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Courting Nuclear Trouble In Maharashtra: Scrap the Jaitapur reactors!

by Praful Bidwai, 1 February 2011

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Imagine a stunningly beautiful ecosystem with virgin rainforests, a great mountain range, and immense diversity of plant and animal life, where two great rivers originate. Add to this a flourishing farming, horticultural and fisheries economy. And you have the Jaitapur-Madban region in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, on the Konkan coast in the Western Ghats.

This segment of the Satyadri mountains is the source of the Krishna and Godavari. It’s also the home of the world’s most famous mango, the Alphonso (hapus), and grows chikoos, cashew, pineapple and coconut too, whose high yields mean even marginal farmers do reasonably well.

Now, suppose a monstrous force wanted to destroy this magnificent ecosystem, termed by the Biological Survey of India as India’s richest, for its size, for endemic plants. What better way than nuking Jaitapur? That’s precisely what Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd and the government are doing by erecting six giant (1,650 MW) reactors designed by the French firm Areva.

Jaitapur will become the world’s largest nuclear power station, generating 9,900 MW, or more than double India’s current nuclear capacity. It will also irreparably destroy a delicate ecosystem and livelihoods of 40,000 people. It will replicate on a much larger scale the economic disaster called the Enron power project, by generating electricity that’s three to five times costlier than power from other sources. It’s no small irony, if a cruel one, that the Enron plant is located in Ratnagiri district.

However, Jaitapur will be a nuclear Enron—capable, like all commercial atomic reactors anywhere, of undergoing a catastrophic accident similar to Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. Admittedly, this is not highly probable, but it’s possible. And the consequences of a reactor core meltdown are so enormous as to be wholly unacceptable. Chernobyl was the world’s worst industrial accident, which killed an estimated 65,000 to 110,000 people from radiation-induced cancers and other effects.

Such fears are not alarmist. Scientists and engineers who have designed, operated or licensed nuclear reactors have written tomes warning us that all of them are susceptible to terrible accidents in which the fission chain reaction goes out of control, leading to a loss of coolant (usually water, which must rapidly remove heat from the reactor), and the melting and explosion of the core.

The risk could be far higher than in Jaitapur because the project is in a seismically active zone and based on a reactor design that’s untested and unproved. Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) bristles with problems and hasn’t been cleared by the nuclear regulatory authority of any country. Yet, in a feat unmatched for its stupidity, India wants to install six EPRs—although the Department of Atomic Energy or NPCIL lacks the technical competence to evaluate their safety.

So hell-bent has the government been on the Jaitapur project that it started acquiring 968 hectares (2,300 acres) for it four years before an agreement with France was signed, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared, and clearance granted. It has treated the project’s critics as anti-science, anti-development Luddites who suffer from “misconceptions”. It has refused to give them a proper hearing.

Under India’s environmental law, all villagers must be given the EIA report in the local language one month in advance of the mandatory public hearing. In Jaitapur, only one of the five affected villages got it—four days before a farcical hearing last May.

Worse, as I noted during a recent visit to Jaitapur, the state has unleashed savage repression on the local people who have sustained a strong movement against the project. It routinely arrests and serves externment notices to peaceful protesters, and promulgates prohibitory orders under Sec 144 of the CrPC and the tough Bombay Police Act.

An instance is a frail 70-year-old diabetic, falsely charged with pelting stones at the police—when he couldn’t have lifted a pebble. He was detained for 15 days. Others have had false charges framed against them, including attempt to murder. The higher judiciary, apparently afraid to question the Holy Cow of nuclear technology, has refused them anticipatory bail.

Eminent citizens who wanted to visit Jaitapur in solidarity with the protesters were banned. They include Communist Party of India general secretary AB Bardhan, former Chief of Naval Staff L Ramdas, former Supreme Court judge and Press Council chairman PB Sawant, and outstanding ecologist Madhav Gadgil, chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts’ Panel of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

Former Bombay High Court judge BG Kolse-Patil was detained for five days and not even produced before a magistrate within 24 hours. This unprecedented repression resembles the police raj in Maharashtra’s Naxalite-affected areas.

The government seems intent on turning Konkan into a unique collection of polluting projects, including mining, pesticides production, steelmaking and power generation, which are degrading the ecosystem and imposing a disproportionate burden on the area. Its power need is just 180 MW, but it’s being made to produce over 4,500 MW, and eventually 20,000-plus MW. The government treats the local people like sub-human animals who can be lied to, ignored, or beaten at will.

This amounts to a massive assault on democracy. The people oppose the project because it will destroy their livelihoods, just as the Tarapur reactors nearby have done. The Jaitapur population is highly literate, and knows of the hazards of radiation and the DAE’s poor safety performance, including the exposure of hundreds in Tarapur to radiation exceeding the permissible limits, genetic deformities from uranium mining in Jaduguda, and high incidence of cancers near reactors in different locations.

The people’s resolve to oppose the project is impressive. More than 95 percent have refused to take the Rs 10 lakhs-an-acre compensation for land; most of those who did are absentee landowners living in Mumbai.

The villagers, faced with repression, have launched a non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement. They refuse to sell food and other goods to state functionaries. When the government recently ordered teachers to brainwash pupils into believing that nuclear power is clean and green, people withdrew children from school for a few days. Ten villages didn’t hoist the Tricolour on Republic Day.

The government will be tempted to use diabolical divide-and-rule tactics in Jaitapur, including fomenting tensions between Muslims (30 percent of the population) and Hindus; violence by agents provocateurs; and branding of all dissidents as Maoists/Naxalites, the latest lie being used to suppress popular movements. These methods must be exposed and resisted.

The Jaitapur public has much to fear from EPRs. Western Europe’s first reactor after Chernobyl, also an EPR, under construction in Finland is in grave trouble—delayed by four years and 90 percent over budget. Finnish, French, British and US nuclear regulators have raised 3,000 safety issues about it. A reactor’s control systems must function even if it loses power. The EPR doesn’t meet this criterion.

Given its large size, the EPR will generate seven times more iodine-129 than normal reactors. Any design changes will add further to its capital costs, already Rs 21 crores per MW, compared to Rs 9 crores for domestic reactors and Rs 5 crores for coal-fired power. Even on current (Finnish) estimates, Jaitapur’s unit power cost will be Rs 5 to Rs 8—compared to Rs 2 to Rs 3 from other sources, including renewables.

However, the EPR’s greatest problem is safety. Nuclear power generation routinely exposes occupational workers and the public to radiation and harmful isotopes. Their effects, including cancer and genetic damage, are incurable. Radiation is unsafe in all doses.

All reactors leave behind high-level wastes which remain hazardous for thousands of years. For instance, the half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,400 years and uranium-235’s is 710 million years. Science hasn’t found a way of safely storing, leave alone neutralising, radioactive waste. When a reactor exhausts its economic life of 25 to 40 years, it must be “decommissioned”, or entombed at a cost that’s one-third to one-half the construction cost.

All these hazards are unacceptable. The Jaitapur reactors pose an additional one: the high temperature of the cooling water discharged into the sea. This will be 5 °C hotter and destroy mangroves, corals and numerous marine species, reducing oxygen availability precipitously.

The EIA conducted by the ill-reputed National Environmental Engineering Research Institute hasn’t analysed these effects, or the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. And it doesn’t even mention high-level wastes! Yet, the MoEF cleared the project for political reasons a week before French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit last December.

Jaitapur is an unmitigated disaster, undertaken only to pander to the crisis-ridden global nuclear industry, which is desperate for new orders. More than 150 reactors (world total, 420) are due to retire in 10 to 20 years. Only 60 new reactors are being planned, two-thirds of them in China, India and South Korea, and hardly any in the West, where there’s greater environmental awareness and longer experience with nuclear power.

Globally, nuclear power has exhausted its technological potential. It has a bleak future. India must stop chasing the nuclear power mirage—and drop Jaitapur.