A nuclear Enron?

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

A ferocious state response to a protest against the Jaitapur nuclear plant in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, on December 4, 2010. - SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

A ferocious state response to a protest against the Jaitapur nuclear plant in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district, on December 4, 2010. - SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

The government is imposing upon Jaitapur grossly inappropriate and super-expensive nuclear reactors that are based on an untested design.

THE government has embarked on an ugly, potentially violent, confrontation with the people of Ratnagiri district on Maharashtra's Konkan coast by trying to railroad through the world's largest nuclear power project. The public opposes the project, which is unjustifiable on economic, energy-planning and ecological grounds.

The proposed nuclear park at Jaitapur, with six reactors, each of 1,650 megawatts, made by the French company Areva, will displace thousands of people, affect thriving agriculture, fruit cultivation and fishing activities, and permanently harm the region's vulnerable ecosystem. Ratnagiri is home to the world's best-known mango, the delicate and rare Alphonso, and to cashew, jackfruit, coconut, arecanut and kokum. It lies in the Sahyadri mountains, one of India's biodiversity hot spots, with stunning lush natural beauty and stupendous plant and animal genetic resources.

The Sahyadris are one of India's great water towers, the source of the Krishna and the Godavari and of streams vital to life in the surrounding valleys. The plateaus around Jaitapur are extremely biodiversity-rich. According to the Botanical Survey of India, they are, for their size, India's richest repository of endemic plant species. It would be criminal to destroy these in the name of development.

As I write this after a field visit to the area, the Maharashtra government is about to hold a public hearing on the project, not in Jaitapur/Ratnagiri but in Mumbai. The local people's organisations will boycott it. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan's attempt to use the public hearing to win a semblance of legitimacy for Jaitapur, and project a more reasonable face of officialdom than the repressive one that the people have seen so far, is certain to fail.

If the government does not heed people's safety and environmental concerns and tries to ram through the project with violence, that will be a mockery of the norms of consultation, popular participation and accountability that are central to democracy.

As I found during my visit, the popular concerns in this highly literate region are based on familiarity with the nuclear facts of life. The people of villages such as Mithgavane, Madban, Niveli and Nate know that ionising radiation is harmful in all doses; that it is liable to cause cancer and genetic disorders; that nuclear plants routinely emit radionuclides even while not undergoing a catastrophic accident; and that many Indian nuclear installations have had safety failures and mishaps, including exposure of hundreds of people to radiation doses beyond the officially stipulated limits.

Local doctors can tell one a thing or two about the recent tritium leak at Kaiga, the health effects of uranium mining at Jaduguda, the dangers of excessive exposure to diagnostic X-rays, Delhi's cobalt-60 episode, and the poor state of nuclear safety regulation in India. Everybody knows what happened at Chernobyl.

The local people also know of the sad experience with rehabilitation faced by the repeatedly uprooted population of Tarapur, the site of India's first nuclear reactors, for which land was acquired in the early/mid-1960s. Tarapur is not far from Jaitapur, and there has been exchange of information between the people. Tarapur once had flourishing fisheries. Now, these are crisis-ridden because of a drop in the catch around the plant's hot-water outflow channel into the sea. Three fishing harbours have vanished altogether as have hundreds of livelihoods.

Once prosperous farmers and fisherfolk around Tarapur have become casual menial labourers often tasked with hazardous jobs, such as removing leaked radioactive water from reactor buildings. The plant authorities claim to monitor the local people's health but refuse to give them their medical records.

Nobody I met supports the Jaitapur park or is sanguine about nuclear power. Those whose lands were acquired for the 938-hectare site know their livelihoods stand imperilled; nothing can heal the damage if the local ecosystem is destroyed, which the project will assuredly do. The overwhelming majority of the nearly 2,400 families who lost their land have refused to take compensation packages. Less than five per cent have accepted compensation mostly absentee landowners, say the local people.

The term package evokes disdain and anger from farmers and horticulturalists, who put an economically unmmeasurable value on their land. Fishermen of the village of Nate, a good proportion of them Marathi-speaking Muslims, when promised gainful employment in return for displacement, retort: Will the government give us another Arabian Sea? This comes from a long tradition of seafaring and a certain confidence in the village's fishing economy, which sustains 500 boats, a handsome catch, and a daily wage of Rs.300-400, surely remarkable in India.

Even the region's middle-class elite, including lawyers, teachers and other professionals, are dead opposed to the nuclear plant. Some are bitter about their recent experience with private mining, industry and power projects. Nearly all of them regret having sold their land only to see it being devastated by mining overburden and assorted toxins.

One of India's largest concentrations of pesticides factories is close by, at Lote Parshuram. When I visited Lote 15 years ago, I was horrified at the labour and chemical-disposal practices, including the use of bare hands to transfer volatile phosphorus, a defective common effluent treatment plant without adequate capacity, and the dumping of toxic wastes into nearby streams and ponds.

Jaitapur will come on top of more than 15 power, chemical and mining projects in Ratnagiri and adjoining Sindhudurg, which have inflicted irreversible damage upon the environment. This has been documented, among others, by the eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil, chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Writes Gadgil in a recent report (amrutmanthan.files.wordpress.com/.../ratnagiri-sindhudurg-environmental-study-tour-report_madhav-gadgil-committee.pdf): The current energy requirements of these districts are 180 MW, while the current production is 4,543 MW. So these districts are more than meeting their own requirements and contributing to the national pool.

If Mumbai has huge requirements, one may reasonably propose that a giant coal-based power plant be located on Malabar Hill, which offers a topographical situation identical to the current site. Such location will have the further huge advantage that the power will not have to be transmitted over huge distances, greatly reducing transmission losses, and the huge losses of horticultural production under power lines in Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg districts (also see moef. nic . in/ downloads / public-information/ Mom-7-Western_ghats.pdf).

This argument applies a fortiori to the Jaitapur nuclear project. The profound irrationality of locating the arguably more hazardous nuclear park there is further underscored by the Maharashtra government's zeal in acquiring land in 2006-07 years before a proper agreement with France was signed and a detailed project report drafted, and almost four years before the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was written.

The public hearing in May 2010 was held in the presence of a huge police force. The EIA was to have come up for discussion after copies of the report in Marathi had been circulated at least a month in advance in all the six affected villages, as is the norm. But only one village got a copy four days earlier. Meanwhile, all the local gram sabhas and panchayats passed unanimous resolutions opposing the project. These were ignored. So much for the much-touted official commitment to panchayati raj and local democracy.

Jaitapur received a conditional environmental clearance only on November 26, 2010, less than 10 days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to India. What a coincidence!

But as Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh confessed to the Konkan Bachao Samiti, there were weighty strategic and economic reasons for clearing it in undue haste. But citing strategic and economic considerations over ecological ones is incompatible with the MoEF's mandate. The EIA prepared by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) is deeply flawed. It ignores the local ecosystem's unique specificities and carrying capacity, the vital issue of biodiversity, and the cumulative environmental impact. NEERI self-confessedly lacks the competence to assess radiological hazards and their impact.

It does not even mention the crucial issue of storage and disposal of radioactive waste, which remains hazardous for centuries. Nor does it address the project's nuclear-specific safety issues. (This Column has repeatedly highlighted them, including nuclear reactors' unique potential for catastrophic core meltdowns.)

The EIA also certifies that the temperature of the plant's discharge, which is 5 Celsius higher than the sea temperature, is safe. The claim has been convincingly demolished by the well-respected Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), which argues that even a 0.5C rise would seriously harm marine life, including fish, mangroves and micro-organisms. This fits the pattern of most EIAs conducted in the Western Ghats, which, Gadgil says, are flawed almost without exception.

Jairam Ramesh's conditional clearance too was flawed. Quite simply, it converted objections raised by environmentalists and affected people, which constitute weighty grounds for rejecting the project, into conditions. Most of these are vague and do not address the flaws and deficiencies in the Areva reactor design.

No official agency in India, including the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), has the competence to evolve and stipulate generic safety standards for nuclear reactors. India imported designs from the United States and Canada and replicated them with minor modifications. Nor has the MoEF a remotely reliable way of monitoring compliance with clearance conditions.

As if this was not bad enough, Areva's design of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is to be installed at Jaitapur remains untested and uncertified by any nuclear regulatory agency. It uses 5 per cent enriched uranium as fuel instead of the normal 3-3.5 per cent (or optionally, mixed oxides of uranium and plutonium, never tried in a large-sized commercial reactor).

This will almost double the EPR's burn-up rate, according to former AERB Chairman A. Gopalakrishnan, leading to much higher toxicity of the radioactive waste, with the production of a larger immediate release fraction' of radioisotopes. EPR waste will have about four times as much radioactive bromine, iodine, caesium, etc., compared to ordinary PWRs.

Consequently, says Gopalakrishnan, radiation doses to the workers and general public could also be correspondingly high, in case of radiological releases. These problems will persist during spent-fuel transfer, storage, reprocessing and waste disposal. Furthermore, it is reported that the higher burn-up in EPR will result in thinning of the fuel cladding, making it prone to early failure and fission product release.

Part of the EPR's problem arises from its complexity, notably its power level, containment, the core, core-catcher and system redundancy, according to Francois Roussely, former Chairman of Electricit de France, who was asked by the French government to evaluate its status. Roussely argues the design must be further optimised. This will further raise costs.

The EPR has run into serious difficulties in the world's first market-based nuclear project, at Olkiluoto in Finland, the first nuclear reactor to be erected in Western Europe after the Chernobyl disaster (1986). The reported flaws include poor fabrication of the pressuriser and reactor vessel, cracks in base concrete, and defective welds in containment shells.

Olkiluoto was to be completed by 2009 but has been delayed by at least 42 months and is 90 per cent over budget. Finnish, French, British and U.S. nuclear regulatory authorities have raised 2,300 safety issues about the EPR, including many about its instrumentation and control systems. The Olkiluoto fiasco has tangled Areva and the Finnish operator in bitter litigation and led to a walkout of the German engineering company Siemens from the construction consortium. The United Arab Emirates has just dropped Areva's EPRs for South Korean reactors. Areva now needs a capital infusion of two billion euros to stay in business.

If Olkiluoto is abandoned, as may well happen, that could mean the end of nuclear power expansion in Europe, where about one-half of the existing reactors are due to retire in 10 to 15 years.

It is this design that India has contracted to buy for Jaitapur. Its quoted capital costs are much higher (Rs.21 crore/MW in Finland, Rs.27 crore in the U.S./South Africa, and Rs.59 crore in Canada) than those of Indian CANDU reactors (Rs.9 crore). This will mean unit generation costs of the order of Rs.5 to Rs.8.50 a sure recipe for disaster in India's electricity sector, probably worse than Enron, which was also located in Ratnagiri. Jaitapur could become the nuclear Enron.

Yet, the government is blindly pushing Jaitapur through by crushing popular opposition. It arrested 1,500 people on December 4, in addition to several hundreds over four years. It has filed false charges, including attempt to murder; issued externment notices against peaceful protesters; and prevented eminent citizens, including A.B. Bardhan, the former Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant, and the former Navy chief L. Ramdas, from visiting the area.

It even detained the former Bombay High Court judge B.G. Kolse Patil for five days and failed to produce him before a magistrate within the mandated 24 hours. Gadgil documents the imposition of prohibitory orders under the Bombay Police Act for 191 days between July 2007 and October 2009.

Jaitapur has witnessed a mockery of democracy and rationality. This can only be stopped if senior political leaders and concerned citizens intervene to halt the nuclear juggernaut.

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