Nothing evokes a nuclear reaction quite as much as the nuclear issue in India. So it is no surprise that highly emotionally-charged responses have surrounded the setting up of the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. While the minister of state in the prime minister's office, at the behest of Manmohan Singh, has assured that nothing would be done which would compromise the safety of the people, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa has made this a political issue and sought the suspension of work on the plant. The protest against the plant has now been called off. However, the fears of those living around the plant are legitimate.
Nuclear power is still an unknown quantity in India and the recent Japan Fukushima fiasco has heightened fears. While it's indisputable that India can't meet all its growing energy needs through hydel, thermal and non-conventional sources, pushing nuclear energy is always fraught both with risk and resistance from those living in the vicinity of the plants. India's track record in nuclear safety has been patchy, with leakages and reactors working below capacity as have been the case at both Rawatbhata and Kalpakkam. Assurances from politicians that all safety measures are in place have little meaning, they are not experts and will go in whichever direction the favourable winds are blowing. But, the question that must be asked is whether such secrecy is required when it comes to matters nuclear. Today people have access to various sources of information and this can fuel fears. The political class cannot expect to commission nuclear reactors in populated areas and be ensured of an easy ride. The only way these tensions over commissioned plants can be avoided is for the scientific community to be more transparent and take people into confidence on issues like this which could have far reaching consequences on their lives.
A positive step has been the effort by senior officers of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India and the Department of Atomic Energy to assess the situation and allay the fears of the local community in Kudankulam. It's no one's contention that the blueprints of nuclear plants be made public. It is imperative that people know about the possible drawbacks of such plants as well as the benefits. The issue of rehabilitation and compensation for land is another issue which should be addressed comprehensively before construction begins. Nuclear energy is a costly proposition to begin with. But if interminable delays take place after a plant is commissioned as is happening in both Jaitapur and Kudankulam, the cost overruns become prohibitive and the benefits diminished. As of now, the protests over Kudankulam and Jaitapur have been by the locals, politicians and NGOs. The fact that the scientific community has stepped in this time could prevent the debate from getting radioactive as usual.