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Jaitapur Fallout:NUCLEAR LITERACY VITAL, by Proloy Bagchi, 11 May, 2011 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 11 May 2011

Jaitapur Fallout


By Proloy Bagchi


A major national daily in its editorial the other day said that India needs to enhance its “nuclear literacy”. The comment, apparently, was made in the context of opposition by the villagers and environmentalists to the proposed nuclear park in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Yes, we in this country are not really ‘nuclear literate’. People might know about nuclear bombs but they do not know much about nuclear power.


However, by contrast, the Japanese have a high level of “literacy” in nuclear power – with about 30% of their power being generated (before Fukushima) by about 55 nuclear power plants. And, yet a few weeks ago, after Fukushima, there was a massive demonstration in Tokyo against nuclear power plants. About 5000 demonstrators including the young and families worried about the future of their children, marched through Central Tokyo carrying placards that said “Bye bye Genpatsu” (Goodbye nuclear power) demanding an end to nuclear power and a switch to alternative energy. Were they “nuclear illiterates”?


Likewise, what would one call the Germans who get almost 25% of their energy requirements from 40 to 50 years old nuclear power plants? On 15 March last, post Fukushima, German Chancellor Angela Merkel once an active proponent of nuclear power, announced shut down of nuclear reactors that went on line before 1981. Later in the month, Germany stood witness to the largest anti-nuclear demonstration ever held in the country whereby over 250,000 protested, “Heed Fukushima, shut off all nuclear plants”.


France, second to the US in nuclear power and meeting about 80% of its electricity demand from this source, has, of late, seen demonstrations and protests, even demands for a referendum to decide whether or not the country should stop producing nuclear power.


Italy has also banned nuclear power and has been nuclear-free since the 1986 Chernobyl accident when it dismantled all its nuclear power plants. Importantly, it was in the process of re-evaluating building of such plants when Fukushima happened. Switzerland, too, has given up plans to upgrade its aging nuclear power plants. On the premise that “security and wellbeing” of its people is an absolute priority. Are they all ignorant about nuclear power?


However, in India things are different. Here we do not learn from what happens around us. We seem to strike our own lonely path even if that happens to lead us to disaster. As some hack once said, we seem to go to the very edge before we step back. That seems to be in our psyche.


Indeed, Jaitapur is no different! Even after Fukushima the environmentalists who oppose the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Park (JNPP) are branded “green fanatics” and “myopic” and the protesting farmers and fishermen who are likely to lose their livelihoods because of the Park are called “anti-national”.


The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) has proposed to set up the JNPP on the Madban plateau (which is next to the ancient port of Jaitapur) in Ratnagiri district with six reactors, each capable of producing 1650 MW. Billed to be one of the largest in the world, the Park, when commissioned, is expected to produce 9900 MW of electricity.


The NPCIL has signed an agreement with the French company AREVA for establishing the Park which will initially have two 1650 MW units. The Madban plateau in the scenic Konkan region of Maharashtra, contrary to what Government reports say, has green forests along the hill slopes. The area’s thick mangroves along the creek waters are rich in marine life. They, together, form an integrated and unique eco-system, supporting wide variety of flora and fauna.


Things have become more difficult for the protesters as the entire issue has now been politicised. The Shiva Sena has muscled its way into the melee and, in the process, its confrontation with the Government has already claimed the life of a fisherman. The Sena’s unwelcome participation has stiffened the attitude of the ruling Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre.


No wonder, the sensible Environment Minister, who had earlier put the Jaitapur proposal on ice until safety concerns were addressed, has had to relent, as pausing the project  would not be politically sound. The Congress-ruled State Government has “taken up cudgels against the ‘imported (read Shiva Sena) protesters.’


It’s a pity that such a grave matter which should be of serious concern to the region and country, in the event of an accident, is being bulldozed through for considerations that are purely political. Nonetheless, thanks to Fukushima, the Centre is considering certain reforms among which are the creation of an independent and autonomous nuclear regulatory authority, making public the reports of the reviews of nuclear reactors conducted after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents as also of the one that will be submitted by the panel constituted post Fukushima and conduct of safety audits by the Operational Safety Review Team of the International Atomic Energy Agency.


But environmental and safety considerations of Jaitapur remain. Apart from people’s livelihood, the environmental damage that would be caused to the unique eco-system is likely to be colossal. Studies by the Bombay Natural History Society testify this. The delectable, juicy, meaty and sweet internationally famous Alphonso mango and cashew orchards along-with fishermen’s sizable catches of mackerel, prawns, pomfret and oysters might come under threat of serious damage. Notwithstanding the safety compensations proposed for the reactors in JNPP.


Besides, the National Oceanography Institute, Goa, has indicated that nuclear power plants at Jaitapur are not advisable as it falls in an earthquake-prone zone. In fact, with the kind of shambolic disaster management system that we have, one wonders whether India would be able to deal effectively with a nuclear catastrophe. Even the French feel “when there is a major natural disaster, all the so-called safety measures (in nuclear power plants) fail in countries with greatest technical know-how.”


Worse, the Government has opted for JNPP the European Pressure Reactors (EPRs) of the French company AREVA which are yet to become functional anywhere in the world. In Finland and France design and safety issues have led, apart from delays, to cost escalation of these reactors to the extent of 50%. The EPR technology is still untested. We have, however, bargained for it.


Also, after taking into account the safeguards costs against accidents, terror attacks and environmental degradation the power generated by them, might make it unaffordable. Furthermore, not included in these are the costs of eventual disposal of nuclear wastes for which a suitable burial place in the earth would need to be identified. The US is yet to find one in its vast territories.


Clearly, while the need indicated for enhanced “nuclear literacy” is unexceptionable there is no gainsaying that considering all factors, nuclear power is not for us, as also for others, even First World countries. Thus, we need to look for alternative cheaper, greener and less hazardous sources of energy. ----- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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