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Fission statement

Praveen Gavankar, a farmer and trader of Alphonso mangoes, is fighting a losing battle. His 150-acre farm, where he has been growing paddy and mango for more than three decades, no longer belongs to him. It has been forcibly acquired by the government because it lies in a swathe of land where a trophy nuclear power project is to come up.

Gavankar is from Madban, a village on India’s largest coastal plateau, abutting the Arabian Sea. Earlier this year, the Maharashtra government invoked emergency provisions in the archaic National Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to acquire 940 hectares from Madban and neighbouring villages in Ratnagiri.

The land is where the Jaitapur nuclear power project of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is slated to come up. The plant is being built with new pressurised water reactors supplied by the French company Areva SA. Last week, the Union ministry of environment and forests granted environmental clearance to the 9,900 MW project.

The Indian government has an ambitious nuclear power programme — and Jaitapur is just the beginning. New nuclear power projects are slated to be launched in four states in the coming years with French, Russian and US reactor technologies. India now has 20 nuclear power plants in operation, with a total installed capacity of 4,780 MW. It plans to increase its capacity four times to 20,000 MW by 2020.

Areva will build two evolutionary power reactors (EPR) of 1,650 mega watt electrical (MWe) capacity in the first phase. These reactors are scheduled to be operational by 2018.

Jointly with NPCIL, the state-owned Russian firm Atomstroyexports is building two 1,000 MW reactors at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu. In 2007, New Delhi and Moscow signed a fresh memorandum of understanding to build four more similar reactors at Koodankulam and an unspecified number of reactors at new sites. Besides, NPCIL is also going ahead with several indigenous reactors.

But in and around Jaitapur, a strong movement is coming up, with locals and environmental groups opposing the plant in the ecologically-sensitive Western Ghats. The protestors believe that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project, on the basis of which the environmental clearance was given, was one-sided.

“The EIA should be an unbiased, scientific audit of the project. This one is hardly that,” says Adwait Pednekar of the Konkan Bachao Samiti (KBS), a coalition of environmental and popular science movements opposing the project.

The EIA says the site is mostly barren and has insignificant biodiversity. A similar but unconnected study by the Bombay Natural History Society, however, says the area is rich in biodiversity. An independent botanist and biodiversity expert, P. Tetali, said he could identify at least 15 species of plants endemic to the region on a day’s visit.

The local resistance to the project is clear from the fact that only 108 families have accepted the compensation offered by the government for the acquired land out of the 2,335 families affected. Most of those who have agreed to the land acquisition are absentee landlords, adds Gavankar, who spearheads the local movement, the Janhit Sewa Samiti.

Though the site was selected for a future nuclear power plant in 1995, there was no move to set up one till 2005. That year, the NPCIL decided that two 1,000 MW nuclear reactors would be set up. However, a decision to rope in the French nuclear firm was taken after the first UPA government successfully struck civilian nuclear deals with the United States and other countries in 2008.

The power plant’s critics feel that there is “undue haste” in clearing the Jaitapur project. “Haste or shortcuts in order to meet the artificial deadline of the French President’s ongoing visit would be unjustified, dangerous and dysfunctional,” the KBS says.

Apart from endangering biodiversity, questions are being raised about the technology. Many argue that the new Areva technology is not yet proven. Areva won a contract for setting up its first EPR reactor on the Olkiluoto Island in Finland in 2003, signalling a nuclear renaissance a quarter century after the Chernobyl accident in Russia in 1986.

Though originally scheduled to go critical in 2009, the Finnish project is struggling with cost and time overruns. “Construction will officially end in late 2012,” says Areva spokesperson Pauline Briand.

What worries experts is that till date, no EPR has been constructed and commissioned for operation anywhere in the world. There are four EPRs in different stages of construction, and two, including the one in Finland, are already facing problems and delays, says former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), A. Gopalakrishnan.

Part of the problem, he said, was related to poor quality control and construction. There are other basic design issues of the EPR which can cause problems later. These have not been highlighted by the NPCIL or the DAE, says the former AERB chief.

The EPR will use 5 per cent enriched uranium, as against the normal 3.5 per cent in current pressurised water reactors (PWR) designs. Those who support EPR say it has a higher burn-up rate, which means it produces more energy, bringing down costs.

“But what no one has highlighted is that such burn-up leads to much higher toxicity of the radioactive waste. A French study has reported that EPR waste will have about four times as much radioactive bromine, iodine, caesium etc., compared to ordinary PWRs with lower burn-up,” says Gopalakrishnan.

NPCIL officials, however, say EPR is safe. The design has been evolved from two widely used French and German designs of reactors. It has better power efficiency and improved safety features.

The controversy has also brought the role of the AERB into focus. Set up under the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, AERB, a watchdog of all nuclear and radioactive applications in the country, has been a subordinate body of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

The design and construction of all nuclear plants in the country have to be approved by the AERB, which also monitors their operation. Though many claim the AERB has no expertise in EPR technology, present AERB chairman S.S. Bajaj contests the contention. The EPR technology is an extension of pressurised water reactors that have been around for a long time, he stresses.

To be truly effective, the AERB needs to be independent, says E.A.S. Sarma, former power secretary to the Government of India. K.S. Parthasarathy, a former secretary of the regulatory board, however, claims that the subordinate nature of the AERB has never come in the way of decisions.

For the nuclear establishment, a settlement in Jaitapur may help other projects to come up. Already, there is trouble brewing in some sites. Haripur in West Bengal was selected as a site for a nuclear power plant, but local resistance forced the state government go slow on the project. New nuclear power projects with US reactors are planned in Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh and Mithi Virdi in Gujarat.

Jaitapur will show the way — this way or that.

Additional reporting by Velly Thevar in Mumbai

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