Daily News and Analysis May 23, 2013, 9:27 IST | Agency: DNA

by Praful Bidwai

The European peace movement of the 1980s, one of the greatest popular mobilisations in history, coined many innovative slogans. One of them was, “Nuclear war can spoil your entire afternoon!” This severe, deliberate understating of the danger of mass destruction looming over the world was calculated to shake citizens of their complacency to become “active today” (in the anti-nuclear movement), not “radioactive tomorrow”.

Now, in a judgment giving the green light to the Kudankulam nuclear project, our Supreme Court tells citizens, without a hint of irony, that they must put up with “minor inconveniences” such as exposure to radiation, which causes cancer or genetic damage and is always harmful, because enormous “economic scientific benefits” (sic) will come from nuclear power, which “remains as an important element in India’s energy mix”.

“Minor inconveniences”? Tell that to the families of the estimated 34,000 people who died from Chernobyl, to the mothers of thousands of babies which have early thyroid disorders thanks to the Fukushima disaster, to the 80% plus French people who oppose new reactors, or to the countless protestors against Indian nuclear projects, including Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu), Jaitapur (Maharashtra), Mithi Virdi (Gujarat), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh), Fatehabad (Haryana) and Chutka (Madhya Pradesh). The assertion that nuclear power is important to “India’s energy mix” but renewable sources only provide “a small share” couldn’t be more ludicrous; their respective shares in our primary energy supply are 0.8% and 18%.

The judgment is a string of factual anomalies, logical contradictions and ethical misconceptions. It strenuously denies that nuclear power poses unique hazards, which in the extreme violate the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution. It concludes that establishing the reactors will uphold that right “in a larger sense”— by spurring growth and employment, alleviating poverty, etc. It further says: While considering “a project of this nature, we have to have an overall view of larger public interest rather than smaller (sic) violation of right to life…”

The verdict whitewashes nuclear power’s inherent hazards — including potential for catastrophic accidents, exposure to dangerous radiation at each stage of the nuclear fuel-cycle, from uranium mining to reactor operation to spent-fuel handling; and the as-yet-insurmountable problem of storing highly radioactive wastes safely for thousands of years — and dismisses people’s legitimate apprehensions about hazards as “emotional reaction”. “Apprehension”, it declares, “cannot override” the project’s justification. “Nobody on this earth can predict what would happen in future and to a larger extent we have to leave it to the destiny (sic).” The verdict is devoid of reason or cautionary wisdom, but suffused with fatalism.

The court is oblivious to the fact that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board only has safety codes for heavy water-cooled reactors, whereas the Kudankulam reactors are light water-cooled, and that neither AERB nor the Nuclear Power Corporation are autonomous of the Department of Atomic Energy. It ignores the conflict of interest involved in their safety certification of one another. It also accepts NPC’s confident assertion that it would find a deep geological repository within five years to store nuclear waste, something no country has done in half a century!

Worst of all, it ignores the central issues it was to adjudicate: NPC’s blatant violations of Environmental Impact Assessment and Coastal Zone regulations, the AERB’s siting code and mandatory emergency evacuation drill, and the supply to Kudankulam of substandard components by Russian company ZiO-Podolsk, whose owner has been jailed for fraud. Nothing could be a greater travesty of justice.

The author is a writer, columnist and professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi.