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French dressing

by M. V. Ramana, Suvrat Raju, 22 December 2010

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Hindustan Times, December 21, 2010

At the end of his recent visit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement reaffirming their "shared endeavour to strengthen democracy, transparency and accountability". However, apart from promoting these "shared values", Sarkozy was looking to win business deals for France. The biggest such deal involved nuclear reactors for Jaitapur, a town on the Konkan coast at Ratnagiri in Maharashtra.

If this deal goes through, Jaitapur could become the site of the world’s largest nuclear complex. The French firm, Areva, is proposing to set up six European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs), each of which is supposed to provide 1,650 MW of power. This is more than one-third of India’s total installed nuclear capacity of 4,780 MW.

However, the residents of the area are unimpressed. On December 4, several thousand people came together to protest at the project site. The Maharashtra government reacted by arresting about 1,500 people — a significant fraction of the population of the surrounding villages. This was not the first time that the locals had expressed their opposition. At the public hearing for the environmental impact assessment in May, the overwhelming majority of those present opposed the project. Nevertheless, Jairam Ramesh, heading the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), went ahead and fast-tracked the project’s environmental clearance.

The locals are worried that the nuclear plants will destroy the neighbouring fisheries and have a deleterious impact on farmers. The MoEF agreed tacitly: "The nuclear power complex raises many questions on the carrying capacity of the ecologically sensitive region in which it is located," Ramesh noted. However, instead of attempting to find answers, the minister merely instructed the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) to follow certain "conditions and safeguards".

The environment ministry often grants such ’conditional clearances’. Unfortunately — as the environmental group, Kalpavriksh, pointed out in a recent study titled Calling the bluff — its record of later ensuring compliance with these conditions is dubious. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the ministry is serious this time around. For example, it has given the NPCIL 12 months to come up with a "comprehensive biodiversity conservation plan" but has not even set up a review mechanism to ensure that this plan meets the needs of the local population.

The most serious concern of the local residents has to do with safety. However, Ramesh refused to engage with this, simply stating that he was "not the competent authority to pass judgement" on the matter. The Jaitapur plant, like any other nuclear reactor, is capable of suffering a catastrophic accident. In fact, both Areva and the locals are worried about this eventuality. This is why Sarkozy insisted that India should amend its liability norms to follow the Vienna convention where the nuclear supplier is completely indemnified from the consequences of any mishap.

It is clear from the government’s actions during the passage of the liability Bill that it concurs with Sarkozy. To get around India’s new liability law, which allows the operator of the nuclear plant a "right of recourse" against the manufacturer, the government might sign a contract renouncing its right to seek damages from Areva. Since this would subvert the spirit of the Indian law, the Jaitapur contract must be opened to public scrutiny.

Moreover, the locals do not have this option of indemnity; they will bear the brunt of any accident. So, the least that the government can do is to be transparent on the question of safety. In India, contrary to international practice, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which vets reactor designs, does not place its assessments in the public domain. This must be corrected, and given that this issue affects the lives of the neighbouring residents, the government should proceed with the project only if they are satisfied that it is safe.

The MoEF also argued that this project was "the first practical outcome" of India’s civilian nuclear agreement. If so, this is a remarkably poor outcome. Not a single EPR is in operation anywhere in the world. Areva commenced construction on its first EPR in Olkiluoto in Finland with much fanfare in 2005. This reactor is now three years behind schedule and heavily over budget, while its partners are busy battling over who is to bear the additional cost. The next EPR at Flamanville in France has also been plagued by cost increases. Areva has not yet cleared the regulatory process in Britain and the US and, in both countries, regulators have flagged safety issues.

In India, Areva is quoting a price of $9.3 billion for two reactors and fuel for 25 years. Excluding the cost of fuel, this works out to less than $4 billion per reactor. Given that the reactors in France and Finland will be almost twice as expensive, this is just a recipe for another Enron.

If the government does go ahead with the project, in spite of these concerns, it should at least sign a ’turnkey’ contract with Areva, and make it responsible for any cost overruns. Most importantly, on questions of safety, environmental impact, cost and liability, it would be nice for the people of Jaitapur to see some "democracy, transparency and accountability".

Suvrat Raju is a physicist at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad. MV Ramana is a physicist at Princeton University, US. The views expressed by the authors are personal.