Times Crest, September 24, 2011

There seems to be finally some relief for the people living near the Koodankulam nuclear power plant under construction in southern Tamil Nadu. For over two decades, the inhabitants of the area have engaged in a series of protests against the plant, only to find themselves being ignored by successive governments. In desperation, as the project apparently neared completion and the long-feared risk to their lives and livelihoods became imminent, over a hundred individuals went on an indefinite hunger strike a couple of weeks ago. With scores of protesters having to be hospitalised, and support flowing in from across the political spectrum, the Tamil Nadu Cabinet passed a resolution to halt work. Regardless of whether the reactor is eventually commissioned or not, the success of these protests will have significant implications for the future of nuclear power in India.

Koodankulam is not exceptional; there are ongoing protests at all new sites selected for nuclear plants, from Jaitapur in Maharashtra and Mithi Virdi in Gujarat to Fatehabad in Haryana. Protests over the choice of Haripur in West Bengal to construct a Russian reactor were so powerful that Mamata Banerjee made cancelling the project a part of her election platform – and made good after assuming power. Nor is this kind of opposition a recent phenomenon. There has been significant opposition to every new nuclear reactor and uranium project proposed since the 1980s. Such opposition was strong enough to defeat two separate proposals to site reactors in Kerala.

One obvious reason for such opposition has been the dependence of these projects on natural resources like land and water. In the case of reactors, this is because their requirements for water and land compete with the needs of farmers, and discharges of heated water and radioactive effluents into the sea affect fish workers. Similar factors also drive opposition to large hydroelectric dams, thermal power plants, and automobile factories. This will only intensify in the future.

But there is another persistent reason that is unique to nuclear technology: the risk of catastrophic accidents. The greatest risk from a major accident at a reactor or an associated facility, such as the pool where the highly radioactive spent fuel is stored, is to the population in the vicinity of the plant. It is therefore natural that many people who find a reactor being built close to their villages and homes oppose its construction. In Koodankulam’s case, for example, the opposing population appears to comprise the majority of the Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, and Thoothukudi districts. It was widespread awareness of the disastrous consequences of the accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that catalysed the latest and most intense round of protests over Koodankulam.

Also important was awareness of the 1986 Chernobyl accident and its long-term impacts on human health and the environment. An area of over 3, 000 square kilometres (almost the size of Goa) is still officially evacuated because it is contaminated with a radioactive element called Cesium-137. A surrounding region that is thrice as large is designated as an area of strict radiation control, requiring decontamination and control of intake of locally grown food. It takes 30 years for the radioactivity from Cesium-137 to halve, which means that this situation is unlikely to improve soon. The Fukushima accident also contaminated thousands of square kilometers of land and an article in the September 2011 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that it might lead to one thousand deaths in the long term.

Despite local opposition at every nuclear site, the government has embarked on a reckless nuclear expansion. An accident in an ecologically fragile area like Jaitapur would ruin the surrounding agricultural lands, mangroves and fisheries. In interior sites like Fatehabad in Haryana, large tracts of agricultural lands would get contaminated and the only water body to release radioactive effluents from reactor control operations in an accident would be a branch of the Bhakra canal. These grave dangers may have prompted the Secretary of the Ministry of Health to tell a parliamentary standing committee in 2010 that India is “nowhere prepared to meet an eventuality that may arise out of nuclear and radiological emergencies. ”

The government claims that nuclear power is the only way to meet India’s energy needs. However, these claims have been made repeatedly over the past fifty years, and belied each time. Moreover, in the absence of subsidies, nuclear energy has consistently proven to be more expensive than comparable sources of power. In fact, the government’s push for nuclear energy in the last decade has more to do with its foreign-policy vision. As Anil Kakodkar, the previous head of the Atomic Energy Establishment, candidly explained in a Marathi newspaper article: “We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there. . . America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects. ”

The government’s desire to please various business interests has led it to override the rights of its own citizens. The Inter-Governmental agreement signed for the Koodankulam plants takes away the rights of Indian citizens to sue its Russian suppliers in the event of an accident. This was a predecessor of the notorious liability bill that similarly protects all other multinational suppliers and caps the total compensation available to victims at Rs 2, 500 crore. In comparison, the Japan Center for Economic Research estimates that the Fukushima disaster might have cost between five to ten lakh crore rupees. Evidently, the government is willing to leave its citizens without compensation rather than touch the profit margins of the nuclear industry.
In this era of brazen corporate connivance with the government, the Kudankulam protests are a sign that democracy can still triumph. Given the overwhelming opposition to its plans all over the country, the Manmohan Singh government should take a cue and simply abandon its misguided nuclear expansion.

The authors are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Ramana is the author of The power of promise: Examining nuclear power in India (forthcoming, Viking Penguin)