By Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
Local people are opposing construction of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. People of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra are opposing the Jaitapur nuclear plant. Mamata Banerjee has scrapped the proposed nuclear power plant in Purba Medhinipur.
Germany has decided to close all nuclear power plants by 2022. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, is determined to push increased generation of nuclear electricity at any cost despite opposition of local people. This determination of the Prime Minister can be interpreted in two ways. Positive interpretation is that the PM is aggressively pursuing increased generation of electricity for securing high economic growth and providing electricity to the people who have been deprived of this essential service till now. The not-so-charitable interpretation is that the PM is pushing for increased generation to provide benefits to big power companies and to provide electricity to the rich.
Opponents of the Kudankulam project allege that an Environment Impact Assessment has not been done. The project does not have clearance under the Environment Protection Act. There is a provision under the Act for holding a public hearing where local people can voice their grievances and the Government is required to factor these into the decision making process. The local people’s voice has been muffled by not holding a public hearing. Professor Shivaji Rao of GITAM University, Vishakhapatnam tells that in the United States it is mandatory to prepare Environmental Assessment Report including Risk Analysis, Nuclear Accident Scenario, Emergency Preparedness Plans and Disaster Management Report before a nuclear project is approved. Why the Prime Minister is not getting these reports prepared and not placing them before the people, he asks.
The Kudankulam plant will use Russian VVER 1000 reactors. These have not been used anywhere in the world till now. In other words, the Prime Minister has converted the project into a testing laboratory for the Russian nuclear equipment supplier.
India has recently enacted the Nuclear Liability Act. Under the Act, the supplier of the nuclear machines has to bear a part of the damages in case of an accident. However, the Russian supplier says that it is not covered under this Act. The entire liability in case of an accident will have to be borne by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India which is building the project. Russia insists that it is supplying the machines under the Inter-Governmental Agreement signed in 2008 by the Indian and Russian governments and which does not provide for the Russian supplier bearing part of the accident costs. The PM should explain why the earlier agreement should not be revisited and aligned with the Act promulgated subsequently by our Parliament? Also he should explain why the agreement has not been placed in the public domain.
The Prime Minister has assured Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that he attaches the highest importance to ensuring that the nuclear energy in the country meets the highest safety standards; that he will not compromise on safety in the pursuit of our nuclear energy programme; and that nothing will be done that would threaten the safety or livelihood of any section of society. But the PM should have placed the Environment Impact Assessment and other reports before the people instead of making these empty statements.
The PM should be aware that similar assurances of safety were given for the Three Mile Island plant in the United States and Fukushima plant in Japan. Nearer home our small nuclear establishment has to its credit at least three important accidents. In 1987 there was a refuelling accident at the Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam which ruptured the reactor core, resulting in a two-year shutdown. In 1993 there was a fire in two of the steam turbines of the Narora Atomic Power Station. In 1995 radioactive helium and heavy water was leaked into the Rana Pratap Sagar Dam from the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station at Kota leading to a two-year shutdown for repairs. The PM’s assurance about safety is, therefore, hollow.
Yet it has to be accepted that demand for electricity is increasing in the country. Electricity has not reached many villages. Power cuts are plaguing our cities. This requires increased generation. But how much electricity should be produced? It seems obvious that so much electricity should be produced that benefits to the aam aadmi is large and costs imposed upon him are less. Problem with the PM’s policy is that costs to the aam aadmi are large while benefits mostly accrue to the richer people. The aam aadmi is affected by nuclear accidents. The rich living in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai who consume most of the electricity will not be much affected by accidents in plants that are made far away. Let the PM make a nuclear plant in the middle of Delhi and see how the people react. Industries which consume the electricity also produce most goods for the rich. The cars produced in the automobile units of Chennai are mostly used by the rich while the damage to fishes in the sea from the discharge of hot water is borne by the poor. The PM’s policy of increased generation of electricity is, therefore, anti-people.
There is a story in the Mahabharata. It is asked, to whom does the cow belong? Reply is given that it does not belong to the herdsman who takes the cow for grazing, it does not belong to the farmer who owns the cow, it does not belong to the milkman who carries the milk to the city, it belongs to the person who actually drinks the milk. Activities of all other persons are directed to providing milk to that person. Similarly, the PM should examine who is the final consumer of the electricity. Then it will become transparently clear that present policy is made to provide ever-increasing consumption to the rich. Diversion of merely two per cent of present generation is sufficient to provide lifeline consumption of 30 units per month to all the unelectrified households in the country. Instead of diverting this small amount of energy for the poor, the PM is trying to increase generation so that evermore electricity can be provided to the rich.
The second argument in favour of increased generation is that of global competition. Indeed, it is true that countries like China are destroying their environment and selling goods cheap in the world. One way to face this is for us to destroy our environment and produce cheap goods. Other way is to impose an ‘environment tax’ on imports from China. We should follow the latter, not the bad policies of China. The PM should reconsider his approach of ‘electricity at any cost’. He should order a dispassionate assessment of the benefits and costs to the poor and the rich for each project. He should push only those projects where benefits to the poor are much greater than the costs. That is not so at Kudankulam or Jaitapur.