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A bad nuclear choice in India

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Praful Bidwai in the News International
Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Imagine a beautiful ecosystem with virgin rainforests, great mountains, and immense biodiversity, in which two great rivers originate. Add to this a flourishing farming, fisheries and horticultural economy which grows the world-famous Alphonso mango. And you have the Jaitapur-Madban region in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district in the Western Ghats, termed by the Biological Survey of India as the country’s richest area for endemic plants.

Now, suppose a monstrous force wanted to destroy this ecosystem. What better way than nuking it? That’s precisely what Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd and the government are doing, by erecting six giant (1,650 MW) reactors designed by the French firm Areva.

Jaitapur will become the world’s largest nuclear station, generating 9,900 MW, or more than double India’s current nuclear capacity. It will also wreck thousands of livelihoods and generate electricity that’s three to five times costlier than power from other sources, thus replicating the economic disaster called Enron, but on a much larger scale. Ironically, the Enron plant is also located in Ratnagiri.

However, Jaitapur will be a nuclear Enron – capable, like all commercial atomic reactors, of undergoing a catastrophic accident similar to Chernobyl in 1986. Chernobyl, the world’s worst industrial accident, has killed an estimated 65,000 to 110,000 people from radiation-induced cancers and other effects.

Such fears are not alarmist. Scientists and engineers who have designed, operated or licensed nuclear reactors warn that they are all susceptible to an accident in which the fission chain reaction goes out of control, leading to a loss of coolant (usually water, which must rapidly remove heat from the reactor), and the melting of the core. The likelihood of a core meltdown is low, but its consequences are wholly unacceptable.

The Jaitapur project’s risk could be further aggravated because it’s in a seismically active zone and based on an untested reactor design. Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor hasn’t been cleared by any nuclear regulatory authority. Yet, India wants to install six EPRs – although the Department of Atomic Energy or NPCIL lacks the competence to evaluate their safety.

The government started acquiring 968 hectares (2,420 acres) for the Jaitapur project four years before an agreement with France was signed, an Environmental Impact Assessment report prepared, and clearance granted. It has treated the project’s critics as anti-science, anti-development Luddites who suffer from “misconceptions”.

Under India’s environmental law, all villagers must be given the EIA report in the local language one month in advance of the mandatory public hearing. In Jaitapur, only one of the five villages got it – four days before a farcical hearing last May.

Worse, as I noted during a recent visit to Jaitapur, the state has unleashed savage repression on the protesting people. It routinely arrests and serves externment notices to peaceful protesters, and promulgates prohibitory orders under which eminent citizens like former Navy chief Ramdas and a former supreme court judge are barred from entering Jaitapur.

An instance is a frail 70-year-old diabetic, falsely charged with pelting stones at the police – when he couldn’t have lifted a pebble. He was detained for 15 days. A former Bombay High Court judge was detained for five days and not even produced before a magistrate within 24 hours.

Others have had false charges framed against them, including attempt to murder. The higher judiciary has refused them anticipatory bail. This unprecedented repression resembles the police raj in Maharashtra’s Naxalite-affected areas.

The government is turning lower Konkan into a unique collection of polluting mining, pesticides production, steelmaking and power projects. Its power need is just 180 MW, but it’s being made to produce over 4,500 MW, and eventually 20,000-plus MW.

In what has become a massive assault on democracy, the government treats the local people like sub-human animals who can be lied to, ignored, or beaten at will. The people oppose the project because it will destroy their livelihoods, just as the Tarapur reactors nearby have done.

The Jaitapur population knows of the hazards of radiation and the DAE’s poor safety performance, including the exposure of hundreds in Tarapur to radiation exceeding the permissible limits, genetic deformities from uranium mining in Jaduguda, and high incidence of cancers near reactors in different locations.

The villagers, faced with repression, have launched a non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement. Over 95 per cent of the people have refused the INR10 lakhs-an-acre compensation for land; most of those who accepted it are absentee landowners living in Mumbai.

They refuse to sell food and other goods to state functionaries. When the government recently ordered teachers to brainwash pupils into believing that nuclear power is clean and green, people withdrew their children from school for a few days. Ten villages wouldn’t hoist the tricolour on Republic Day.

The government will be tempted to use diabolical divide-and-rule tactics in Jaitapur, including fomenting tensions between Muslims (30 per cent of the population) and Hindus; violence by agents provocateurs; and branding of all dissidents as Maoists/Naxalites – the latest lie being used to suppress popular movements. These methods must be exposed and resisted.

The Jaitapur public has much to fear from EPRs. Western Europe’s first reactor after Chernobyl, an EPR, is under construction in Finland. It has been delayed by four years and is 90 per cent over budget.

Finnish, French, British and US nuclear regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues about its design, including the adequacy of the reactor’s control and emergency-cooling systems. Given its size, the EPR will generate seven times more toxic iodine-129 than normal reactors, posing many problems.

Any design changes will add to the EPR’s capital costs, already Indian rupee 21 crores per MW, compared to INR9 crores for Indian reactors and INR5 crores for coal-fired power. Even on current estimates, Jaitapur’s unit power cost will be INR 5-8 – compared to INR 2-3 from other sources, including renewables.

However, the EPR’s greatest problem is safety. Nuclear power generation routinely exposes occupational workers and the public to radiation and harmful isotopes for whose effects, including cancer and genetic damage, there’s no remedy. Radiation is unsafe in all doses. All reactors leave behind high-level wastes which remain hazardous for centuries. Plutonium-239’s half-life is 24,400 years and uranium-235’s is 710 million years. Science hasn’t found a way of safely storing, leave alone neutralising, radioactive waste. When a reactor exhausts its economic life of 25 to 40 years, it must be “decommissioned”, entombed at a cost that’s one-third to one-half of the construction cost.

All these hazards are unacceptable. The Jaitapur reactors pose an additional one: the high temperature of the coolant water discharged into the sea. This will be 5°C hotter and destroy mangroves, corals and numerous marine species, reducing oxygen availability precipitously.

The EIA conducted by the ill-reputed National Environmental Engineering Research Institute hasn’t analysed these effects, or the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. And it doesn’t even mention high-level wastes! Yet, the MoEF cleared the project for political reasons only days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s India visit last December. Jaitapur must be scrapped.

Globally, nuclear power has exhausted its technological potential. It has a bleak future. The Pakistani people would do well to bear this in mind as plans are afoot to erect Chinese-made reactors there. We must all stop chasing the nuclear power mirage.

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