E A S Sarma
Former Union Power Secretary, Government of India

As a result of concerted public opposition in the Prime Minister’s home State of Gujarat,Toshiba Corp’s Westinghouse Electric seems to have now decided to relocate its proposed nuclear power project (6x1000Mwe capacity) at Mithi Virdi in Gujarat to a site in Andhra Pradesh. The breakthrough comes ahead of a June 7-8 visit by the Indian Prime Minister to the US.

Kovvada-siteWhile the people of Gujarat deserve commendation for forcing Westinghouse to shift its project away from their State, this move implies that Andhra Pradesh will soon get converted into a potential nuclear disaster zone without any tangible benefits to the people.

The residents in and around Kovvada village, especially the fishing community in Srikakulam district, feel considerably apprehensive at the bleak prospect of losing their fertile agricultural lands and losing their access to the sea for fishing, in addition to being exposed to the potential dangers of a nuclear power project ( 6x1000Mwe capacity) being set up by General Electric company.

The Russian nuclear power project (6x1650Mwe capacity) proposed to be set up at Haripur in West Bengal has also faced stiff public opposition. Ironically, even this project is now being shifted to Andhra Pradesh.

The ghastly accident that took place at Fukushima in March, 2011 has unambiguously demonstrated the huge risks associated with nuclear power projects. The reactor melt down at Fukushima was so serious that it would take decades for the Japanese nuclear establishment to remove the contamination even partially. The long-term adverse impacts of radiation originating from Fukushima are yet to be assessed fully. Hundreds of tonnes of water containing toxic radioactive isotopes originating from Fukushima are being let out into the Pacific ocean every day. The cost of even a partial clean up at Fukushima may cross $250 billion (Rs.15,75,000 Crores). If a Fukushima-like accident were to take place at one nuclear power plant in our country, can India afford to incur such a cost without crippling its economy and hurting its population?

In the event of a Fukushima-like accident at any of the proposed nuclear power projects in AP, radioactive isotopes may spread all around the project site beyond 80-100 km, depending on the wind velocity and direction.

Global experience shows that a nuclear power project will take, on a very conservative basis, more than a decade to complete, though most ongoing projects the world over have suffered crippling time and cost overruns. The six reactors at Kovvada will cost anywhere around Rs 4-7 lakh crores and, without taking into account the cost of decommissioning the reactors at the end of the project life, the levelised unit cost of electricity is estimated to be around Rs 16-26 per kilo-watt-hour. There is no technology today for satisfactorily processing the radioactive waste. The the cost of waste management therefore cannot be quantified. Even without taking it into reckoning, the cost of nuclear electricity is going
to be unconscionably high.

Moreover, since all these nuclear power projects will use imported reactors and imported fuel, it will considerably erode the energy security of the country.
Since all these reactors will be purchased through highly non-transparent procedures without competitive bidding, not only the costs are going to be heavily padded but also there will be scope for corruption.

In addition, it should be noted that none of these reactor suppliers is going to accept any financial liability in the event of a major accident attributable to shortcomings in reactor design. The civil nuclear liability law enacted by the government in our case has placed a very low cap on the liability that could be passed on to the reactor suppliers but the latter are not prepared to bear even such a limited liability. Under pressure, it is likely that the government of india will finally bow down to the wishes of the reactor suppliers and find ways to exempt them from the liability, thereby creating scope for the latter to cut corners on the safety features of the reactors. This will enhance the accident risks involved. If a Fukushima-like accident were to take place, it is the Indian tax-payer that will be saddled with the huge liability that would arise.

While the three proposed nuclear power projects in Andhra Pradesh will result in immediate displacement of people, distruction of fertile agricultural ands and potential exposure of the people to radiation hazards including possible nuclear disasters, the so-called benefits expected from them will not accrue in the forseeable future nor will they lie within the reach of the ordinary citizen. In the ultimate analysis, these projects will impose irriversible costs on the society.

In Andhra Pradesh, large tracts of agricultural land have already been diverted for industrial corridors, SEZs, power projects, ports, airports etc. in the case of which the social costs far exceed the social benefits. Though the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 requires that the States should, keeping in view the need to safeguard food security, prescribe limits on acquisition of agricultural land, especially irrigated, multi-cropped land, the AP government has not cared to prescribe any such limits, as a result of which land would be forcibly taken away from the farmers affected by the nuclear power projects in utter disregard to the Parliament’s intent to safeguard food security.

It is perplexing that the political leadership in AP should disregard all these potential risks and costs, invite foreign MNCs to set up nuclear power projects in the State and endanger the lives of the people, without any semblance of a public consultation that should be central to a democratic system like ours.

Of late, considering that the environment laws and the regulatory institutions are weak in India and that there is an all round disregard to the “polluter-should-pay” principle, many polluting industries, such as pharmaceutical, chemical and petro-chemical units, are migrating to AP and other States. Similarly, while the reactor supplier nations are going slow on adding nuclear power generation capacity in their own countries, they are more than eager to market reactor sales in countries like India.

Should AP become a dumping groud for polluting industries and unsafe technologies?

This is an appeal to all right thinking people of AP and elsewhere to raise their voices on these concerns.

It is hoped that the Prime Minister will keep these concerns in view while holding talks with his counterpart in the US on June 7-8.