as a clerk in Delhi.

    Only the very well-off can afford generators along with the diesel fuel to feed them to have round-the-clock power.

    For industry, the situation is equally difficult. Smoke can often be seen billowing from the tops of gleaming skyscrapers, meaning companies are using diesel-powered generators.

    "We produce more electricity than we receive," said a senior executive of a Indian TV network, only half in jest.

    Outside stores, when the power fails, the air pulsates with noise of chugging generators.

    Still, the nuclear pact will deliver some immediate benefits, experts say.

    India can now import nuclear fuel for its existing civilian reactors. India's plants function at 40 percent of load factor which experts say can swiftly rise to 90 percent.

    Corporate India will have access to dual use technologies in sectors such as information technology and space that was previously banned because they might have military applications.

    Also, India can now "look at nuclear energy in a far more focused manner and consider it as one of its energy options," strategic analyst Uday Bhaskar said.

    Firms like France's Areva, the world's biggest builder of nuclear reactors, have already beaten a path to India's door to sell it nuclear technology.

    With global warming and nuclear energy's new-found reputation as a clean fuel, "there's going to be a nuclear renaissance and India will be part of it," said V. Raghuraman, energy advisor to the Confederation of Indian Industry.

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