A file photo of the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. (Petr Pavlicek/IAEA)
Every nuclear disaster urges a referendum. After Three Mile Island in 1979, Sweden rejected nuclear power. After Chernobyl in 1986, a referendum voted nuclear power out of Italy. After Fukushima last year, Germany closed eight reactors and will decommission the rest by 2022.
Fukushima could have been our moment of reckoning, too. The agitation against the Kudankulam project had gathered strength, the nuclear deal remained controversial and there was sufficient provocation to consider a referendum. But we fear that if we allow a referendum on anything at all, Pakistan will petition the UN for a referendum on Kashmir.
It’s an irrational fear because a referendum would probably favour India. But then, most human fears are irrational, and yet they are real and must be accommodated, not dismissed out of hand. But that’s happening in Kudankulam. The police are barricading and arresting, the agitation has dug in and the plant commences its dry run in a few days.
The government has gone through the motions of engagement with the agitators, but actually it seems to regard them as Luddite hicks who can be brushed aside because they don’t get the big picture. That’s our sweeping coming of age saga — emergence from the Nehruvian dark ages and the jubilant pursuit of growth. The legend of the land overflowing with milk and honey retold.
Governments instinctively disparage such activists. In the West, they are known as Nimbies, from the slogan Not in my Backyard (Nimby). The appellation gained currency in the 80s but the slogan dates back to Cold War Europe, where communities resisted the installation of US missiles on their land.
Nimby has fathered forth a family of acronyms disparaging people who oppose neighbourhood developments, whether nuclear reactors, airports or housing for the poor. They include the Cave people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), the Bananas (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) and the Sobbys, (Some Other Bugger’s Bac-kyard). There are lots of ins-ulting precedents out there but one wishes that our government had tried a little ha-rder not to behave like a Pig — a Pretty Insensitive Guy.
Everyone appreciates that nuclear power is essential in a fast-growing economy. The alternatives of fossil and renewable sources are prohibitively expensive, environmentally and in cash terms. And we know that with just three major disasters in half a century, nuclear power is safer than crossing the street. Our concern is not about whether a disaster will happen, but whether a disaster can be managed and reparation secured, if it happens. And after the farce that followed the Bhopal gas disaster, our government does not inspire confidence.
Nuclear energy may be necessary, but can we not wait until people are more confident? Not! Because it may never happen. Internationally, the climate is inclement — Italy, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Latvia, Israel, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Malta oppose nuclear power. After Fukushima, 80% of Japanese favour winding down nuclear power.
Which, by the way, despite stringent safeguards, is the only industry which cannot buy enough insurance. Outside the US, where the Price-Anderson Act provides public protection, national governments are always assumed to be insurers of last resort. But our own government insures nothing. That’s scary enough to urge caution.
(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)
The views expressed by the author are personal