Private sector, start-ups can revolutionise India's atomic energy sector

Private sector, start-ups can revolutionise India's atomic energy sector

Private research and profit-driven innovation can change the paradigm of nuclear medicine, farm irradiation processes and sterilisation technologies in India.

Of all the stimulus-cum-reforms measures announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to resuscitate India's Covid-hit economy, the most unexpected was the one permitting the private sector to enter the atomic energy sector, till now a public sector monopoly. She proposed two reforms to allow the private sector into areas dealing with the consumer application of nuclear energy, namely medical isotopes for cancer treatment and irradiation technology for the farming sector.

Further, India's vibrant start-up ecosystem will be allowed to bring innovation to the atomic energy sector. Since most Indian start-ups have a significant foreign shareholding, this move will also allow select foreign investors to indirectly invest in India's nuclear sector.

We must quickly add that this is not a license to grant private companies unfettered entry into this industry. For example, they still can't set up nuclear power plants, though Anil Kakodkar, former Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, believes this, too, will be permitted in future.

Walking the talk

This decision is in keeping with the Narendra Modi government's announcement that the private sector will be allowed entry into every single sector of the Indian economy.

Sectors that will benefit

In India, the food sector is one of the largest users of irradiation technology. For example, about 15 years ago, the US had stopped importing Indian mangoes, including the prized Alphonso, because of food safety-related issues. Then, India began using irradiation processes to address the issues raised by the US. Today, the country once again exports large volumes of mangoes to the US.
In nuclear medicine, radio isotopes are used both as a diagnostic aid and in therapeutics. These can help identify and study both metastases of cancer cells as well blockages in the body's circulatory system. Drug formulations can even be attached to these isotopes to facilitate delivery at the precise desired spot within the body.
However, nuclear medicines, of which these are branches, is still very expensive and out of reach of most Indians. Experts estimate that the country's nuclear medicine capacity has to be ramped up by a factor of at least 10 - and domestic research and innovation encouraged to bring down costs - in order to meet the requirements of patients.

Start-ups to the rescue

This is where allowing Indian start-ups entry into this sector can help bring down costs. At present, almost all nuclear medicine-related technologies and equipment are imported from the US or Europe. This increases the cost of treatment. By encouraging start-ups to research and innovate in this sector, the government is setting the stage for new breakthroughs to emerge from India, which will benefit Indian patients, the economy as well as the foreign and domestic investors in the start-ups behind the innovations.

A word of caution

The sector has just been opened up. It will take some time for the rules allowing private sector participation to be formulated and finalised. So, don't expect any overnight miracles. But don't also be surprised if you find a few Indian companies at the cutting edge of consumer atomic energy innovations.

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