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Nuclear Energy Roils Indian Politics
Protests, political volatility and bloody clashes between the local populace, activists and police in India's Maharashtra state have once again revived the contentious debate about nuclear power safety versus cheap energy production in an emerging economy.
It also raises the question how a country like India, which needs nuclear energy to power its exponential growth, marry its seemingly contradictory requirement for cheap energy production with nuclear safety.
Jaitapur, a small city on the Arabian seacoast, is the projected site for the world's largest nuclear power project, a 9,900-MW, US$10-billion plant in the eco-sensitive geological Western Ghats Belt. Last December, the French multinational Areva Group was awarded the contract by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd to construct six European Pressurized Reactors, each of 1650 MW capacity, or four times the size of Fukushima. The project is expected to overtake the world's current largest, the 8,200 Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.
Work on Areva's reactors, to be operational in 2018, is to begin shortly. However, the project has fuelled concern among Jaitapur's local populace – mostly farmers growing paddy, mango and cashew – about a Fukushima-like catastrophe. Opponents have noted that the area is seismically very active and a record 95 earthquakes rocked it between 1985 and 2005. The seismic activity was minor, government officials counter, adding that the plant's location on a high cliff further cushions it against tsunamis.
Jaitapur's residents have opposed the nuclear project for the past three years. That opposition gathered momentum last week and exploded in the face of the Congress-led state government when a protesting fisherman was shot dead by the police.
The villagers' main concern is that the state government never really took them into confidence about the project and thus failed to win them over. This led to a groundswell of anger that the anti-nuclear lobby and Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist group, are capitalizing on, for political gain.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a staunch advocate of nuclear power, nearly staked the survival of his government, the United Progressive Alliance-led coalition, in 2008 on a civil nuclear deal with the United States. That agreement, finally sealed last year, has enabled India to purchase nuclear technology from Western nations that previously would not sell to it because Delhi was not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
However, following the treaty, opposition parties led by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, forced the UPA government to buck international practice and make nuclear plant suppliers liable for accident compensation claims as well. This, they deemed necessary, to prevent a repeat of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 in India's central state of Madhya Pradesh, which ranks as of one of the world's worst industrial disasters. Critics say that despite the magnitude of the disaster, the Indian government at the time, led by late PM Rajiv Gandhi, let Union Carbide off the hook quite easily despite the latter's paltry monetary compensation to the gas victims. The lenience of the action against the Union Carbide officials led to an uproar in India.
Since the formalization of the India-US treaty, western companies – including Areva, the US's General Electric and state-owned Russian enterprises – have been vying for India's nuclear industry bandwagon, eager to snag contracts worth billions of dollars.
This competition among western companies, analysts say, is likely to intensify further as by 2030 India gets set to generate 40,000 MW of nuclear energy with modern nuclear technology to sustain its 9-10 percent growth.
Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has ruled out a reassessment of the planned Jaitapur facility although he said over the weekend that concerns raised by villagers' were "rationally justified" and the government must go-slow with the project.
The minister said that his ministry would, if required, reimpose certain conditions and safeguards on the Jaitapur project following a report by a ministry-appointed committee to look into safety issues at all coastal plants.
Even so, the phobia among the Jaitapur residents continues. They fear that the reactor will wreck their traditional livelihoods of fishing and farming. Already, many of the over 2,000 Jaitapur landowners have rejected payment for the land the government forcibly acquired for the plant as a form of protest.
Local farmers are worried that radioactive contamination might have an adverse impact on their produce, mainly the region's acclaimed Alphonso mangoes, which fetch about US$20 for a dozen in Mumbai's markets. Fishermen worry that the millions of gallons of hot water that will whoosh out of the proposed plant into the sea will render the coast uninhabitable for edible fish, ruining an industry that supports thousands of families.
Currently, India gets about 3 percent of its electricity from the 20 relatively small nuclear reactors in the country. But five big new reactors and 39 more modest ones are in the pipeline to help meet the country's gargantuan appetite for power as a fast-growing economy of a billion-plus people.
By 2050, the Indian government hopes to significantly augment the nuclear component in the country's energy profile. It says a quarter of the nation's electricity should come from nuclear reactors over the next four decades. And the Jaitapur project would be a giant step towards that ambitious goal.
According to Robinder Sachdev*, India's nominee for a Global Task Force set up by the World Energy Council (WEC) to assess the impact of Fukushima crisis on nuclear energy sector, one common worry emerging amongst most countries, including India, is the role played – and autonomy enjoyed – by each country's atomic regulatory bodies.
For India, Sachdev proposes that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) be given greater autonomy and its capacity built upon to strengthen and infuse transparency in the country's nuclear dealings. "Also," he adds, "the AERB must stay at an arm's length from the power producer and policy planners at the Department of Atomic Energy."
A sharp focus on liability issues, according to the expert, would also help – since the operator and vendors would then have to clearly demarcate their responsibilities, and could then even act as a counter-check on each other.
Apart from this, what also needs to be addressed, say experts, is the human resource shortfall within the AERB. "The Board's current human resources capacity is woefully inadequate," Singh says. "India must invest in higher education, training schools and the certification for professionals in this industry to produce trained engineers and other experts to man the power plants."
As further plants are set up in India, especially with reactors from foreign vendors, this professionalism will force greater transparency upon dealings as the terms and conditions of the contracts will be negotiated in a more open manner, opine experts.
To prevent a repeat of more Jaitapur scenarios, Ramesh also advocates effective public outreach programs which demystify nuclear energy. "Right now," says an industry source, "an average Indian associates the word `reactor' with a nuclear bomb! So the government needs to work upon this and win over their confidence."
"However, Fukushima doesn't spell the funeral of atomic energy in India," the source says. "It has just put the spotlight on the industry's unsolved problems."
Correction made 27April 2011
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist