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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 April 2007, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Planning for a new nuclear age
As the World Nuclear Association prepares to discuss how to meet the huge surge in demand for nuclear power, the BBC's Humphrey Hawksley wonders if the so-called "nuclear renaissance" could also prompt a complete re-examination of global nuclear policy.

Control room at the Tarapur Nuclear Complex in India
Demand for nuclear fuel is increasing around the world

Dressed in a white coat, plastic protective glasses and gloves, I pick up five pellets of compressed uranium from a factory process line and hold them in the palm of my hand. Each is about the size of a peanut.

"Those five will power a household for more than a year," says Kim Clark. "That's all you need. That's the fuel."

She is guiding me through General Electric's plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, offering a rare glimpse of the nuclear fuel supply chain. Kim leads me to an area where bunches of metallic rods stand in lines filled with uranium pellets.

"There are about 380 UO2 pellets inside these rods," she explains pointing to the nearest batch. "They go into the reactor core like a battery."

"And we're standing here with all this radioactive material?" I begin.

"Yes," she laughs. "And it's perfectly safe."

Next stop is a huge warehouse gleaming with silver boxes stacked up with labels warning that they hold fissile material.

It is like a supermarket store room, with trucks backing up to ship them out all over the world.

Green concerns

The demand for nuclear fuel is increasing at such a pace that General Electric is gearing up for what is being called the "nuclear renaissance".

As country after country opts for nuclear energy, will we face more and more Iran-style crises?

The worry about global warming, the unpredictability of fossil fuel supplies and the scramble for energy - particularly in the developing world - have focused attention on the carbon-free nuclear alternative where supplies are assured and constant.

Except of course nuclear energy has always been linked to nuclear weapons.

The technology did, after all, emerge from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the craving for it has resulted in high-stakes politics that often determine the relationship between nations.

In fact, one of those relationships is being re-drawn now in a way that is turning global nuclear policy on its head.

India's nuclear journey

Driving up along the coast from India's financial mega-city, Mumbai, we started by edging through jammed rush-hour traffic and emerged onto a half-built motorway, flanked by high-rise suburban apartments and shopping malls, all massive developments demanding more and more electricity.

Then turning off the main road we were in rural India, on a narrow, pot-holed road with bullock carts and bicycles, and finally we reached the Tarapur Nuclear Complex.

At the gate was a sun-bleached plaque heralding the friendship between India and the United States and stamped with the logo of General Electric.

Back in the sixties, GE built two reactors here, both still working, the control room lovingly preserved with dials flickering like the dashboard of a vintage car. We drove a short way to two brand new reactors that are built, designed and fuelled entirely by India.

The present system is a fraud, a few countries can't continue to tell the rest of us what to do
India's Foreign Minister

But shortly after Tarapur opened in 1969, things went wrong. It was the height of the Cold War and America thought India was too close to the Soviet Union, so it sent warships to the Bay of Bengal to warn it off.

India responded in 1974 by carrying out a nuclear test. It was put under sanctions and General Electric cut off all support for the reactors.

"What on earth did you do?" I asked the station manager, U. Ramamurty.

He smiled. "Oh, we managed. First we bought uranium from France. Now we get it from Russia. We even got some from China once."

"So, the sanctions didn't work?"

"Come," he said.

Rewriting the rules

Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran
Iran's determination to have nuclear power has angered the West

Through monitors we could see deep inside the highly radioactive areas that India can use to research weapons and other projects. International inspectors are banned from here.

We were only let in because the sanctions imposed on India since 1974 are about to be lifted and General Electric hopes, once again, to sell uranium pellets to Tarapur.

The decision by America to accept India into the nuclear fold has prompted a crucial debate.

As country after country opts for nuclear energy, are we going to face more and more Iran-style crises over the coming years?

"The goal is to figure out how to recognise the aspirations of these states," Congressman Ed Royce, chair of the non-proliferation sub-committee told me in Washington.

If we fail, we'll just end up with higher oil prices and dirty coal."

"He's right," said Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Foreign Minister, when I put that to him in Delhi.

"The present system is a fraud. A few countries can't continue to tell the rest of us what to do."

While great diplomatic minds work out how to rewrite the nuclear rules, I asked Mr Ramamurty if - once the sanctions were lifted - he would actually be happy to buy uranium from General Electric.

"Ah!" he said, hand on his chin, pretending to think hard. "It all depends on the price."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 14 April, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Nuclear goals spark uranium deals
11 Apr 07 |  Business
Iran nuclear 'landmark' angers US
10 Apr 07 |  Middle East

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