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Radioactive Jaitapur

Villagers here don’t want a nuclear plant for good reasons. Praful Bidwai writes.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2011 23:44 IST
Praful Bidwai

Environmentally conscious citizens have been shocked at the conditional clearance for the Posco steel project in Orissa, in flagrant breach of the Forest Rights Act. But a bigger, more flawed project, was cleared two months back with equally vacuous and irrelevant conditions. Jaitapur, in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, is expected to be the world’s biggest nuclear power station and generate 9,900 MW (India’s current nuclear capacity is 4,780 MW).

It will be based on the untested European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), not approved anywhere — including in France, where the nuclear company Areva designed it.

The project is being imposed on a beautiful ecosystem, a segment of the Sahyadris where the Krishna and the Godavari originate, with a flourishing farming, horticultural and fisheries economy. It lies in one of the world’s 10 greatest biodiversity hotspots.

Only an irrational mind would want to risk degradation of this region to build nuclear reactors that will displace 40,000 people, disrupt water flows and uproot fruit-yielding trees.

Seismicity is also of concern. Jaitapur is an earthquake-prone area, with a rating of 4 on a 1-5 scale. This violates an official committee’s recommendations against locating hazardous industries outside Zone 2.

Yet that’s what Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a subsidiary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), is doing. It zeroed in on Jaitapur in 2003, assuming the site would be approved; the DAE always prevails.

Consider another irrationality. Four years after the project report was made, the state started acquiring 2,400 acres for the reactors, six days before French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to India. In deep financial trouble, Areva has long eyed India’s nuclear market and was the first to seize the opportunity offered by the India-US nuclear deal.

Jaitapur’s six proposed EPRs were cleared in an extraordinarily sloppy Environment Impact Assessment by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute that has no competence in seismic or nuclear safety-related matters. It evades biodiversity issues and one of the greatest problems with nuclear power — generation and storage of large quantities of radioactive wastes.

The EPR’s safety design is problematic because of its large (1,650 MW) size, complexity, and high neutron density, which will produce seven times more toxic iodine-129 than normal reactors. The world’s first EPR-under-construction, in Finland — western Europe’s first post-Chernobyl reactor — has been delayed by at least 42 months and is 90% over budget.

Finnish, French, British and US nuclear regulators have raised 3,000 issues about its safety. A French government-appointed expert suggests several modifications to ‘optimise’ the design. The Finnish fiasco has entangled Areva into bitter litigation and losses.

The NPCIL has now decided to import six EPRs, ignoring the generic problems with nuclear power. Reactors are high-pressure-high-temperature systems in which a barely-controlled fission chain-reaction occurs. Controls can fail. Minor malfunctions get quickly magnified.

The EPR produced power will be costlier than the disaster called Enron, also located in Ratnagiri. Design modifications will further raise the EPR’s already sky-high capital costs — R21 crore per MW, compared to R9 crore for Indian reactors and R5 crore for coal-fired power. Its unit generation costs, R5-8 could ruin downstream industries.

The Jaitapur project earns another black mark. The area’s highly literate people are dead against it as it will destroy livelihoods and expose them to hazards. They oppose it not out of ignorance, but know the dangers of nuclear power. More than 95% have refused to take compensation for forcibly acquired land, despite it being raised from R1.6 lakh to R10 lakh an acre. Ten villages pointedly did not hoist the national flag on Republic Day.

The government has unleashed savage repression against the resistance by arresting and slapping trumped-up charges and externment notices on hundreds, and prohibiting peaceful assembly. Eminent citizens were banned from Jaitapur.

Maharashtra minister Narayan Rane recently threatened to ensure that ‘outsiders’ who enter Jaitapur ‘won’t return’. None of this has broken the people’s resolve. Suppression of fundamental rights is the price Jaitapur will extract, besides ecological devastation, if the nuclear juggernaut is allowed to roll. It must be halted.

*Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist

**The views expressed by the author are personal

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