Truthout | Kumar Sundaram | 29 January 2016
On January 26, French President François Hollande was the chief guest for India’s Republic Day ceremony, where India showcases its military hardware in a colonial-era parade in its capital. Meanwhile, in Jaitapur on India’s western coast, farmers and fisherfolk were protesting against Hollande’s visit, arguing that the nuclear reactors that India is importing from France threaten their lives, livelihoods and the local ecology.
The Joint Declaration: Localizing Risk, Siphoning Off Profit
In a joint declaration issued on January 25 in New Delhi, the two governments reaffirmed their commitment to go ahead with a long-pending nuclear deal. As per the declaration, the intense negotiations to finalize the commercial agreement are expected to conclude by the end of this year, and the construction of six European pressurized reactors (EPR) imported from France is to begin by early 2017.
The new twist in the declaration is the “maximum localization” of the project and “technology transfer” for the same. Although the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have proudly included these new terms and added a “Make in India” tag on the Jaitapur project, it actually means that the French industry would be transferring the burden of its most controversial reactor design at a time of its worst crisis.
The safety vulnerabilities of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) – the huge iron core where radioactive fission takes place – came under serious questions, raised by France’s own nuclear safety regulator Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) in April 2015. Later in 2015, Areva, the French reactor builder, had to ask the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend certification review for EPR design. The United States has been postponing certification for EPR since 2007. The Finnish regulator has taken Areva to court on this issue, and Finland has canceled the order for its second EPR. Just two days after the publication of ASN’s report, Modi reaffirmed the EPR deal from France during his visit to Paris in April 2015. It is exactly this controversial component – the RPV – that an Indian private company L&T will now be building, with no experience in the nuclear sector at all.
Insurmountable Risks of the Jaitapur Nuclear Project
The current phase of negotiations on Jaitapur is about the price of reactors, which remains a major sticking point. Although the former chief of India’s Atomic Energy Commission promised a tariff of a maximum of 10 US cents per unit for the electricity produced in Jaitapur, independent experts have claimed it will be much higher (20 to 30 cents per unit). This means the government of India would use taxpayers’ money to keep the price competitive. If we go by the cost of EPRs in the United Kingdom, each Indian reactor may cost as much as $8.9 billion. Two reactors in Jaitapur’s first phase will cost as much as India’s total expenditure on science and technology (including the departments of space, science and technology, biotechnology, and research for the entire country). A diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks quoted the general manager of the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL), saying that India is paying a “high” price for Jaitapur.
However, the concerns of the local community in Jaitapur go beyond the cost of the project. Jaitapur is located in the stunningly beautiful Konkan region, replete with verdant plateaus, magical mountains and undulating hills, lagoons, creeks, the open sea and infinite greenery. The NPCIL has labeled nearly 65 percent of the land as “barren,” despite the fact that Konkan is one of the world’s 10 “biodiversity hotspots,” sheltering over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 of mammals, 508 of birds and 179 of amphibians, including 325 globally threatened species.
Altogether, the nuclear park would jeopardize the livelihoods of 40,000 people. The annual turnover of Jaitapur’s fishing villages is about $2.2 million. In Nate Village alone, there are 200 big trawlers and 250 small boats. Nearly 6,000 people depend directly on fishing and over 10,000 are dependent on ancillary activities.
The community is apprehensive that the elaborate security arrangements around the project would block the fisherfolks’ use of the two creeks of Jaitapur and Vijaydurg. The fish population will also be affected since the nuclear plant would release a massive 52 billion liters of hot water into the Arabian Sea daily, raising the local sea temperature by 5 to 7 degrees Celsius.
Jaitapur has highly fertile land, which produces rice and other cereals, and arguably the world’s most famous mango, the Alphonso. Cashews, coconuts, kokum, betel nuts, pineapples and other fruits are found in abundance. The land is also quite productive in terms of its use for cattle-grazing and rain-fed agriculture.
The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Jaitapur, conducted by the government-run National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), did not even look into the crucial aspects of radiological releases, decommissioning and nuclear waste, besides summarily neglecting the vital issues of ecosystems and livelihoods, terrestrial ecosystems and farming, mangrove forests and the fragile marine ecology and fisheries in the region. NEERI admits it does not have any expertise in radiation-related issues and it just mentioned in its report that all the stipulations of the government’s nuclear regulator would be followed. The then-minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, had himself termed these EIA assessments a joke. Even that environmental clearance, granted on 35 absurdly weak conditions, was given only for a period of five years, which lapsed as of November 2015. Citizens groups and independent experts have demanded a fresh EIA in place of an extension.
India’s nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), is itself a toothless body, which depends on the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for its finances and human resources, an agency, which it is supposed to supervise. India’s newly proposed nuclear regulator – the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority – would be an even weaker body than the AERB, according to the former head of AERB, Dr. A K Gopalakrishnan. In fact, India is the only country to further dilute its already lax safety regulation under the AERB to accommodate foreign-imported reactors, as Areva’s EPR might not even pass the licensing procedures of the existing AERB.
Safety concerns at Jaitapur are legitimate and extremely serious. The EPR design has come under severe criticism from the French nuclear regulator, ASN. In April 2015, the ASN warned Areva about some very crucial vulnerabilities in its design. It has found the reactor pressure vessel (or the core of the reactor) to be vulnerable. Yet two days after the publication of ASN’s report, Prime Minister Modi reaffirmed the commitment to buy the EPRs during his visit to Paris.
Independent experts and the government’s own institutions have also cautioned about active seismic fault lines in the region passing exactly beneath the proposed reactor site. There have been 92 earthquakes in Jaitapur over the past 20 years.
The Indian government has managed to acquire land for the project by pressuring farmers and luring a handful of landlords. Despite land acquisition, the farmers in Jaitapur continue to resist. Most villagers either work on others’ land or provide rural services to the agrarian community and do not get any compensation when villages are dislocated for “development” projects. Tabrez Soyekar, a young fisherman, was killed in an indiscriminate police shooting in April 2011, during a peaceful protest. Hundreds of activists and eminent citizens, including the former Navy chief of India and retired justice of the Supreme Court of India, were detained during a protest march.
Thirteen village councils in Jaitapur passed unanimous resolutions against the project as recently as November 2015. It is utterly hypocritical for both countries to laud each other’s democratic credentials for international diplomacy if the democratically elected village councils are neglected violently.
A Violent Nuclear Expansion in India
India is one of the few countries today that appears to have missed the global post-Fukushima shift away from nuclear power. Even France itself, the poster child of the nuclear energy lobbies, has decided to reduce the ratio of nuclear power in its national energy basket from 75 percent to 50 percent. Independent energy experts in India, including a former top official in the Ministry of Power, have argued for a decentralized energy framework that would suit India better, as the majority of its population still lives in villages scattered across the country and transmission losses in centralized Indian grids are staggering.
The 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report concludes that, after the Fukushima accident, the international nuclear industry has faced its worst crisis globally. The industry is looking at India as a big market where they can compensate for their losses and revive their fortunes. India has become an attractive market for global nuclear corporations, where the government is mortgaging its financial and environmental health to welcome them. This includes channeling the accident liability to the public; undermining environmental, geological and safety laws; and ignoring the measured advice of independent experts.
Besides Jaitapur, massive and intense anti-nuclear protests have arisen in Koodankulam, Mithi Virdi and Kovvada, where Russian and US corporations are setting up nuclear power plants. Local communities in other places like Chutka, Fatehabad and Mahi Banswara have also been agitating against the nuclear projects. The government has resorted to brutal crackdowns and repression against these consistently peaceful protests. More than 8,000 people in Koodankulam are facing fabricated police cases under colonial-era sedition laws and charges of waging war against the Indian state. The police have killed, arrested and harassed villagers indiscriminately, including women and children. They surrounded the Idinthakarai village in 2012 and disrupted its vital supply lines that deliver goods, including food and milk for children and medicines, to force the village to surrender. One of the first steps that the new government under Modi took in 2015 was to come up with a “confidential” report by the Intelligence Bureau, naming Greenpeace, the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, and other anti-nuclear and environmentalist organizations “anti-national.”
India’s Nuclear Imports Are More Than Just Reactor Supply Agreements
The anachronistic nuclear expansion in India, defying economic common sense and the global shift away from nuclear energy, actually stems from the strategy that the country’s elite have adopted to achieve international legitimacy for India’s nuclear weapons.
In exchange for India’s inclusion in the global nuclear weapons club, the Indian government promised 10,000 megawatts of nuclear contracts to the United States ahead of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting in September 2008. It made similar promises to France, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries for an exemption from the NSG rule disallowing countries that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India had been facing an international embargo since 1974 for using imported technology and material for its nuclear tests.
France was the first country to sign a nuclear pact with India after the NSG’s exemption. It had been exploring nuclear sales to India for a long time. A feasibility study in Jaitapur for Areva was conducted as early as 2003. France was among the very few countries in the world that did not criticize India’s nuclear tests in 1998. But it needed the United States to do the heavy lifting in the NSG and the International Atomic Energy Agency to open the gates of international nuclear commerce for India.
Escalating Nuclear Arms Race in South Asia
The so-called “nuclear civilian deal” sets the wrong precedent for potential proliferators by diplomatically embracing India in the international nuclear order, despite being a non-signatory to the NPT and Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It will also boost India’s nuclear weapons capacity by freeing up its domestic uranium reserves entirely for weapons purposes.
Nuclear weaponization in South Asia has defied the expectations of nuclear deterrence theorists that the introduction of nuclear weapons in the region would bring restraint. Soon after the nuclear tests in 1998, South Asia saw a fierce border conflict in Kargil in 2002. Declassified documents and WikiLeaks cables have revealed that Pakistan and India actually came close to contemplating nuclear use during that war. The Indian nuclear arsenal has also been growing with the introduction of nuclear submarines and long-range missiles. India has consecutively been one of the top five arms importers of the world for the last several years.
The evolving political situation in South Asia also makes peace in the region much more fragile. India is now ruled by an ultra-nationalist political formation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP’s Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, contested the last elections under the slogan of teaching Pakistan a lesson and revising the two cornerstones of the Indian nuclear posture – the “no first use” policy and the minimum credible deterrence doctrine.
Modi Government’s Nuclear U-Turns and Misadventures
For its entire 10-year stint in the opposition, the BJP opposed the United Progressive Alliance’s nuclear policy, but nuclear deals have become matters of pride for Modi’s foreign sojourns. It has gone further than the previous government in placating the nuclear lobbies.
On Republic Day in 2015, to please the chief guest, US President Barack Obama, the Modi government effectively surrendered the option to sue nuclear vendors in case of an accident. Now, in 2016, with France’s help, Modi’s government seems bent on finalizing an extremely dangerous and destructive nuclear project.