Concerns Over Indian Nuclear Plant Blinded by Politics

The recent crisis at Fukushima has evinced some important lessons, most of which the Indian government has failed to learn from. Plans for the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project, the largest proposed nuclear plant in the world, remain undisturbed, even though the chosen area is located on a seismically-sensitive zone and uses reactors that are not operational elsewhere. Moreover, the present government of the ‘largest democracy’ has been nothing short of undemocratic in its use of force and coercion to suppress the local movement that has arisen in opposition to the plant. What is needed is a thorough revision, a process that needs to take into account the severe limitations of the proposed plant, which are in danger of becoming obfuscated by the current political free-for-all that surrounds the project.

The ruling Congress party has dismissed the protests that have broken out against the power plant at Jaitapur as attributable to “vested interests.” The April 18 violence in the area is not devoid of those seeking political leverage. However, the movement in protest of the Jaitapur project has existed ever since the plant was proposed, with 95% of the affected families refusing to accept compensation for the loss of their land. The Indian government’s insistence on following through with the Jaitapur project reflects the establishment’s contempt for democracy.

Jaitapur is located on a seismically sensitive area, with a number of earthquakes causing considerable damage to the region. The plant will be built to withstand earthquakes of a medium range magnitude, but the risk of severe seismic activity remains a reality. The official Indian position has been to dismiss the crisis at Fukushima as owing to ‘exceptional circumstance.’ The Department of Atomic Energy has gone further to claim that the nuclear crisis in Japan is the result of a ‘purely chemical reaction’, and Indian reactors cannot undergo serious accidents. I would ask these officials to explain what insulates Indian nuclear plants from the laws of physics and chemistry that led to the Fukushima crisis?

In addition, the Jaitapur plant will use 6 European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs) with a combined capacity of 9900MW, making Jaitapur the largest nuclear power plant in the world. These reactors, built by French company Areva, are currently not employed anywhere else in the world. Most reactors in India are up to eight times smaller, and there is no reassuring indication that India possesses the institutional and technical capacity to effectively handle a nuclear disaster in the event of a crisis.

We could add a few more parameters to the above – the astronomical cost of the project, the irreversible damage to the environment, the loss of land and livelihood, and the health and safety risks associated with nuclear waste.  

It is important to review the fundamental problems with the Jaitapur plant, especially in light of the recent crisis at Fukushima, and the approaching twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Unfortunately, Indian power politics is in danger of exploiting legitimate local grievances, giving the Congress a larger umbrella excuse of “vested interests” in attempts to forestall development.  At this juncture, it is crucial to extricate the Jaitapur nuclear power project from the political battle that is in danger of consuming it.

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