India’s nuclear energy future at risk in elections

India’s nuclear energy future at risk in elections

As Indian voters go to the polls this month, the choices they make in the voting booth will mark the future of nuclear energy in India. The young Aam Aadmi Party promotes an anti-nuclear platform that may significantly influence the country’s future energy composition.

On Monday, April 7, the world’s largest democratic elections began in what will likely be the world’s most populous country within the next ten years. Between April 7 and May 12, 815 million Indian voters cast their votes at 930,000 different polling stations. The electoral system in India is similar to the British parliamentary system. Voters are choosing 543 parliamentarians, who in turn will nominate a prime minister. If the results announced on May 16 indicate no actual majority, alliances will be formed and a coalition government will come to power.

The election will take place between three dominant political parties: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the incumbent Congress Party, which has been in power for much of India’s history, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The latter is a much younger party and a more regional political party in terms of strength. To the surprise of many observers, AAP saw some levels of success in last year’s state elections. It runs on a platform strongly emphasizing the need to combat the corruption endemic in Indian political life.

The AAP has also come out strongly against nuclear energy in India. Leader Arvind Kejriwal has publicly stated that the AAP is against the use of nuclear means to fulfil India’s energy needs. Kejriwal stated that “the destruction caused by nuclear power in case of an accident is enormous. This is why AAP is in-principle opposed to nuclear energy.” Other prominent members of the party, including Prashant Bhushan and Medha Patkar, call for a nuclear-free India.

The party has co-opted prominent members of the People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMNE), encouraging them to run in certain districts. The movement garnered widespread attention during its three years of protests against the Kudankuluam nuclear power plant in the Tirunelveli district. Political opposition has already delayed new mines in Jharkhand, Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh, areas essential in seeking to address fuel concerns.

Given the considerable energy poverty in India and its reliance on imported coal, oil and natural gas, nuclear energy has become an answer for many in policymaking circles to help address the supply shortfall. Nuclear energy currently accounts for less than 3 percent of the country’s total energy generation. However, policymakers seek to change that, and expect that atomic energy in India will substantially increase in coming years.

With rising environmental concerns owing to India’s reliance on coal, nuclear and solar have gained supporters and advocates. Trade restrictions have insulated the development of India’s nuclear sector from competition compared to other countries. Expansion in nuclear energy is planned to meet 25 percent of India’s electricity needs by 2050. India is hoping to boost uranium imports and increase the use of foreign technology to help meet these goals.

The growing opposition to nuclear energy in India is directly related to questions raised by the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Previously, Japan was considered a model for India in the adoption of atomic energy. Yet, Fukushima has raised concerns over India’s regulatory structures and infrastructure essential to supporting safe growth in the sector. The regulatory bodies are funded by the industry, and much of the oversight falls underneath the prime minister, leading to further oversight concerns.

Given the AAP’s concerns with regard to greater oversight and transparency, its support of improved infrastructure capabilities and its emphasis on grass root activism, opposing nuclear energy makes political sense for the party, particularly as it seeks to make inroads with key demographics.

The AAP seeks to contest more than 350 seats with over 268 candidates declared as of late March. One of the founders of the PMNE, SP Udayakumar, is among those seeking office.  Udayakumar is running in Tamil Nadu along with seven other candidates from the AAP. The party has made significant progress on its plan to gain supporters in Iddinthakarai in Tamil Nadu, which is in the Tirunelvelli district and the very heart of the PMNE. The party stated previously that it had the goal of enrolling over 7,500 volunteers for poll work in the district.

For a new political party, the gains already made by the AAP merit attention. Any degree of electoral gain made by the party will give it greater weight in policy making and greater credibility. However, with high political dissatisfaction among Indian voters, it is going too far to interpret AAP gains as indicative of opposition to nuclear energy. Similarly, any potential wins by the AAP in Iddinthakarai and Tamil Nadu generally, where some of the candidates are anti-nuclear heavyweights, should not be taken as symbolic of the country’s sentiments writ large. Yet, it may be possible to gain some insight as to the extent and type of opposition to an energy source, which is critical to India’s development and growth.

About Author

Sean Durns

Sean Durns worked as a research assistant to a former high ranking Pentagon official and the Director of National Security Strategies at a DC based think tank. His analysis has been referenced by a variety of media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Roubini's EconoMonitor, OilPrice, and many more. He holds a M.Sc. in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics where he focused on US foreign policy, security studies, and energy security.