Even the most zealous supporters of nuclear power generation should logically concede three things to their opponents. First, after the grave disaster at Fukushima, it is natural for people everywhere to be deeply sceptical of the safety claims made for nuclear power, and for governments to phase out atomic reactors. That’s exactly what’s happening in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and now Japan.
Second, nuclear power, like all technologies and all development projects, should be promoted democratically, with the consent of the people living in their vicinity, and with scrupulous regard for the rule of law and civil liberties. And third, safety must be given paramount importance in reactor construction and operation, with strict adherence to norms and procedures and full compliance with rules laid down by an independent safety authority.
The way the government has dealt with the opponents of the Koodankulam nuclear reactors being built in Tamil Nadu violates all three red lines egregiously. Rather than treat opposition to nuclear power for its hazards as natural, logical and an indication of citizens’ engagement with the world, the Department of Atomic Energy and its subsidiary Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd see dementia in it—a pathological condition to be cured by psychiatrists to be especially invited from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore.
The government has all along demonised the Koodankulam project’s opponents. Prime Minister and the Home Minister, no less, vilified them as inspired by “foreign-funded” NGOs without an iota of evidence or taking action against them for such offences as they might have committed in diverting overseas funds meant for other uses.
The government recently deported a German tourist living in a Rs 200-a-day room for “masterminding” and financing the agitation. Last week, it summarily deported three Japanese activists who were planning to visit Koodankulam.
All this shows serious official disconnect with nuclear realities. Globally, nuclear power has long been in decline. The number of reactors peaked 10 years ago, and their installed capacity plateaued in 2010 at 375 GW (gigawatt=1,000 megawatts). It’s down to 364 GW. Nuclear’s share of global power generation has declined from its peak of 17 percent to about 11 percent.
Even if many new reactors are built post-Fukushima, the global nuclear industry will shrink to less than half its size by 2025. With increasingly adverse public opinion, and rising reactor costs—up threefold over a decade—the decline could become terminal. Jeff Immelt of General Electric, one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment, says nuclear power is “really hard to justify”.
However, blind to this, India continues its Nuclear March of Folly, now with imported reactors of unproven design. The government has unleashed savage repression against grassroots anti-nuclear protesters. In Koodankulam, the use of force has been relentless since 1988, when live bullets were first used against peaceful agitators.
Over the past year, hundreds of FIRs have been lodged against several thousand people (according to one estimate, an incredible 55,000 people), with many charged with sedition and waging war against the state—read, organising peaceful protests without one violent incident.
It’s hard to think of an episode in India, including the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, or the 1992 Babri demolition, where the state has charged so many people with such grave offences. This shows the lengths to which the government is willing to go to ram the project down people’s throats.
On September 10, the police launched a vicious lathi and tear-gas attack on peaceful protesters near the plant’s boundary wall although they were obstructing nodescription’s movements. The police literally drove many agitators into the sea, molested women, arrested scores of people and looted their homes. A fisherman was killed in police firing. Several people are reported missing.
A fact-finding team led by Justice BG Kolse-Patil and senior journalist Kalpana Sharma has since visited Koodankulam, Idinthakarai and nearby villages. It describes the situation there as a “reign of terror”, marked by “extreme and totally unjustified” use of force, physical abuse, vindictive detention of 56 people including juveniles, and harassment of women. Such thug-like police behaviour, it says, “has no place in a country that calls itself democratic”.
Yet, repression of grassroots movements against destructive “development” projects is becoming part of a deplorable pattern in India. No socially desirable project can ever be built on the ashes of our citizens. This in and of itself is a strong reason to oppose the Koodankulam reactors, and prevent another horrifying precedent of state brutality.
The government’s conduct is especially reprehensible because the Prime Minister last year suspended work at Koodankulam on the promise of fully allaying people’s apprehensions regarding safety. But he had no real intention of doing so.
The sarkari experts he appointed didn’t even bother to meet the people’s representatives or answer their queries about the site’s vulnerability to tsunamis, volcanic activity and earthquakes. They certified everything as “100 percent” safe, which is scientifically untenable.
People’s fears grew as NPCIL refused to share relevant information with them, including the Site Evaluation and the Safety Analysis Reports. Despite a Right to Information request, a legal petition and a Parliament question, NPCIL refuses to disclose the text of an Indo-Russian intergovernmental agreement, which reportedly absolves the reactors’ supplier of any liability for an accident.
This puts a disturbing question-mark over the official claim that the reactors are safe, and accidents are all but impossible. If so, why is the supplier evading liability?
That brings us to the third factor mentioned above: NPCIL’s non-compliance with safety protocols, and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s approval for fuel-loading in breach of its own norms and rules. This is a grim story. Last year, following Fukushima, the AERB set up under state orders a Task Force to suggest improvements in reactor safety. This made 17 recommendations pertaining to freshwater and power backup, improved sensors and instrumentation, etc.
The Koodankulam plant isn’t compliant with as many as 11 of the 17 conditions. The AERB first told the Madras High Court that it wouldn’t permit fuel-loading unless full compliance was established. But within four days, it made an about-turn—probably under pressure from the government.
As the Comptroller and Accountant General has established in a recent report, the AERB lacks independence and is totally subservient to the government. On August 10, it permitted NPCIL to start nuclear fuel loading in the first reactor. This is wrong and dangerous, and shows reckless disregard for safety procedures.
The AERB is guilty of yet more safety violations. Its own rules for siting reactors say that there must be absolutely no population in the “exclusion zone” covering a 1.6-km radius from the plant, and that the population in the next radial zones must be thin—under 20,000 in the 5-km area, etc. Now, as anyone who has been to Koodankulam will testify, a tsunami rehabilitation colony, with 450 tenements, stands less than 1 km from the plant. At least 40,000 people live within a 5-km radius.
The AERB, supposedly the public’s nuclear watchdog, has turned a blind eye to this glaring fact for years. It must be brought to book for this grossly negligent conduct.
Equally disgraceful is the AERB’s failure to enforce another of its own rules which stipulates that no fuel-loading be permitted until an off-site emergency preparedness drill is completed within a 16-km radius under the joint supervision of NPCIL, the district administration, the state government and the National Disaster Management Authority. This involves full evacuation procedures, with prior warning, identification of routes, commandeering of vehicles, and clear instructions to the public.
No such drill was ever conducted. And yet, the AERB granted clearance to initial fuel-loading. It’s hard not to call this roguish behaviour which plays with the public’s life.
This cannot be remotely justified on the ground that Tamil Nadu faces an acute power shortage. The Koodankulam reactor will add just 5 percent to the state’s power capacity. By contrast, its transmission and distribution loss is 18 percent, and can be reduced greatly. Besides, Tamil Nadu has 7,000 MW of wind turbine capacity, India’s highest share. Less than half this potential is tapped thanks to a mis-designed grid. Grid correction can be made at a minor expense.
Under the pressure of domestic and international atomic lobbies, India is loath to abandon nuclear power although the world is rapidly doing so. The process is fastest in the OECD countries, which account for 70 percent of the world’s 429 reactors. There are just two reactors under construction in the West. Both are mired in safety problems, long delays and 130 percent-plus cost overruns.
Even France, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from atomic reactors—a fact the global nuclear industry repeats as if that were clinching proof of its own safety and reliability—will reduce its nuclear dependence to 50 percent by 2025.
As nuclear power declines, clean, safe, flexible renewable sources like wind and solar are fast expanding. Global investment in these has grossed $1 trillion since 2004. Their costs are falling dramatically. Renewables are the world’s energy future.