People's Tribunal Questions Safety of India Nuke Complex, World's Biggest

The massive Indian nuclear complex would comprise six controversial third-generation reactors and cover five villages in a known biodiversity 'hot zone'

Indians protest against the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project/Credit: Greenpeace

NEW DELHI, India—The Indian government has said it is determined to push ahead with the world's biggest nuclear power plant on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra in western India. But popular opposition to the project is unlikely to die down anytime soon.

In August, the People's Tribunal on the Safety, Viability and Cost Efficiency of Nuclear Energy will present its eagerly awaited findings on the safety of the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project. The roughly $12 billion complex will include six controversial Evolutionary Pressurized Reactors (EPR) built by French power developer Areva SA and generate 9,900 megawatts of electricity.

The independent people's tribunal has many notable members and could wield moral authority on the matter, but has no legal power to enforce its judgments and findings. Observers agree an uphill battle awaits opponents.

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh — who appeared to have a rethink over the project in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan — has in recent weeks reiterated an earlier position that constructing the plant is "not an environmental concern," perhaps under pressure from the prime minister's office.

Ramesh has said that, as far as he is concerned, the environmental clearance accorded to the nuclear mega-complex by his ministry on Nov. 28, 2010, stands.

But critics argue that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the plant was rushed through in time for a Dec. 4-7 state visit by French President Nikolas Sarkozy.

That meeting concluded a "framework agreement" between Areva and the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) for the first two reactors in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sarkozy. No nuclear regulator in any country, including France's, has given final clearances for the third-generation EPRs, and none are operating today.

Call for a Fresh Enviro Review

The validity of the EIA is what the people's tribunal — headed by Ajit Prakash Shah, chief justice of the Delhi High Court from 2008 to 2010 — is challenging. Shah, who had a reputation as being pro-environment while he was in office, believes that a fresh EIA should be drawn up taking into account the concerns of stakeholders, local residents, farmers and fishermen. 

According to Vivek Monteiro, who leads the vocal Konkan Bachao Samiti (Save the Konkan Forum), there has never been a critical appraisal of the project. Perhaps most worryingly, he said, is that the existing EIA misses out on major safety issues such as how to handle spent nuclear fuel.

"For example, the very word 'reprocessing' is missing in the EIA," Monteiro told SolveClimate News, "although we all know that radioactive waste management spans many human generations." It is no coincidence, he added, that India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has not yet approved the design and safety aspects of the plant.

Now, opposition to the Jaitapur project is coming from the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which presented its own report to the tribunal entitled "Refugees of Development" detailing the potential impact of the facility on local Indians.

According to the TISS report, the project, which would spread over five villages and nearly 2,400 acres, will negatively affect social and environmental development in much of the Konkan a culturally rich region known as a biodiversity hot spot.

Safety Concerns Won't Go Away

With a final agreement yet to be drawn up between Areva and the NPCIL, the government is being careful to address some of the concerns voiced by local residents and voluntary agencies.  

On May 20, Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), announced that the licensing and safety review of the plant would be carried out by India's own nuclear regulator instead of relying on vendors of the EPRs. About a month earlier, the prime minister's office announced legislation to create an independent nuclear regulatory agency to replace the existing AERB, long accused of lacking autonomy from the secretive AEC, which functions under the Official Secrets Act of 1923.

But the safety concerns refuse to go away.

Prof. M.V. Ramana, one of India's leading nuclear scientists, says he is especially concerned that nuclear suppliers successfully lobbied the Indian Parliament to pass a liability law capping compensation at around $462 million in the event of a mishap. 

"This means that despite all the claims about safety, nuclear equipment manufacturers and suppliers know that catastrophic accidents are a possibility," said Ramana, who is currently a researcher with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

"Areva itself claims unequaled safety levels for the EPRs being installed in Jaitapur, but the French are unwilling to accept unlimited liability in the event of an accident," Ramana said in a series of emails to SolveClimate News. "In fact, while in India, Sarkozy insisted on legislation that would indemnify Areva from the cost of a disaster."  

Lessons from Fukushima

In a recent essay, Ramana said Fukushima has shown how "absurdly low" the $462 million cap really is. A new estimate from the Japan Center for Economic Research finds that dealing with the aftermath of the Japan nuclear disaster could cost between $70 billion and $245 billion.

Ramana further argues that Fukushima has revealed the potential folly of constructing nuclear mega-complexes of the type that India plans to build at Jaitapur, and at five other locations along India's long peninsular coastline.

"The potential damage from an accident at a mega-complex is much larger than that from an accident at a single reactor," said Ramana. "Also, a mega-complex accident at one reactor can damage co-located reactors and hamper emergency operations in the entire complex."

Marine Ecology and Biodiversity

For now the NPCIL has yielded to complaints that the EIA does not factor in possible damage to marine ecology and biodiversity in the Konkan area by announcing that it would undertake a separate study led by A.R. Rahmani, director of the venerable Bombay Natural History Society, founded in 1883.

The NPCIL study, to be completed within a year, has a budget of about $1.5 million and will include a "comprehensive marine and biodiversity management plan," according to the letter of intent submitted on May 16 to the environment ministry.

But the announcement of the study has been greeted with some skepticism.

"Why are they doing this now?" said Debi Goenka, a leading member of the well-known, Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust that opposes the Jaitapur project. "Normally all this should have been part of the EIA."

Water Temperature Debate

Goenka said that the only requirement laid down by the environment ministry was that the temperature of the water discharged into the sea by the plant should not be 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the temperature of the sea water.

"We believe that the ministry should have stipulated that the absolute temperature of the mixed water should never exceed 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit), because beyond this temperature marine life would be deprived of dissolved oxygen," Goenka told SolveClimate News.

A former director of the AERB, A. Gopalakrishnan said he was not surprised at the deficiencies in the EIA for the Jaitapur plant because it was based on political considerations and not the reality of the EPR's record.

"It is painfully obvious that Areva's EPRs are untested and that the first one being constructed at Olkiluoto, Finland, is mired in litigation over safety issues.  Even the French regulator has problems with the second EPR coming up at Flamanville in Normandy," he said.

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