POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 15, 2011
MADBAN, India >> When a farmer named Praveen Gawankar and two neighbors began a protest four years ago against a proposed nuclear power plant here 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 — Indian newspapers recently reported that the environment minister wrote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to question the wisdom of large nuclear installations. And a group of 50 Indian scientists, academics and activists 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 the area was hit by 95 earthquakes from 1985 to 2005, although Indian officials counter 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 U.S. 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 percent 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 rollout.
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.
Singh has been so committed to atomic power that he staked his government’s survival in 2008 on a controversial civil nuclear deal with the U.S. That agreement, completed last year, opened the door for India to buy nuclear technology and uranium fuel from Western nations that previously would not sell to it because of India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Most of India’s reactors have been indigenously developed, but it is now building two reactors with Russian help. The proposed nuclear plant in Madban will use a new generation of reactors from the French company Areva. Projects using technology from the U.S. and Japan are also planned.
Government officials have said 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, after a nearby village.
Many Indian scientists, though, remain distrustful of India’s nuclear establishment. And they criticize the decision to use Areva’s new reactors, saying they are unproven.
Compared with the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi boiling water reactors, Areva’s are of a newer sort known as pressurized 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. The company is also building two of the new reactors in China.
Adinarayan Gopalakrishnan, a former Indian nuclear safety official, is among critics who argue 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. He once led India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and has also criticized the structure and independence of his former agency.
The regulatory board reports to the Atomic Energy Commission, which runs India’s nuclear energy program and has long championed atomic power as an alternative to fossil fuels. The chairman of the regulatory board, S.S. Bajaj, was previously a senior executive at the state-owned Nuclear Power Corp. of India, which operates most of the country’s reactors and will run the Jaitapur plant as well.
In an interview at his office in Mumbai, Bajaj said that despite being attached to the Atomic Energy Commission, his agency was “functionally independent” of the country’s nuclear establishment and technically capable of reviewing the Areva reactors.
But farmers and fishers fear for their livelihoods.
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. The fruit this season is fetching 900 rupees ($20) for a dozen in Mumbai markets.
Fishers 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.
They say that about 160 miles north of the Jaitapur plant site, fishing has been severely curtailed by hot water from a controversial gas-fired power plant, built by Enron before it went bankrupt.
“Nobody will buy our fish when they know that this nuclear plant is nearby,” Atiq Hathwardkar, 22, said on his family’s fishing boat near the plant site. “They want to move the country forward,” he said of government officials, “but they don’t care what happens to the common man.”
Many local residents, as a form of protest, have refused to accept payment for the land the government forcibly acquired for the plant. The government is offering 1.5 million rupees ($33,000) per hectare (about 2.5 acres). But only 153 of the more than 2,000 landowners have taken the money.
Pramila Gawankar, the wife of the mango farmer leading the protests, said she had no use for the money the government was offering and was adamant that she would reclaim her orchards and fields.
“It’s nice to look out on the fields,” she said. “We have the sea. We have fish. We want for nothing.”