It is not the sort of news that the protesters were waiting to hear. But then the Supreme Court is not guided by sentiment in its rulings and so it gave the go-ahead on Monday for the operationalising of the first unit of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. The apex court based its ruling on the fact that the plant is safe and its functioning was essential for the larger interest of the nation and its economic growth. Nuclear energy is clean and could be answer to energy-starved India at a time when demands are growing. However, the protestors do have a point. India's safety record has been somewhat patchy which is why the court has maintained that there should no compromise on this aspect. It has insisted that there be strict monitoring of the operations of the plant.
The KNPP deal was struck in the '80s between the erstwhile USSR and India but gathered momentum after 2011. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster and the 2012 Rawatbhata nuclear plant leak, in addition to the earlier accidents in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, have raised apprehensions in the public mind about nuclear energy. Developed nations are gradually switching to other sources for meeting their energy requirements. However, given that the nation needs to produce energy to fuel its growth trajectory, India is left with a Hobson's choice when it comes to nuclear energy. The output from alternative sources of clean energy has fallen woefully short of meeting the ever-growing energy need and this tilts the balance in favour of nuclear energy.
A great deal of the suspicion and fear that the KNPP will be detrimental to the people's lives and livelihoods in and around the plant is because, as MS Swaminathan puts it, 'there was a greater need for communication between scientists and local communities'. There is also a need to check the quality of the equipment in the reactor right from the onset. This is vital because allegations of corruption have been levelled against Zio-Podolsk, a subsidiary of the Russian firm Rosatom involved in building the KNPP. China has started a quality check on Zio-Podolsk's nuclear reactors. There is no reason why India should not do a similar check. Meeting India's growing energy needs and ensuring environmental safety require a delicate balancing act. This is not easy, but not insurmountable if the people are taken into confidence from the start.