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People speak out against N-power

Publication Date : 04-09-2012


If the Indian government thought it could politically isolate the growing nationwide anti-nuclear power struggle, it's manifestly mistaken. Three important developments have put the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) in the dock.

First, the National Committee in Solidarity with the Jaitapur Struggle, comprising Centre-Left leaders and experts, issued a powerful statement against the proposed Jaitapur project in Maharashtra, based on six 1,650 megawatt reactors of the French company Areva.

Second, India's first big People's Hearing on all major nuclear plants was held on August 22 in Delhi. This intensified the growing anti-nuclear public sentiment and developed an informed consensus on alternatives.

Third, the Comptroller and Auditor General published a report on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, documenting organisational flaws and sloppy practices, and questioning the safety of India's perennially crisis-bound, accident-prone, money-guzzling nuclear power programme.

The National Committee on Jaitapur includes heavyweights like Communist leaders Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan, and lawmakers from half-a-dozen parties, besides independent scientists. It holds the project wasn't subjected to "independent rigorous" scientific scrutiny or a "safety audit," but cleared on the basis of an "unscientific and deeply flawed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report."

It argues that Areva's "untested" European Pressurised Reactor design has raised "serious concerns" in various countries and even in "an internal audit of the French nuclear industry."

EPRs under construction in Finland and France are in dire trouble, with four-year-plus delays and 130 per cent-plus cost overruns. Areva has announced major job cuts and project cancellations, and is close to bankruptcy, having lost 90 per cent of its share value since 2007. The EPR would probably fail "even an elementary test of techno-economic due diligence".

At Jaitapur, multiple reactors will be erected, aggravating hazards, as in Fukushima. The EPR has a flawed design for spent-fuel storage. As Fukushima showed, this hazard "is not less than that from the reactor itself".

NPCIL dismisses seismic hazards at Jaitapur. But eminent geophysicists Vinod Gaur and Roger Bilham argue in a peer-reviewed journal that a severe earthquake can occur at Jaitapur.

The EPRs' capital costs would be 240 million rupees (US$4.32 million) per MW, compared to 90 million rupees for indigenous reactors. This will make Jaitapur's power ruinously expensive.

These arguments are unassailable. But NPCIL is imposing the project on unwilling people while violating their fundamental rights.

Logically, the National Committee in Solidarity with the Jaitapur Struggle should extend similar arguments to the Koodankulam reactors in Tamil Nadu and demand their scrapping. There was at least an EIA for Jaitapur, but not even a token one for Koodankulam.

Like all Russian reactors, the Koodankulam reactors probably have numerous design flaws, including inadequate emergency cooling, poor evacuation procedures, and non-factoring of earthquake hazards.

The first reactor's pressure vessel has a weld in the middle, which is impermissible. Serious questions have been raised about volcanic activity near Koodankulam, its vulnerability to tsunamis, and the crucial absence of an independent freshwater source. The station will depend on seawater desalination. This can fail; and there's no backup.

NPCIL has failed to furnish vital documents to the public including the Site Evaluation and Safety Analysis Reports, although directed to do so by the Central Information Commission. It also didn't conduct the mandatory off-site emergency evacuation drill within a 16-kilometre zone.

The government set up sarkari scientists' committees to assure the public of the plant's safety. This was a sham. They never met the people. Meanwhile, the police has framed false charges including "waging war on the state" against thousands.

Shamefully, in breach of its own procedures, the AERB has permitted NCPIL to start loading nuclear fuel into the first reactor. This is characteristic of the irresponsible functioning of the nuclear establishment.

This functioning, marked by non-transparency, evasion, deception, outright lies -- and repression -- came in for incisive criticism at the People's Hearing in Delhi. This was attended by scores of activists from Gorakhpur-Fatehabad (Haryana), Chutka (Madhya Pradesh), Kovvada (Andhra), Banswara and Rawatbhata (Rajasthan), and Haripur (West Bengal), besides Koodankulam and Jaitapur.

In Gorakhpur, daily protests have completed two years, just as a relay hunger-strike clocked a year in Koodankulam. Jaitapur has witnessed anti-nuclear protests since 2007, and Haripur since 2006.

The activists' testimonies, supplemented by expert opinions, were heard by jurors comprising Aruna Roy, member of the UPA's National Advisory Council, L. Ramdas, former Indian Navy chief, and former Director General of Police K.S. Subramaniam.

The jurors recommended a moratorium on new nuclear projects and a thorough, independent review of all existing nuclear installations. No project must be pushed without prior, informed consent of people. All false cases against protestors must be withdrawn. There are safe, environmentally sound and far cheaper renewable alternatives to nuclear power.

The Comptroller and Auditor General indicts the AERB scathingly. The Board has betrayed its 1983 mandate to be the paramount standard-setting authority and independent safety regulator. Legally, it continues to be "subordinate to the central government", unlike in many other countries, and "has no rule-making powers".

The AERB never prepared an overall nuclear and radiation safety policy, as was required. It has failed to develop as many as 27 of the 168 Standards, Codes and Guides it itself declared essential.

The AERB has no independent budget, staff or equipment. It has no independent role in radiological surveillance and monitoring workers' health. It has no direct involvement in overseeing on-site emergency drills, nor the authority to get their inadequacies corrected.

Even for serious safety infringements, the penalties are absurdly low (e.g. 500 rupees). The AERB doesn't have the powers of enforcement of penalties.

The AERB doesn't even have a full inventory of nuclear materials and radiation sources in India. Ninety-one percent of India's X-ray units aren't registered with it. It has developed no framework for decommissioning nuclear plants.

The AERB fails all reasonable criteria of an effective regulator. It's in such careless hands that the responsibility to protect millions of Indians against nuclear hazards is placed.

Postscript: A Parliamentary committee has heaped yet more ignominy on the government's slimy attempt to shield nuclear operators/suppliers by writing the Rules under the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010 in ways that are incompatible with that law's spirit.

(US$1= 55.54 rupees)

The writer is an eminent Indian journalist.


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