Toxic tango in Rooppur needs rethinking

Sonali Huria | NewAge

AS BANGLADESH embarks on its first-ever nuclear energy project in collaboration with India and the Russian State Nuclear Energy Corporation, Rosatom, it is time to ask what this collaboration will mean for Bangladesh and the larger South Asian neighbourhood. The proposed Rooppur nuclear plant comprising two VVER-design reactors of 1200 MW capacity each, with technology supplied by Russia’s Atomstroy export, will not only be Bangladesh’s first brush with nuclear power, but also India’s first nuclear venture abroad.

Any discussion on this development must take into account India’s experience with Rosatom, concerns raised by civil society and experts regarding nuclear safety and democratic questions, and cross-border implications of setting up nuclear plants.

India’s tryst with Rosatom

NOTWITHSTANDING Rosatom’s self-congratulatory assertions of having built the world’s ‘safest’ reactors in Koodankulam on the southernmost tip of India, its track record in India and even globally, has been marked by failed promises and deception. In the case of India, the two VVER-1000 reactors, commissioned with much fanfare in Koodankulam in 2013 and 2016, have seen an unprecedented number of shutdowns and trippings — a concern that finds prominent mention in a recent report of India’s national auditor, the comptroller and auditor general. The report states that the delays and mismanagement in the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant have resulted in massive financial loss to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. Additionally, the initial estimated cost of the power plant has seen several upward revisions, as Bangladesh has already experienced in the brief period since the announcement of the Rooppur project.

Dr EAS Sarma, India’s former Union Power Secretary, recently underlined how the CAG report vindicated the safety concerns with respect to the Koodankulam plant, raised time after time by independent experts, activists, and local communities, only to be met with silence, repression, and outright dismissal by the nuclear establishment.
The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, which spearheaded the local community’s protests in Koodankulam, has pointed out in the past that despite a major corruption scandal involving Rosatom’s supplier company, Zio-Podolsk, which led to the import of sub-standard equipments during that period, and even the arrest of one of its Directors, the Indian government and Rosatom went ahead with the commissioning of Koodankulam, neglecting these disquieting developments.

Moreover, on Russia’s insistence and given that India did not have nuclear liability laws at the time, the Indian government agreed to give the Russian suppliers indemnity from all nuclear liability in case of an accident in KKNPP Units 1 and 2 – a decision that has been challenged by civil society groups in the Supreme Court of India. It was only after civil society interventions and the subsequent enactment of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, that Rosatom agreed to abide by the liability law in the newer agreements for Koodankulam.

While nuclear corporations worldwide, are infamous for their manipulations, including covering up the impact of nuclear energy on health and environment, in the case of Rosatom, Russian state patronage gives it an additional edge in covering up accidents and irresponsible practices, including silencing critics, as highlighted by a Greenpeace study last year.

The commissioning of Rosatom’s reactors in Koodankulam has been marked by the attenuation of environmental and safety norms, and the high-handedness of the government towards local protestors and those who have questioned the rationale for the imprudent push for nuclear energy, without concomitant efforts to answer basic concerns related to plant siting, environmental impact assessment, safety, cost-overruns, loss of land and livelihoods of local communities, the vexing issues of spent fuel and nuclear waste, emergency-preparedness, and health impacts. In this regard, institutional secrecy has led to an abject lack of information, transparent discussion, and consultation with the people.

Nuclear power, repression and democracy

THE nuclear industry has been on the decline since even before Fukushima. Many argue that it now faces an existential crisis, which has prompted international nuclear lobbies to sell their technology to countries whose governments can be expected to impose nuclear plants on their populations while overlooking democratic questions pertaining to safety, costs, sustainability and desirability of this technology. The non-transparent and improvident push for nuclear energy in countries like India and Bangladesh, is a case in point.

In the run up to the commissioning of Unit-1 of the KKNPP, those protesting the setting up of the plant faced brutal repression, with the local police arresting and even killing peaceful protestors and levelling criminal charges of ‘sedition’ and ‘war against the Indian state’ against thousands of common people — fisherfolk, women, men, adolescents and even the elderly, who continue to face these charges even today. In 2012, Idinthakarai village, the main site of the agitation against KKNPP, was surrounded by police and para-military personnel for several weeks, and vital supplies including food, electricity, and medicines were disrupted — an incident that caused widespread international condemnation as well as questioning of Koodankulam’s safety by eminent citizens and scientists.
This blatant undermining of basic democratic norms, including peaceful dissent, led many to ask if nuclear technology is inherently at odds with democracy. Not surprisingly, Bangladesh is also beginning to witness the innately unaccountable, secretive, and non-consultative nature of nuclear establishments, as well as Rosatom’s characteristic misinformation campaign.

Koodankulam has witnessed perhaps the longest, most peaceful and unwavering opposition to the KKNPP from local communities, particularly fishing communities, who have cogently argued that the nuclear plant will mean an annihilation of their lives and livelihoods — not only will security arrangements around the plant block access to sea, but dumping of coolant water and low-grade radioactive pollutants will raise sea temperature and severely affect fish catch.

This has become a potent reason for fierce opposition to not only the Koodankulam plant, but also the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power park, slated to be the world’s largest and proposed to be set up in the ecologically fragile Konkan belt along the country’s western coast. There is palpable fear that the now thriving fishing business on which thousands of fisherfolk of Jaitapur depend, will be pushed into poverty once the plant becomes operational – a fear that stems in large part from the documented experience of fishing villages in Tarapur and Kalpakkam. This is also a concern that will resonate with large sections of those in Bangladesh who depend on agricultural and fisheries sectors for their livelihoods.

Radiation knows no boundaries: lessons for the region

NUCLEAR energy poses unique risks — nuclear accidents and their consequences cannot be confined in time and space. The Fukushima nuclear accident, contrary to the Japanese government’s claims, is an ongoing disaster as the crippled reactors continue to spew lethal radiation even as we approach seven years of its occurrence. In human terms, the accident has had a colossal footprint with close to 100,000 people in evacuation with no hope of return. Radiation from Fukushima has been found as far as the West Coast of the US and Mexico. Besides, hundreds of workers and clean-up staff in Fukushima and migrant workers and asylum seekers from various countries including Bangladesh have been forced into unsafe radiation clean-up jobs in Japan.

Similarly, the lethal fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Soviet Russia spread across Europe, leading to over 9,85,000 deaths according to a 2009 comprehensive study conducted by the New York Academy of Sciences. Last year’s radioactive release in Mayak region of Russia led to a radioactive cloud over Europe and attempts to cover up the incident. It would be worthwhile to remember that a year after Chernobyl, the shipment of radiation-laced milk powder from Poland created panic among Bangladesh’s citizens.

These examples must compel the political leadership of countries of South Asia to consider the implications of an indiscreet pursuit of nuclear power, including possible nuclear accident(s) in a region as densely populated as ours. At the very least, there must be perceptible efforts by governments and civil society alike, to share information and cooperate on issues of nuclear safety, given that even without an accident, nuclear plants will impact the environment and health of people across borders.

In this regard, the recent report of the Dutch Safety Board requires urgent attention. The Report calls for cooperation between Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in order that they may be ‘properly prepared for a nuclear accident’. Cross-border implications of setting up nuclear power plants, it appears, are beginning to be clearly recognised in the West — Austria, for instance, recently filed a legal complaint with the European Court of Justice challenging EU’s approval for expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear plant, which will invariably impact Austria’s environment and public health.

This knowledge is something that both, governments and civil society in India and Bangladesh might do well to learn from. While it is vital to nurture cordial relations between the South Asian neighbours, we must question if nuclear collaboration is really the prudent way forward.

Sonali Huria is a PhD research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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