(26 January 2011, Special to ‘The Bengal Post’)

by Praful Bidwai

No other technology has been hyped up as the silver-bullet solution to humanity’s energy needs, or invested with as much mystique and reverence, as nuclear fission. And no other technology has betrayed its promise as comprehensively, or become as unpopular. Nuclear power was globally promoted in the 1950s as safe, abundant, indispensable and “too cheap to meter”.

It has turned out fraught with serious hazards and unacceptably unsafe. Global uranium stocks cannot possibly support the developing countries’ energy needs. Attractive low-cost renewable alternatives have emerged, appropriate to a decentralised energy scenario. And nuclear power has turned out too expensive to hook to a meter.

Had early projections—always rosy—materialised, the world would have had 100 times more nuclear power than it does today. Globally, nuclear power has wrought a loss estimated by energy scientist Amory Lovins at $1,000 billion through subsidies, high costs and abandoned projects. Nuclear power isn’t a technology of the future, but in decline worldwide. The number of reactors is decreasing, as is their contribution to electricity generation, now estimated to halve within 20 years.

Oblivious of this, India is obsessively pursuing nuclear power generation and imposing it upon an unwilling public, which doesn’t treat nuclear reactors as good neighbours. Inevitably, the government is getting into direct and imperious opposition to the people, with terrible consequences for democracy, which at minimum must respect the right to life with dignity, and the right to reject projects that are destructive of the environment and livelihoods.

This is nowhere more evident than in Jaitapur in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan coast, where Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd is erecting six giant (1,650 MW) reactors designed by the French firm Areva. Jaitapur is touted as the world’s largest nuclear station, generating 9,900 MW (India’s present nuclear capacity, 4,780 MW).

The trouble is, Jaitapur is in an extraordinarily precious, beautiful ecosystem with virgin rainforests, great mountains, and immense biodiversity, where the great Krishna and Godavari rivers originate. It supports a flourishing farming, fisheries and horticultural economy which grows the world-famous Alphonso mango. It’s termed by the Biological Survey of India as the country’s richest area in endemic plants.

That’s reason enough not to site nuclear reactors at Jaitapur. Other, weighty, factors too militate against them. Jaitapur lies in a high-seismicity zone, which multiplies the hazards inherent in nuclear power. These hazards, as we see below, are unacceptably high.

Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor design remains untested and unapproved by any nuclear regulatory authority. Jaitapur’s power will be three to five times costlier than electricity from other sources, thus enlarging the Enron economic disaster, also located in Ratnagiri. Above all, the local people oppose the project—not out of ignorance, but of knowledge of the generic dangers of nuclear power, and the project’s specific effects on the environment.

Nuclear power is the only form of energy production with a potential for catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl (1986), in which an estimated 65,000 to 105,000 perished. All commercial reactors can undergo a core meltdown with huge releases of radioactivity. Reactors are high-pressure high-temperature systems in which a just-controlled violent fission chain-reaction occurs. Controls can fail. Minor malfunctions get quickly magnified.

Emissions and effluents from nuclear reactors routinely expose people to radiation, producing cancer and genetic damage. Radiation is unsafe in all doses. Reactors produce radioactive wastes which remain hazardous for centuries: plutonium-239’s half-life is 24,400 years and uranium-235’s is 710 million years. There’s no way of safely storing, leave alone neutralising, nuclear waste.

The world’s first EPR-under-construction, in Finland—Western Europe’s first post-Chernobyl reactor—has been delayed by four years and is 90 percent over budget. Finnish, French, British and US regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues about its design, including control and emergency-cooling systems. The design has been criticised for its size and complexity by a French government-appointed expert.

Resolving these issues will further raise the EPR’s already sky-high capital costs—Rs 21 crores per MW, compared to Rs 9 crores for Indian reactors and Rs 5 crores for coal-based power—and hence its unit generation costs.

Reactor construction will destroy two creeks, several mountains, farms, orchards, and harbours—and agriculture, horticulture and fisheries on which 40,000 people depend. People know this and have stiffly resisted the project for four years. They feel cheated at the government’s refusal to share information with them, and to conduct a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) hearing. The extremely sloppy EIA report doesn’t consider biodiversity and the terrible impact of the plant’s discharge of hot water into the sea, at a 5 °C higher temperature. It doesn’t even mention high-level wastes! It was pushed through by breaking all rules.

What angers people the most is the government’s savage repression of peaceful protests, with summary arrests, externment notices and prohibitory orders. The government banned Communist leader AB Bardhan, and a former Navy Chief and Supreme Court judge from Jaitapur. A former Bombay High Court judge was detained for five days and not produced before a magistrate within 24 hours.

In response, the villagers have launched a non-cooperation movement. Over 95 percent have refused the Rs 10 lakhs-an-acre compensation for land. They refuse to sell goods to state functionaries. When the government recently ordered teachers to brainwash pupils on the safety of nuclear power, people withdrew their children from school for a few days. Elected panchayat representatives from 10 villages have resigned.

The government is committing a terrible blunder by imposing the project on the people. It must cease and desist.