Japanese crisis cools India's ardour for nuclear power
WHEN a farmer named Praveen Gawankar and two neighbours began a protest four years ago against a proposed nuclear power plant in this coastal town, they were against it mainly for not-in-my-backyard reasons.
They stood to lose mango orchards, cashew trees and rice fields as the government forcibly acquired 2,300 acres to build six nuclear reactors - the biggest nuclear power plant ever proposed anywhere.
But now, as a nuclear disaster unfolds in distant Japan, the lonely group of farmers has seen support for their protest swell to include a growing number of Indian scientists, academics and former government officials. "We are getting ready for bigger protests," Gawankar said.
While the government vows to push ahead - citing India's energy needs - newspapers recently reported that the environment minister wrote to prime minister Manmohan Singh to question the wisdom of large nuclear installations. And a group of scientists and academics has called for a moratorium on new projects. "The Japanese nuclear crisis is a wake-up call for India," they wrote in an open letter.
Opponents note that the area was hit by 95 earthquakes from 1985 to 2005, though Indian officials counter that most were minor and that the plant's location on a high cliff would offer protection against tsunamis.
The heated debate shows how the politics of nuclear energy may be changing, not only in the US and Europe but in developing countries whose economies desperately need cheap power to continue growing rapidly.
For Indian officials intent on promoting nuclear energy, the partial meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan could not have come at a worse time. Currently, India gets about 3 per cent of its electricity from the 20 relatively small nuclear reactors in the country. But it is building five new reactors and has proposed 39 more, including the ones here in Madban, to help meet the voracious energy needs of India's fast-growing economy.
Only China, the other emerging-economy giant with a ravenous energy appetite, is planning a more rapid expansion of nuclear power. Beijing has indicated that it, too, plans to proceed cautiously with its nuclear roll-out.
By 2050, the Indian government says a quarter of the nation's electricity should come from nuclear reactors. And the project here would be the biggest step yet toward that ambitious goal. The planned six reactors would produce a total of 9,900 megawatts of electricity - more than three times the power now used by India's financial capital, Mumbai, about 260 miles up the coast.
So far, workers on the site are simply digging trenches, as a dozen police officers provide round-the-clock watch.Protesters, including Gawankar, have been arrested at various times, and state police officials have banned gatherings of more than five people in the villages near the site.
The proposed nuclear plant in Madban will use a new generation of reactors from the French company Areva.
Government officials have said that India will conduct more safety reviews to make sure its existing reactors and new proposals are safe. But they reiterated their commitment to nuclear projects, including the one in Madban, which has been named the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant.
Many Indian scientists, though, remain distrustful of India's nuclear establishment. And they criticise the decision to use Areva's new reactors, saying they are unproved.
Compared with the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi boiling water reactors, Areva's are of a newer sort known as pressurised water reactors, which the company describes as a major advance. But Areva's first commercial installations of the technology, in France and Finland, have been delayed by several years after the initial designs failed to meet safety criteria. Adinarayan Gopalakrishnan, a former nuclear safety official, is among critics who argue that India should not import the reactors, which are known by the initials EPR, because they do not have a proven track record.
"In view of the vast nuclear devastation we are observing in Japan, I would strongly urge the government not to proceed with the Jaitapur project with purchase of EPRs from France or any other import of nuclear reactors," said Gopalakrishnan.
Farmers say that some customers in Western countries have already indicated that once the plant starts operating in 2018, the fear of radioactive contamination will keep them from buying the area's acclaimed Alphonso mangoes.
Fishermen complain that even before the first reactors start operating, their ability to navigate the nearby waters will be restricted by security officials. And once the plant starts, locals say it will discharge millions of gallons of hot water into the sea. That, they say, will make the coast uninhabitable for mackerel and other fish, ruining an industry that provides jobs to more than 20,000 people and supplies seafood to Mumbai and Europe.
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