March 05, 2012
Is the Manmohan Singh government doing to the anti-Koodankulam nuclear plant protesters what the Bush administration did to Iraq under Saddam Hussein – to invent an excuse for using military force? Going by the lengths to which Singh’s ministers have gone in claiming that the agitators are acting at the behest of foreign NGOs, the answer is yes.
The government’s dirty-tricks departments are hell-bent on “finding” the equivalent of “proof” of the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” – evidence of diversion of funds to support and transport the agitators.
Not a day passes without officially planted stories against the agitator. Singh has himself stooped to the abysmal level of invoking the “foreign hand” and charging that the Koodankulam plant is being blocked at this pre-commissioning stage by a handful of people connected to the US and Scandinavian NGOs who don’t appreciate India’s energy needs. Otherwise, he told Science magazine, “the thinking component” of the Indian people “certainly” favours nuclear power.
The anti-plant movement at Koodankulam goes back to the 1980s. It picked up momentum when construction began in 2001. This has been richly documented in “Koodankulam Chronology” (dianuke.org and lokayat.org.in).
The agitation has mobilised one lakh people from different walks of life in Southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The movement’s latest phase began around Independence Day (August 15) with dharnas. There has been an uninterrupted relay hunger-strike since October 18, with hundreds, at times thousands, participating.
Such mobilisations cannot succeed with money alone, however big. No amount of juicy plots and spicy dialogues written by policemen and spies will convince anyone that the movement lacks deep roots, strong moral convictions and broad-based support reflecting the popular will.
Those who level the “foreign hand” charge are driven by an obsession to make India’s energy economy dependent on foreign reactors. They have tried to dilute the nuclear liability act under foreign suppliers’ pressure.
Yet, every citizen of the world has a legitimate concern about nuclear hazards, no matter where they originate. As a physicist put it, “a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere”. Its effects cannot be limited in time or space. The fallout of Chernobyl (1986) can still be detected even on the South Pole. So can the radiation released by the Fukushima disaster.
Fukushima caused a tectonic shift in people’s perception of nuclear hazards the world over. Even in France, which gets three-fourths of its electricity from nuclear power, a well-regarded opinion poll says: “The confidence of the French people that government action will protect them from nuclear risks is severely damaged.”
Nuclear risks have climbed to the fourth-highest concern of the French, behind unemployment, the financial crisis, and social exclusion. Today, 55 percent of the French consider nuclear power risks “high”. More than 80 percent “want the safety assessment of French nuclear facilities to take place,” with involvement of “international experts”.
As for the allegation that “the thinking component” of the Indian population supports nuclear power, nothing could be more absurd. Any number of eminent thinkers and intellectuals have called for a moratorium on nuclear power expansion pending a broad-based audit of India’s nuclear programme and a safety review of all our nuclear installations by a high-powered committee composed of independent experts, social scientists, civil society organisations and representatives of actual or potential victims.
They include eminent historians Romila Thapar and Mushirul Hasan, economists Amit Bhaduri and Deepak Nayyar, political scientists Rajeev Bhargav and Achin Vanaik, former ambassador to the UN Nirupam Sen, artists Krishan Khanna and Vivan Sundaram, writer Arundhati Roy, and scientists PM Bhargava and P Balaram, director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
They were joined by former navy chief Admiral L Ramdas, former director of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board A Gopalakrishnan, and by diverse civil society representatives, including Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, both members of the government’s own National Advisory Council. This shows an unprecedented fit between the intelligentsia’s perceptions and public concerns about nuclear safety.
Singh’s cavalier dismissal of these concerns follows the same logic as his dogmatic assertion that the grave generic safety problems with nuclear power highlighted by Fukushima have already been resolved, and India can go ahead with its plans for a massive expansion in nuclear power generation.
In fact, the global nuclear industry hasn’t even remotely come to terms with the causes and consequences of Fukushima, the world’s first multi-reactor meltdown. The plant operator has failed to this day to bring the reactors under control. It doesn’t even know the location of the molten fuel.
It has just been disclosed that at the height of the Fukushima crisis, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo. An investigation by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation vividly shows how “Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis” than the one at the Fukushima plant.
In India, it is only the most delusion-prone people in the nuclear establishment who believe the nuclear programme can be run safely with Russian reactors which are riddled with 31 design flaws (according to an official report), or the French company Areva’s untested European pressurised reactors (EPR).
The EPR has not passed safety tests anywhere, including Finland and France, which are building Western Europe’s first nuclear reactors after Chernobyl. Their EPRs are over four years behind schedule, 95 percent over budget, and mired in nasty legal disputes. The French EPR may well be scrapped if the socialists win the coming elections.
Yet, India is planning to install six of these huge, unwieldy, untested 1,650 MW reactors at Jaitapur on the ecologically fragile Konkan Coast in Maharashtra. Nuclear plants are also planned in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, where they face stiff, determined and informed opposition.
These projects can only be pushed through with brute force and suppression of the liberties of lakhs of people, paving the way for a police state marked by secrecy. That’s the horrendous price the imposition of nuclear power will inflict on the Indian democracy.
Yet, if our policymakers want to resolve the power crisis, and promote a safe and climate-friendly energy economy, they should embrace the Renewable Energy Revolution sweeping the globe. Renewable Energy (RE) today accounts for one-fifth of the world’s power capacity and delivers 18 percent of the global electricity as well as final energy consumption – in contrast to only two percent for nuclear power. Unlike nuclear reactors, which take 10-15 years to erect, RE facilities are installed in just months and can quickly relieve our power crisis.
Globally, solar-photovoltaics (direct conversion of sunlight into electricity) is annually growing by 53 percent and wind power by 32 percent. Solar-thermal, biomass and tidal and geothermal energy is also growing rapidly. Developing countries are playing an important role in driving the renewables revolution. India can take the lead here.
The number of nuclear reactors worldwide peaked at 444 in 2002 and is now down to under 400. More than 150 nuclear reactors are set to retire in the next two decades, and only about 60 are planned as replacements. It would be foolhardy to chase this declining, exhausted, outdated and unpopular source of energy and miss the renewables revolution.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: email@example.com