The truth behind India's nuclear renaissance

3 February 2011

Jaitapur's French-built nuclear plant is a disaster in waiting, jeopardising biodiversity and local livelihoods.

The global "nuclear renaissance" touted a decade ago has not materialised. The US's nuclear industry remains starved of new reactor orders since 1973, and western Europe's first reactor after Chernobyl (1986) is in serious trouble in Finland – 42 months behind schedule, 90% over budget, and in bitter litigation. But India is forging ahead to create an artificial nuclear renaissance by quadrupling its nuclear capacity by 2020 and then tripling it by 2030 by pumping billions into reactor imports from France, Russia and America, and further subsidising the domestic Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL).

The first victim of this will be an extraordinarily precious ecosystem in the Konkan region of the mountain range that runs along India's west coast. This is one of the world's biodiversity "hotspots" and home to 6,000 species of flowering plants, mammals, birds and amphibians, including 325 threatened ones. It is the source of two major rivers. Botanists say it's India's richest area for endemic plants. With its magical combination of virgin rainforests, mountains and sea, it puts Goa in the shade.

NPCIL is planning to install six 1,650-MW reactors here, at Jaitapur in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, based on the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design of the French company Areva – the very same that's in trouble in Finland. The government has forcibly acquired 2,300 acres under a colonial law, ignoring protests. As construction begins, mountains will be flattened, trees uprooted, harbours razed, and a flourishing farming, horticultural and fisheries economy destroyed, jeopardising 40,000 people's survival.

To rationalise this ecocide, the government declared the area "barren". This is a horrendous lie, says India's best-known ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who heads the environment ministry's expert panel on its ecology. As I discovered during a visit to Jaitapur, there's hardly a patch of land that's not green with paddy, legumes, cashew, pineapple and coconut. So rich are its fisheries that they pay workers three times the statutory minimum wage, a rarity in India.

Jaitapur's villagers are literate. They know about Chernobyl, radiation, and the nuclear waste problem. They have seen films on injuries inflicted on villagers like them by Indian uranium mines and reactors – including cancers, congenital deformities and involuntary abortions. They don't want the Jaitapur plant. Of the 2,275 families whose land was forcibly acquired, 95% have refused to collect compensation, including one job per family. The offer provokes derision, as does Indo-French "co-operation". When Nicolas Sarkozy visited India to sell EPRs, Jaitapur saw the biggest demonstration against him.

The EPR safety design hasn't been approved by nuclear regulators anywhere. Finnish, British and French regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues including control, emergency-cooling and safe shutdown systems. A French government-appointed expert has recommended modifications to overcome the EPR's problems. Modifications will raise its cost beyond €5.7bn. Its unit generation costs will be three times higher than those for wind or coal. India had a nightmarish experience with Enron, which built a white elephant power plant near Jaitapur, nearly bankrupting Maharashtra's electricity board.

Jaitapur's people are more concerned about being treated as sub-humans by the state, which has unleashed savage repression, including hundreds of arrests, illegal detentions and orders prohibiting peaceful assemblies. Eminent citizens keen to express solidarity with protesters were banned, including a former supreme court judge, the Communist party's secretary and a former Navy chief. Gadgil too was prevented. A former high court judge was detained illegally for five days. Worse, a Maharashtra minister recently threatened that "outsiders" who visit Jaitapur wouldn't be "allowed to come out" (alive).

This hasn't broken the people's resolve or resistance. They have launched their own forms of Gandhian non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Elected councillors from 10 villages have resigned. People boycotted a 18 January public hearing in Mumbai convened to clear "misconceptions" about nuclear power. They refused to hoist the national flag, as is traditionally done, on Republic Day (26 January). They have decided not to sell food to officials. When teachers were ordered to teach pupils about the safety of nuclear reactors, parents withdrew children from school for a week.

The peaceful campaign, with all its moral courage, hasn't moved the government. It accepted an extraordinarily sloppy environmental assessment report on Jaitapur, which doesn't consider biodiversity and nuclear safety, or even mention radioactive waste. It subverted the law on environment-related public hearings. It cleared the project six days before Sarkozy's visit.

Why the haste? India's nuclear establishment has persistently missed targets and delivered a fraction of the promised electricity – under 3% – with dubious safety. It was in dire straits till it conducted nuclear explosions in 1998, which raised its status within India's national-chauvinist elite – and its budget. The major powers have "normalised" India's nuclear weapons through special exceptions in global nuclear commerce rules. France used these to drive a bargain for cash-strapped Areva. Its counterpart is the disaster-in-waiting called Jaitapur.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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