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By Krittivas Mukherjee
NEW DELHI, March 15 (Reuters) - India’s plans to rapidly build more nuclear power plants are unlikely to change despite the crisis in Japan, as Asia’s third-largest economy seeks to end blackouts, officials and experts said on Tuesday.
India, which has a total installed power generation capacity of 164 gigawatts (GW), aims to raise it to 187 GW by the end of March 2012. Even this target is modest, given a 12 percent peak-hour power shortfall that crimps the country’s near 9 percent economic growth.
The Indian government may well face calls to go slow on nuclear power after an explosion at a nuclear plant in Japan which was damaged by Friday’s earthquake, but is unlikely to tweak its plans beyond re-evaluating and strengthening safety standards, possibly delaying project implementation.
“Our requirement of adding electricity is very high. Over 40 percent of our people still don’t have access to electricity,” said Srikumar Banerjee, chief of India’s atomic regulatory body.
Around 500 million people in India are without electricity.
“(Apart from nuclear) none of the other types of energy, except solar, is a primary source of energy. We need to have solar and nuclear growing at a faster rate to sustain the increase in generation capacity.”
The crisis in Japan has hit the nuclear power industry worldwide, as governments worry about safety and investors have sold stocks.
Germany has suspended an agreement to extend the life of its nuclear power stations , Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants , and Taiwan’s state-run Taipower said it was studying plans to cut nuclear power output .
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said its nuclear power programme was on track, with more stringent safety controls.
“The department of atomic energy and its agencies ... have been instructed to undertake an immediate technical review of all safety systems of our nuclear power plants particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunami and earthquakes,” he told parliament on Monday.
India’s nuclear power generation capacity is 4.7 GW, set to rise to 7.3 GW by the end of March 2012. By 2020, the country hopes to have over 20 GW of nuclear power generating capacity.
To make this possible, the country has signed a landmark nuclear power deal with the United States and opened up its estimated $150 billion nuclear power market to private reactor builders such as GE and Areva .
India plans to spend $2.3 trillion on the energy sector by 2030. Though coal remains the backbone of its energy policy, focus has grown on solar, wind and nuclear, given the pressure on the world’s No. 3 greenhouse gas emitter to cut pollution.
Higher costs for both solar and wind power make nuclear an attractive option, though initial manufacturing costs remain steep, and atomic power is expensive compared to coal.
Officials and industry figures said the government could now face calls to go slow on nuclear, and push renewable sources.
India suffered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters in 1984 when about 3,000 people were killed by gas leaks from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.
While India has not had a nuclear accident, safety concerns often surface.
“What could now happen is the government will have to go slow with focus now more on greater scrutiny, robust safeguards, site selection. So we are looking at longer gestation periods,” said Robinder Sachdev, head of think tank ImagIndia Institute.
“The government will now face greater calls for more focus on renewables but they can’t do it at the cost of nuclear.”
(Additional reporting by Prashant Mehra in Mumbai; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)