India Maps Out a Nuclear Power Future, Amid Opposition

Jaitapur resident Samina Sharjah points out damage caused by stones thrown into her house in the village of Nate, near Jaitapur, in April after violent protests against the planned nuclear power station here.
Photograph by Punit Paranjpe, AFP/Getty Images


Rebecca Byerly in New Delhi, India
For National Geographic News
Published July 22, 2011

Fishermen pull mackerel, prawn, and pomfret from their nets near the port of Jaitapur on India’s west coast, as field workers pick the region’s famed Alphonso mangoes.

Even though many homes lack electricity, exports of fish and fruit provide a good living here. So villagers, determined to maintain their way of life, have made clear in protests that escalated after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster that they do not welcome the new neighbor the Indian government plans to install: The world’s largest nuclear power plant.

Jaitapur is meant to be the flagship location for the Indian nuclear energy renaissance that was mapped years ago by negotiators of a treaty to end the power-hungry nation’s technology isolation. U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration spearheaded the diplomatic effort to clear the way for India to purchase civil nuclear know-how and uranium fuel from Western nations despite India’s refusal to sign the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But progress has been slow under the 2008 civil nuclear cooperation pact; an effort to overcome legal hurdles for U.S. nuclear firms was one of the goals of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India this week.

While the U.S. government’s focus has been on easing the stringent liability laws enacted by India’s parliament, a more profound barrier in the world’s largest democracy may be public mistrust and opposition.

“The U.S. interest in promoting nuclear power in India is solely because of their interest in establishing a huge market for [their] power business and not because of any charitable distribution to the power-starved millions in India,” said A. Gopalakhrishnan, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, in an email.

And it’s not just former government officials like Gopalakhrishnan, but fishers, farmers, and thousands of ordinary citizens who promise a tough road ahead for nuclear power in India—a fact underscored in protests that turned violent this spring at Jaitapur.

Protests Turn Deadly

The $9.3 billion nuclear project at Jaitapur, (map) some 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of the commercial capital of Mumbai, would be a landmark not only for India, but the world. With six reactors, each with a capacity of 1,650 megawatts, it would have the capacity to deliver 25 percent more power than the largest nuclear plant engineered up to now—the huge Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility on Japan’s west coast. The power would flow not only to nearby agricultural communities but throughout Maharashtra, India’s most industrialized state.

Ironically, given the U.S. role in paving the way for the international cooperation needed for this facility, the project would showcase French technology.

It is one of the first sites where Paris-based AREVA plans to introduce its new generation of pressurized reactors called Evolutionary Power Reactors (EPR). Its extra containment and independent backup cooling systems were seen as important safety advances in a report several years ago by the Union of Concerned Scientists, but Indian critics have pointed to cost overruns and other problems with an EPR project in Finland to question use of the untested design.

The plant would occupy 400 acres (162 hectares) on a plateau between two creeks lined with mangrove forests. To the east, the rolling Sahyadri mountain range is widely recognized as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. For local villagers, the focus has been on how the plant—with its security perimeter, and ecosystem changes, especially releases of warm water from the plant—will affect marine life and their own livelihoods. There have been reports of farmers continuing to pick mangoes and cultivate rice on land that has been taken over for the project.

Protests against the project widened after Fukushima to include environmentalists from around India, who point out that the coastal region ranks a three on India’s five-step scale of seismic risk. In an April melee between protestors and police, one fisherman was killed and others were injured.

“The Indian government won’t even consider that the risk of building a nuclear energy site like Jaitapur far outweighs the benefit,” says Delhi-based anti-nuclear activist Priful Bidwai. “Fukishima was the end of nuclear energy for many countries around the world, but in India, it’s just getting cranked up.”

A Drive for Clean Power

The reason India set its sights on expanded nuclear power is simple. While the nation’s economy is growing at rate of about 9 percent annually, 56 percent of households in rural India—some 400 million people—have no access to electricity at all. Even the largest, most developed cities have power shortages and rely on massive diesel-fueled generators for power backup. With per capita energy consumption expected to double by 2020, the government says nuclear power plants—which can provide a large amount of energy without carbon emissions—are necessary.

“Nuclear energy is the cheapest and cleanest way to get India’s cities on the grid system,” said Jairaim Ramesh, who was India’s environment minister before he was moved to head up rural development in a cabinet reshuffling this month.

India actually started its nuclear energy program in the 1950s, but until recently it had been cut off from the world trade of nuclear technologies and materials for nearly 30 years. India was effectively isolated because of its 1974 nuclear weapons test and its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result, reactors produce a mere 3 percent of India’s power. But by 2050, India hopes to increase that share to 25 percent.

The Bush administration sought to help India gain access to technology that could address at least some of its energy shortfall with the civil nuclear cooperation treaty. “One of the benefits of the nuclear agreement is that it would help India produce nuclear energy more efficiently,” said Anja Manuel, a lawyer who worked with the Bush administration to negotiate the deal and secure congressional passage.

But liability laws passed by the Indian parliament in the wake of the deal have deterred U.S.-based companies from tapping into the potentially lucrative market. Nuclear firms in France and Russia, because they are partly or wholly owned by the state and therefore have a liability safety net, have been far more willing to deal with India.

On her visit here this week, Clinton urged India to bring its liability laws in line with worldwide norms by engaging with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency on a new legal framework. But the private corporate liability issue resonates as a political one in India, the scene in 1984 of the world’s worst industrial accident at Bhopal. U.S.-based Union Carbide was seen as getting off lightly due to lax laws at the time.

Recalling Mishaps, Seeking Alternatives

Nuclear opponents in India also worry about their own country’s history with atomic technology, including a serious accident in March 1993 at Narora plant on the banks of the Ganges River, in which a fire broke out after a blade broke off a high-speed steam turbine. That accident caused a station blackout, as at Fukushima, that led to significant overheating and a near-meltdown before power was restored, says Gopalakhrishnan, who called it “entirely avoidable.”

He also said that the collapse of a reactor containment concrete dome at Kaiga plant near the Kali river in August 1994 was due to lax site supervision and quality control by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which would manage Jaitapur and any other nuclear plants built here.

Gopalakhrishnan argues there’s never been a credible safety audit of India’s 20 operating nuclear plants, and in print recently he scoffed at the NPCIL’s brief review in the wake of Fukushima.

Ronen Sen, the Indian ambassador to the United States during the accord negotiations, disagrees with Gopalkhrishnan and supports India’s nuclear power projects. But he says nuclear energy is only part of the solution, and the country must reduce its dependency on fossil fuels and diversify its energy portfolio, including through investments in renewables.

But renewables are competing against coal’s cheap initial investments and high returns, said Avinash Patkar, chief sustainability officer of the huge conglomerate Tata Group, the nation’s largest private company.

He says Tata depends on coal for more than 50 percent of its power but has plans to get up to 25 percent of its power from renewable energy by the end of the decade.

For these renewables to be effective, he believes that the Indian government will have to focus on decentralized power. Instead of relying on a massive grid system, he says the tens of thousands of villages without power in India need to build their own small power-generating systems. “We need entrepreneurs to come forward and build their power-supplying systems in their villages through biomass, solar, wind, or hydroelectric power,” said Patkar.

Gopalakhrishnan said the Indian government should also focus on recovering the estimated 30 percent electricity losses it incurs due to poor transmission and energy theft. Power thievery is believed to be worse here than in any country in the world.

Bidwai, the anti-nuclear activist, said the need for nuclear power would be less if the government focused on reducing demand for grid energy by encouraging use of both small- and large-scale renewables and improving efficiency.

Ramesh, the cabinet minister, agrees with Bidwai that curbing demand is part of the solution. “As the population continues to rise in this country, we must find a balance between our energy needs and the amount of power available,” he said.

“A new model of power consumption will emerge from India.”

But the challenges are great, especially if India is to keep its greenhouse gas emissions in check. Its annual per capita carbon emissions are among the lowest in the world, about 1.2 tons per person, compared to the global average of 5 tons and 19 tons in the United States.

Nevertheless, India’s large population means it is among the world’s largest contributors to global emissions, and the problem will worsen as it surpasses China as the world’s most populous nation by 2025. The government has estimated that India’s greenhouse gas emissions are on track to triple within the next 20 years.

Facing the twin goals of expanding access to electricity and keeping carbon emissions in check, the Indian government insists that it needs nuclear stations like the one at Jaitapur. “We are exploring renewable energies,” says Ramesh, “but unless there is a major transformation in solar or wind, nuclear will continue to be a significant part of our solution.”




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