M G Devasahayam
M G DevasahayamShri is former IAS Officer of Haryana Cadre with experience in power sector-Government and Corporate. He was formerly SDM of Fatehabad Subdivision where this plant is located.
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been scheduled to lay the foundation stone of the 2800 MW Gorakhpur Nuclear Power Plant (GNPP) in Fatehabad district of Haryana. According to Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) 1,503 acres of land had been acquired for the project and the setting-up of this plant would accelerate the pace of ‘development’.

What has been left unsaid is that this water-guzzling plant is located on the fragile Fatehabad Branch of the Bhakra Canal system. For operating this plant Haryana Government has allocated 320 cusecs of water from the state’s share under the Bhakra Water Sharing Agreement 1959 between Punjab and Rajasthan. Haryana being the successor state of Punjab is legally bound by this Agreement. Since the Agreement mandates that Bhakra water can only be used for irrigation and generation of hydel-power, Bhakra-Beas Management Board cannot give additional water for the nuclear plant.

Water-use allotment for irrigation in the culturable command area is 2.25 cusecs per thousand acres. 320 cusecs can irrigate about 142, 000 acres and diverting this quantum of water to generate nuclear power will deprive such vast area of irrigation. Even taking into account 30% of water that would be recycled back to the canal, the irrigated area lost would be about 100,000 acres. And the polluted water returned to the canal would slow-poison the downstream agriculture and drinking water. This canal is also plagued with frequent breaches that could pose serious danger to the safety of the power plant.

This is a semi-arid region and water is the life-line for its economy and sustenance. Power generated in this nuclear plant would no doubt lead to ‘development’ of MNC/commercial/residential/ industrial complexes, Malls and Theme parks in Delhi, Gurgaon and other places. But in the project affected area Agriculture will perish and radiation will cause serious damage to wildlife (deer/blackbuck) in nearby villages. In fact on this count National Green Tribunal has ruled against the setting-up of GNPP residential colony in the neighbouring Badopal village.

Legally also this diversion of water is untenable. Water is basic to life and comes within the guarantee of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. A huge quantity cannot be diverted in an already water deficit area in violation of the 1959 agreement which permits collaboration for improving irrigation and generation of hydro-electric power only. Environmental Impact Assessment of the project does not address this most critical issue. All that it says is: “….Government of Haryana confirmed allocation of 320 cusecs of water for consumptive use through Fatehabad branch canal sourced by Bhakra mainline tail end at Tohana Head-works”.

There was no public consultation and whatever report sent by DC, Fatehabad was sham.

Prime farming land was acquired for the project through coercion and bribing landowners with huge compensation. Central Government is fully involved in this skullduggery. Nuclear Power Corporation of India is the owner of the project, Ministry of Environment & Forest has dealt with the water issue in a most shabby manner and has given conditional environmental clearance to the plant. Pursuing a pre-set agenda Planning Commission has given its in-principle approval.

Bhakhra Canal near Gorakhpur supposed to provide water for the reactor dried up in the summer this year.

Bhakhra Canal near Gorakhpur supposed to provide water for the reactor dried up in the summer this year.

Be that as it may, there are certain basic realities about promoting nuclear power in India. First is that nuclear reactors are located in areas that support lakhs of people living off farming, fishing, and other occupations, and these people see, quite correctly, the reactor as a major threat to their life and livelihood. Post-Fukushima, the worry has become much more severe and tangible. The Indian government’s response to the opposition has been a combination of coercion, bribery, and propaganda. Its nuclear efforts are not respectful of human/democratic rights.

The second reality is that nuclear energy is not the answer to India’s electricity problems. The current nuclear capacity in the country is just 5,780 MW, about 2.5 percent of the total generation capacity and produces not more than 1% of country’s electricity needs. Even with optimistic assumptions about the future, this fraction is unlikely to increase to more than 5 percent for decades. But optimism is misplaced. DAE has long made ambitious projections and failed to deliver. In 1969, the nuclear establishment had predicted that by the year 2000, there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear generating capacity. In 2011 achievement was only 4800 MW and Government’s aspiration to increase it to about 64,000 MW by the year 2032 is utopian and impractical.

This is because DAE’s plans involve constructing hundreds of fast breeder reactors. In the early decades of nuclear power, many countries pursued breeder reactor programs, but practically all of them have given up on breeder reactors as unsafe and uneconomical. Imported light water reactors are unproven and prohibitively costly. DAE has simply not absorbed the lessons from the sorry history of nuclear technology globally, and thus shows a lack of organizational learning.

The third reality is that India need electricity that is cheap and affordable whereas nuclear power is expensive. If all costs-construction, commissioning, operation, decommissioning and safe storage of spent-fuel are honestly factored in nuclear power is way costlier than any other source of electricity. Future reactors, both imported and indigenous, will continue to be much more expensive, making electricity generated in these unaffordable to many sections of society. Expectations that the nuclear industry will learn from past experience and lower the construction costs have been belied repeatedly. On the other hand it has been going up while wind/solar power costs are declining.

What is worse, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Report says that India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was weak, under-resourced and “slow in adopting international benchmarks and good practices in the areas of nuclear and radiation operation”. PAC recently tabled a scathing 81-page report in Parliament, critical of the decades-long delay in establishing an independent regulator for the nuclear industry.

According to the Report, AERB was not an independent statutory body but rather a subordinate agency of the government. AERB cannot set or enforce rules for radiation and nuclear safety. In many cases there are no rules. Despite an order from the government in 1983, the AERB has still not developed an overarching nuclear and radiation safety policy for India. The absence of such a policy at macro level can hamper micro-level planning of radiation safety in the country.

As a result, PAC found that India was not prepared for a nuclear emergency and went on to say that off-site emergency exercises carried out highlighted inadequate emergency preparedness even for situations where the radiological effects of an emergency origination from nuclear power plants are likely to extend beyond the site and affect the people around. PAC report is based on a ‘performance audit’ carried out by Comptroller & Auditor General of India last year.

Sum and substance of PAC Report is that the failure to have an autonomous and independent regulator is clearly ‘fraught with grave risks’ for setting-up nuclear power plants in India. The Fukushima lessons as brought out by Japan’s Independent Investigation Commission are pointed, poignant and portends ill for nuclear power in over-populated India with limited land/water resources and weak regulatory governance. In the event Prime Minister laying the foundation of GNPP is queer and inappropriate!