Many Indians exulted when the 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group allowed its members three years ago to engage in nuclear commerce with this country, thus ending its nuclear isolation. The Group works to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by controlling the export of nuclear technology and fuel by its members.
Many people hailed this as historic. Soon after, India went on to sign its first international civilian nuclear deal with France.But since then, the mood has changed, with opposition to atomic energy growing more voluble, partly because of the nuclear incident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in March. In Tamil Nadu, villagers are protesting against the 2,000 MW Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant under construction, and are on a relay hunger fast. In Maharashtra, locals are protesting against the proposed 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant. In April, a demonstration culminated in the death of 30-year-old Tabrez Sayekar by police firing. "The Fukushima event gave a serious blow on a global scale to public confidence in the safety of nuclear plants," says Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which formulates policies for the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). "But we have sufficient evidence to show that the livelihoods of people around our existing plants have improved significantly rather than being affected adversely."
PK Iyengar, former AEC chairman, agrees with Banerjee's assessment of Fukushima, even though he points out that the damage to the plant was due to an earthquake and a tsunami. "But there are issues around safety, livelihood and displacement that need to be properly addressed," he says. "This [India] being a democracy, everyone has a right to protest."
Nuclear power — from twenty reactors that have a combined installed capacity of 4,780 MW — accounts for less than 3% of electricity generated in India. The department plans to increase capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020 and touch 60,000 MW in the early 2030s, with 40,000 MW to be generated from reactors imported from France, US and Russia.
But experts point out it can achieve these targets only if it engages with the public and works transparently because Indians are now questioning the need for foreign reactors that are four times more expensive than indigenous ones.
"When questions are not answered, people get desperate and protest, suspecting that the entire nuclear sector is corrupt," says A Gopalkrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. "Treating civilian nuclear energy under the Official Secrets Act is unnecessary. The department must realise that people are not village fools. If it continues this way, the sector is in for deep trouble."
The department is trying to engage with the public, insists R Chidambaram, a former chairman of the AEC. He says that it is deepening dialogues with project-affected villagers.
The Mumbai-based Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, a multi-disciplinary centre, has roped in young scientists to interact with citizens to clarify misconceptions. "Senior scientists are crucial for explaining policy issues. But to communicate to people at large, young scientists are the best," said RK Sinha, director at the Centre.
The Nuclear Power Corporation of Limited, which runs and operates India's power plants, earlier this month opened the doors of its nuclear power plants to students and other citizens to demystify their functioning.
But this is just a beginning. "India's nuclear isolation has not ended," says Gopalkrishnan. "We have been denied technologies that we were promised in the Indo-US deal. These will allow us to reprocess and recycle used, imported uranium. Therefore, we need to strengthen our own programme. To do that, the key is to gain people's confidence."
A view from three sites
Villagers fear leak, threat to biodiversity
Gavankar lives in Madban village, which is to be the site of six reactors from France with a total capacity of 9,900 MW. The plant is India's first foreign collaboration after the Nuclear Suppliers Group's exemption in 2008. Villagers have been opposing the plant for three years because they are worried about threats to local mango orchards and biodiversity.
With zilla parishad elections due early next year, the dissent has taken on a political tone, with the Shiv Sena, the communist parties supporting the protesters. "The opposition cannot be based solely on scientific issues. What is taking nuclear projects forward is political commitment that has been given to foreign countries. Therefore, these protests will also have to be staged politically," says Vivek Monteiro, a trade unionist.
Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu
'Protests will go on even if there is a crackdown'
Protesters are on a relay hunger strike. This current wave of protest, the third in recent times, began with another relay hunger strike on October 13. On Friday, it entered the 25th day.
The sudden spurt in protests, coming just before the first unit of the 2,000 MW plant was to be commissioned, has brought work to a halt. With chief minister Jayalalithaa backing the movement, protesters are hoping the Centre will follow suit. "The movement will go on even if there is a crackdown. We are convinced that the plant is against our interests," says SP Udaykumar, convener of non-profit Peoples' Movement Against Nuclear Energy.
'Thanks to the nuclear plant, we have roads'
One of India’s largest nuclear plants, with six reactors, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited chose the place because it was remote and it had the support of local tribal communities.
It plans to build two 700 MW reactors near the Chambal river, with the Rana Pratap Sagar dam 20 km upstream. But authorities say that the reactors can withstand the force of water flooding the area if the dam were to be breached.
The villagers say authorities built roads so the new reactors will bring more development. "Two decades ago, the roads were bad and unsafe," says Suneeta, a homemaker. "Now, it hardly takes any time to get to Kota."