March 16, 2011 Special to ‘Financial Chronicle’

by Praful Bidwai

If Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan thought he could convince the people of Jaitapur, in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, of the virtues of the giant nuclear power complex which is being built there, he must have been sorely disappointed by his February 26 visit to the area. He harangued and taunted the 8,000-strong crowd, told people they were being misled by “outsiders” who “don’t want to see India progress”, and unleashed the aggressive, abusive industries minister (and former Chief Minister) Narayan Rane upon them. Rane had earlier declared: “No outsider who comes to Jaitapur to oppose the project will return (alive).”

Chavan failed to convince. The protesters held their ground. Only one person spoke for the project—an absentee landlord long settled in Mumbai. Hundreds vocally opposed it for its hazards; livelihood destruction; deception and despotism in its implementation; and devastation of the area’s precious, stunningly beautiful ecosystem.

The “public interaction” was a fiasco for Chavan—and a “provocation” for Rane to deliver yet more coercive threats. Soon, 22 peaceful protesters were rounded up on a range of charges, including attempt to murder. Yet others were served externment notices, including former Supreme Court judge and Press Council chairman PB Sawant, whose native village is in Ratnagiri. Since December, the government has banned eminent citizens, including a former Navy chief, the Communist Party of India general secretary, and distinguished social scientists, from Jaitapur. It also disallowed a People’s Tribunal hearing on March 6 and 7.

If the government had set out to mock the concept of development, it couldn’t have done better. It established that development for it is not a process of inclusive, equitable growth in which people willingly participate to empower themselves and achieve higher social indices and justice, but an alien, disembodied object to be rammed down the throats of an unwilling population.

The Jaitapur project will be built on the backs of toiling farmers, agricultural workers and fisherfolk. This speaks to a perverse notion of progress, which sets governments into direct, imperious opposition to the people, with terrible consequences for democracy, which at minimum must respect the citizen’s right to life with dignity, and the right to reject projects that destroy livelihoods.

Jaitapur is flawed and undesirable, on four other counts too: the inherent hazards of nuclear power; safety problems with the French company Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design on which its six 1,650 MW plants will be based; exorbitant costs; and its grave location-specific ecological impact.

All nuclear reactors routinely expose occupational workers and the public to radiation through emissions and effluents. Radiation produces cancer and genetic damage and is unsafe in all doses. Reactors also 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. Science has found no way of safely storing, leave alone neutralising, nuclear waste for centuries.

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 similar core meltdown with huge radioactivity releases. Reactors are complex, high-pressure high-temperature systems in which a barely-controlled chain-reaction occurs. Controls can fail. Minor malfunctions get quickly magnified through tightly-coupled sub-systems.

The EPR’s design is untested and fraught. The world’s first EPR-under-construction, in Finland—Western Europe’s first post-Chernobyl reactor—is delayed by at least 42 months, 90 percent over budget, and mired in bitter disputes and litigation. Finnish, British, US, and even French regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues about its design, including flaws in control and instrumentation and emergency-cooling systems. The design has been criticised for its excessive complexity by a French government-appointed expert.

The EPR is turning out a White Elephant. It’s not clear if and when the safety issues raised will be resolved. But tackling them will further raise its already sky-high capital costs—Rs 21 crores per MW, on current Finnish estimates, compared to Rs 5 crores for coal-fired power. Jaitapur’s unit power costs are likely to be two to three times higher than those from other sources, including coal and wind. In downstream economic impact, Jaitapur could be worse than Enron.

The government is imposing this Nuclear Enron upon the Sahyadri ecosystem, one of the world’s 10 greatest “biodiversity hotspots”—with more than 5,000 species of flowering plants and 139 mammal, 508 bird and 179 amphibian species, including 325 threatened ones. The area is considered India’s richest for endemic plant species. Two great peninsular rivers (the Krishna and Godavari) originate there.

Construction of the project and transmission systems will inevitably damage this unique ecosystem, including its flourishing agriculture, fruit cultivation (crowned by the Alphonso, the world’s best-known mango), and fisheries, thus devastating 40,000 livelihoods.

The Jaitapur reactors will daily release 52 billion litres of water into the sea at a temperature 5 °C hotter than the sea. The Bombay Natural History Society warns that even a 0.5 °C rise could lead to high fish mortality.

Jaitapur is an irredeemably bad bargain. It is being pushed by a crisis-ridden global nuclear industry desperate for orders, and its Indian collaborators. We must halt the Jaitapur juggernaut before it’s too late.