Critical mass

Print edition : June 18, 2010

Villagers marching to the site of the public hearing at Madban on May 16.-PHOTOGRAPHS: MEENA MENON

The sleepy surroundings of Madban and nearby villages in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra were roused to action sometime in October 2005 when the Government of India sanctioned the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project (JNPP). The project, proposed to be built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) with evolutionary pressurised reactors (EPR) from Areva, France, set off a flurry of writ petitions, requests under the Right to Information Act, and widespread protests which culminated in a rather stormy public hearing at ground zero in Madban.

If the public hearing, organised by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board on May 16, is anything to go by, the people of Madban and neighbouring villages are highly incensed at the way things are. Apparently, none of them has accepted the cheque for compensation for land acquired for the project under the Land Acquisition Act. The NPCIL, however, says some people have accepted compensation (see interview).

The proposed project, the largest of its kind in the world when completed, will have six units of 1,650 MWe each. One unit of 1,650 MWe plant operating at full capacity can generate 36-39 million units a day, according to the NPCIL booklet on the project.

The NPCIL initially submitted an application for 976 hectares, but the final figure is 938.026 ha (692.311 ha for the site and 245.715 ha for the residential complex) from five villages Madban, Karel, Niveli, Varilwada and Mithgavane. While no irrigated land is being acquired, Madban village alone will lose 690.401 ha, and the residents are not excited about living in the backyard of a nuclear plant. In addition, they are upset that the NPCIL says much of the land is barren.

Pravin Gavhankar, president of the Anu Urja Prakalp Sangharsh Samiti, scoffs at this contention. This is an area where we harvest paddy every year, and they say we do not grow anything here. In 2005, many farmers from here were compensated for crop losses. Would this happen if it was barren land? he asks. The gram sabhas in all the villages have passed resolutions opposing the project.

Located on a beautiful coast fringed with palms, Madban gets its name from its abundant coconut groves. Sunlight barely creeps through the lush green cover of coconut palms and mango and cashew trees over the village.

Vijay Raut has an orchard on the project site on which grass grows all around. In the distance on Rajapur Bay is the Jaitapur lighthouse from which the project gets its name though it is situated in Madban. The government considered it appropriate because the plant would come up with international cooperation. Raut's father was among those who laid the foundation in 1957 for the lighthouse, which offers a bird's eye view of the project site and the aquamarine sea around. He said, Look at this land, it is full of life. There is paddy, mango, and the cattle graze here. It is useful for us. How can the government dismiss it as barren?

According to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, the total population of the area within a 32-km radius of the project is 1,87,952, and more than 28.62 per cent of the main workers are engaged in agricultural and fishing activities. Of the 2,300 affected landholders, 826 farmers will lose all their land to the project. Of them, 768 are from Madban while 14, 19 and 25 are from Niveli, Karel and Mithgavane respectively. The residential complex will be spread over Karel and two nearby villages.

Dattaram Narayan Dalvi and his wife, Darshana, stand to lose two acres (one acre is 0.4 ha) to the project. We refuse to accept the cheques. We are dependent on the land. We don't have anyone working in Mumbai to help us along. Even the gram panchayat has passed a resolution. As for the promised jobs, who is going to give them to us? asks Darshana.

The money they are giving us won't last long, but our land and trees will, says Dalvi. The land which the government calls rocky is also productive for us. We grow mango there and the cattle graze on the grass. No one is talking about money here. That is not the issue, he adds.

At Niveli village, Anil Tirlotkar's father, Jagannath, has got a letter saying he will get Rs.1.78 lakh for his land. We got a notice way back in 2005 for a survey of the land. They did not tell us what it was for. Then later we were asked to be present for a joint survey, but they did not let us anywhere near the survey, he says. We have to divide this money among so many claimants in the family. I will get about Rs.16,000.

At first they were told only the so-called barren land would be acquired, but all that changed later. According to the official note, about 185 landowners from the village will get Rs.55.91 lakh. There have been no takers for this until now.

Women working in a field on the project site in Madban. The village will lose 690.401 hectares, and its residents are not excited about living in the backyard of a nuclear plant. In addition, they are upset that the NPCIL says much of the land is barren.-

Is this how projects are done? Are we living in a democracy? This is worse than the British times, says Keru Katkar.

Milind Desai of Mithgavane says: Background radiation from this massive project is a concern. We now think coal is a better option than this. We feel water, air, everything will be polluted. Why is this lovely coastline chosen for this dangerous project? They cannot give us simple processing units for our fruit crop. We would have given land free for any other project but not this one.

He is also unhappy that the officials say that the laterite is useless. We get Rs.15 for a foot of the rock which has many uses here, he says.

At the public hearing, the main grouse was that only Madban was given copies of the EIA and not the other affected villages. However, the hearing went on after the authorities acknowledged the lapse.

People also raised questions about the cost of the project, but NPCIL officials told them that it was still under negotiation. However, Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2009-10 says India and France signed a bilateral agreement in September 2008 to work together for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In February 2009, the NPCIL and Areva signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of two nuclear plants of 1,650 MWe each in Jaitapur with a total investment of Rs.60,000 crore. The commissioning of the first two units is scheduled for late 2017 and end of 2018. While no one will be displaced by the project, there is the crucial issue of livelihoods. The 10 or 12 fishing villages in the vicinity of the project will be affected, says Amjad Abdul Latif Borkar, former chairperson of the Sakhri Nate Machchimar Society. The annual catch is worth about Rs.15 crore. In Nate alone there are 200 big trawlers and 250 small boats. Nearly 6,000 people depend on fishing in the area and more than 10,000 benefit from it indirectly.

Vivek Monteiro of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), who coordinated the submissions for the team representing the Indian School of Social Sciences, Mumbai, the Shramik Sangh and the Lok Vidnyan Sanghatana, raised critical issues of nuclear safety, the cost of power, preparedness in case of a terror strike, and storage of spent fuel.

The submissions filed by these groups and the Konkan Bachao Samiti, coordinated by Adwait Pednekar, takes up the EIA report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, which has ruled out any adverse impact on the flora, fauna and human inhabitants. The EIA report says that radioactive releases from the plant are expected to be insignificant and their impact will be negligible. It says the discharge of liquid effluents from the plant will be within the limits stipulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). The report also rules out any discharge of conventional pollutants in the aquatic environment and hence any harm to the marine fauna and flora.

In its critique of the EIA, the Konkan Bachao Samiti says, Throughout the voluminous report it is hard to find a single observation of negative impact of the project on any parameter. Reading the report and its summary conclusions, one feels ashamed and appalled to see what is going on in the name of science in India. The report reads as if it were written by the public relations department of the NPCIL or Areva. This is necessary and sufficient reason to reject the entire report.

Attacking the seriously flawed EIA, Monteiro and other activists demanded that it was essential to carry out a cumulative EIA for the Konkan and an assessment of the carrying capacity of the narrow Konkan strip flanked by the Western Ghats one of the 34 global hot spots of biodiversity where the Maharashtra government has accorded permission to eight coal-based power plants with a capacity of 21,000 MW, in addition to this nuclear power plant and several mining projects.

Repairing nets in Sakhri Nate village. Local residents fear that 10 or 12 fishing villages in the vicinity of the project will be affected.-

Monteiro used the summary Probabilistic Safety Assessment of Areva's proposed nuclear reactor in the United Kingdom to drive home the point that the reactors were not built to resist terror strikes. In the U.K., Areva has placed on record that the design of its EPR power plant does not address the risks of radioactivity release arising out of internal or external malicious acts.

However, after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the issue of Design Basis Threat (DBT) has become paramount for the safety of nuclear installations in the United States. The Energy Policy Act, 2005, of the U.S. was passed specifically to address this issue. Nuclear power plant vulnerability to deliberate aircraft crashes has been a continuing issue. After much consideration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted February 17, 2009, to require all new nuclear power plants to incorporate design features that would ensure that, in the event of a crash by a large commercial aircraft, the reactor core would remain cooled or the reactor containment would remain intact, and radioactive releases would not occur from spent fuel storage pools (Mark Holt and Anthony Andrews, Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerabilities, Congressional Research Service, prepared for Members and Committees of Congress, March 18, 2009).

It is not publicly known if the AERB in India has made any new licensing or safety rules to address the problem of terrorist attack on nuclear facilities, Monteiro says. Two serious gaps in the EIA are the question of spent fuel storage and a decommissioning plan for the reactors.

The EIA says, The solid waste disposal site is fenced, secured and designed to store waste for a sufficiently long time of the order of 100 years. It is silent on storage after this period.

On decommissioning, the EIA says, At the end of the operating life of the operating units, which would be around 60 years for EPR-type NPPs, proposed to be established at Jaitapur site, a detailed decommissioning plan will be worked out.

Lastly, Monteiro says that the NPCIL needs to disclose the cost of the project and the tariff. A similar plant being built in Finland, the Olkiluoto Plant, has incurred a cost of 5.3 billion euros until date for 1,630 MWe. This translates into Rs.19.5 crore per MWe. Clearly, a cost benefit analysis for the Jaitapur project is needed, he says.

In the past in the Konkan there was the terrible experience of Enron selling its power at above Rs.7 a unit and causing the state utility to stop buying it. Even as the NPCIL is optimistic about winning over the villagers in Ratnagiri, serious questions remain.

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