Jaitapur draws blood

28 April 2011

Indian protest against nuclear power plans are answered with violent oppression. The brute force used to counter the public protests only worsens the situation and already has claimed one life.

The Jaitapur nuclear power project has drawn blood even before its boundary wall is ready. One person was killed in police firing on Monday, which by all accounts was unnecessary to disperse peaceful protesters. There was arson in Madban, at the site’s centre, which gutted some grass and a part of a tiny makeshift shed belonging to the Nuclear Power Corporation. The police went berserk and intruded into people’s houses to beat them up. The firing seems more like an act of revenge and “teaching troublemakers a lesson” than crowd control of last resort.

It is plausible that Shiv Sena thugs instigated the arson. The party recently jumped into the fray. Uddhav Thackeray held a rally in Jaitapur on April 9. But the Maharashtra government was even more complicit in the recent deterioration of the situation, caused by mass arrests, illegal detentions, externment notices, and a systematic effort to prevent eminent citizens like former Navy chief L Ramdas, former Supreme Court judge PB Sawant and Communist Party of India general secretary AB Bardhan from entering Jaitapur.

The state administration launched a campaign of arrests and intimidation immediately after Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan made his first-ever visit to Jaitapur on February 26, which was a fiasco. Senior official went around threatening to break the people’s resistance by brute force.

The government is primarily responsible for the trouble. It started land acquisition for the project more than four years before the Environmental Impact Assessment was made, and before an agreement for the reactors was signed. It compounded this venality by repeatedly dissembling on the project’s size and impact. It has long been clear that the it wanted to railroad the project against the will of the people, although it would destroy 40,000 livelihoods, damage an extraordinarily precious ecosystem, and menace future generations with nuclear hazards.

The last straw came with Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh declaring there would be “no rethink” on Jaitapur, which had been hastily cleared for political and strategic reasons. This contradicted his post-Fukushima stand indicating willingness to revisit the clearance in the light of the nuclear safety review ordered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Shiv Sena exploited popular anger at what was seen as a reversal and betrayal.

Violence followed. But the state’s counter-violence was far worse. Jaitapur, which witnessed exemplarily peaceful protests for years, has joined the ranks of countless other places, from Orissa and West Bengal to Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, where governments have recently tried to ram projects down the throats of unwilling populations with police force.

Jaitapur will witness yet more bloodshed unless the government jettisons its monumental we-know-it-all arrogance about the virtues of nuclear power and engages in a sincere, respectful dialogue with the people. Crucial here is democratic deference to the overwhelming popular sentiment against the project. This sentiment has been in abundant evidence in numerous demonstrations, informed arguments against official claims about the safety of nuclear power, and the rejection of compensation by more than 95 percent of those whose land was forcibly acquired. (Most of the remainder are absentee landowners.)

Jaitapur will witness yet more bloodshed unless the government [...] engages in a sincere, respectful dialogue with the people.

The government will find it hard to convince the public that the Jaitapur project, based on six French-designed reactors, untested and unapproved anywhere, are safe. This will be so especially after Fukushima. Fukushima’s four crippled reactors still remain gravely crisis-bound and are spewing out huge amounts of radioactivity.

According to an estimate, based on data collected by the monitors of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation, a United Nations body, the amount of toxic radioisotopes iodine-131 and caesium-137 discharged from Fukushima is of the same order as that emitted from Chernobyl. Indeed, an official of the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, says it may be double that level. On conservative estimates, Chernobyl has caused between 34,000 and 70,000 additional cancers.

The Fukushima shock is so severe that Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to “review the nation’s nuclear energy policy” by thinking out of the box. Addressing a parliamentary panel, Kan said: “I, for long, looked positively at our [policy of] nuclear power [generation] in light of Japan’s strong safety framework. However, I now think that these kinds of assumptions should be put aside as we review the nation’s nuclear policy.

The prospect of the global nuclear industry, uncertain and in decline since Chernobyl, appears utterly bleak. What Fukushima brutally exposed is how quickly a small and almost routine event like a station blackout can snowball into a series of crises leading to a partial core meltdown, which can neither be predicted nor controlled.

Pious hopes will be expressed that the nuclear industry will learn from Fukushima—when it has failed to learn from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Such hopes are futile. Nuclear power is inherently and unacceptably hazardous. There are safe, affordable and climate-friendlier alternatives to it. The world can do without it.

Globally, renewable energy has just overtaken nuclear power in installed capacity. India must decide if it will remain mired in nuclear dogma with all its pseudo-technological arrogance, or invest heavily in renewable energy. The first course means more social strife, rising electricity bills and potential catastrophes. The second offers the world sanity and a sustainable future.