The repression, including lethal firing, unleashed on peaceful protesters against the Kudankulam nuclear plant on Monday, on top of FIRs over many months charging thousands with sedition, makes two things clear. Nuclear projects in India can only be thrust on unwilling citizens at gunpoint. As the jalsatyagraha shows, people will resist them tenaciously, because they are aware of their hazards. That's true of every nuclear project, whether Jaitapur (Maharashtra), Gorakhpur (Haryana), Mithi-Virdi (Gujarat), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh), Haripur (West Bengal), Chutka (Madhya Pradesh) or Banswada (Rajasthan). For instance, at Gorakhpur, there has been a daily dharna against four proposed reactors for two years, unbeknownst to Delhi, which lies in their potential radiation-fallout zone.
Over 100 activists from these sites came together for the first time ever at a public hearing in Delhi on August 22 - just as national support for the five-year-long campaign against the Jaitapur plant snowballed. The National Committee in Solidarity with the Jaitapur Struggle - comprising leaders like Prakash Karat, AB Bardhan, Sitaram Yechury and Ram Vilas Paswan, independent experts and intellectuals - trenchantly criticised the project, based on French company Areva's troubled European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs).
At the people's hearing, activists vented their apprehensions about the safety hazards of nuclear power, heightened by the catastrophe at Fukushima and the poor safety record of India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). They exchanged their experience of the nuclear establishment's non-transparent and authoritarian ways, its refusal to share information of vital importance to public safety, and police vindictiveness. They also discussed how to develop common strategies.
The activists' testimonies, and expert opinions, were heard by jurors comprising National Advisory Council member Aruna Roy, former Navy chief L Ramdas, and former DGP KS Subramaniam. They recommended a moratorium on new nuclear projects and a thorough, independent review of all existing installations. No project must be pushed without prior, informed consent of people. All false cases against protestors must be withdrawn. Safe, environmentally sound and cheaper alternatives to nuclear power, especially renewables, must be emphasised.
The Kudankulam activists described how the safety issues they raised, including seismicity and recent volcanic activity and the site's vulnerability to tsunamis, were dismissed by a State-appointed scientists' committee, which refused to meet them. The project was cleared in violation of the recommendations of an official Task Force, and without even the fig leaf of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. The NPCIL has refused to furnish to the public the site evaluation and safety analysis reports, although so directed by the Central Information Commission.
Recent disclosures from a special official safety review on all Russian reactor designs reveal their several generic flaws, including inadequate emergency cooling, poor evacuation procedures, and non-factoring of earthquake hazards. The Kudankulam reactors lack an independent freshwater source, critical to cooling them in emergencies. They are probably the world's only nuclear reactors dependent on unreliable seawater desalination, which can fail and has no backup.
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) approved the fuel-loading despite all this and without the mandatory emergency evacuation drill in a 16-km radius. AERB approval is NPCIL's clinching justification for fuel-loading. But the AERB, concludes the latest Comptroller and Auditor General report, is a toothless lapdog of NPCIL-DAE. .
It says the AERB's 'legal status' continues to be 'subordinate' to the government - unlike in the US, Canada or France. The AERB "has no rule-making powers." It never fulfilled the mandate to prepare an overall nuclear and radiation safety policy. It has failed to develop as many as 27 of the 168 Standards, Codes and Guides it itself termed essential. It has no role in radiological surveillance and monitoring workers' health. It doesn't directly oversee on-site emergency drills. Even for serious safety infringements, the penalties are absurdly low (eg R500). The AERB cannot enforce them.
The AERB doesn't even possess a full inventory of nuclear materials and radiation sources. Ninety-one per cent of X-ray units aren't registered with it. It has no framework for decommissioning nuclear plants. The AERB fails all criteria of an effective regulator It's in such irresponsible hands that the duty to protect millions of Indians is placed. The public can have no confidence in the safety of India's perennially crisis-bound, accident-prone, money-guzzling nuclear programme.
Equally damning is the National Committee's statement against the Jaitapur reactors. It notes the project wasn't subjected to "rigorous scientific" scrutiny or safety audit. Its clearance was based on an "unscientific and deeply flawed" EIA Report. Areva's "untested" EPR design has raised "serious concerns" among different countries' safety agencies; "an internal audit of the French nuclear industry has criticised Areva and Electricity de France (EdF)…" and "EdF itself may be planning to discontinue the EPR design". The EPRs under construction in Finland and France are plagued by four year-plus delays and 130%-plus cost overruns. Areva is perilously close to bankruptcy, has announced major project cancellations, and lost 90% of its share value since 2007. The EPR fails "even an elementary test of techno-economic due diligence".
At Jaitapur, multiple reactors will be erected, aggravating hazards, as in Fukushima. The EPR has a flawed spent-fuel storage design. As Fukushima showed, this hazard "is not less than that from the reactor itself". The NPCIL has no plans for long-term storage of nuclear wastes. It also dismisses seismic hazards at Jaitapur. But eminent geophysicists Vinod Gaur and Roger Bilham writing in a peer-reviewed journal argue that a severe earthquake can occur there. Further comment is unnecessary.
Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist
The views expressed by the author are personal