Monday, February 7, 2011

India's open invitation to radioactive poisoning

The West has learnt its lesson with nuclear energy and is funding renewable energy solutions even as India is busy setting up a 25 billion dollar radioactive power plant in Ratnagiri. India has no independent regulator of nuclear safety. Why then is India getting into a 25 billion dollar investment in unsafe energy?

Nicholas Sarkozy left India with much fanfare having signed deals worth over 25 billion dollars. Among the pacts he inked with Manmohan Singh, was a deal between French nuclear giant, Areva and the NPCIL (India's state owned nuclear corporation), allowing India to buy Areva's new European Pressurized Reactors (EPR). The plant has been proposed at Jaitapur in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, otherwise well known for Alphonso mangoes. At a planned final capacity of 9900 MW, the plant will be the largest nuclear park in the world. Just over a week before Sarkozy's visit, a report by Stephen Thomas, professor of Energy Studies from the University of Greenwich showed that the EPR is doomed to fail. These sentiments were also echoed by A. Gopalakrishnan, former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) in a press conference organized by the Konkan Bachao Samiti. India has no independent regulator of nuclear safety. The DAE and AERB are unable to control even non high-level nuclear waste in the country, considering their inept handling of the Mayapuri scrapyard incident. And of course, there is no known way to safely dispose of nuclear waste. The initial cost estimates are 25 billion dollars for the entire plant. However going by the cost overruns of the construction of the same reactors in Finland and France, it is more likely to cost close to 9 billion dollars for each of the six 1650 MW reactors, despite cheaper labour and material costs in India. These costs do not take into account the on going fuel nuclear costs, maintenance costs, or the costs for safely storing the 300 odd tonnes of waste that the plant will generate every year. Nor do they consider the costs of forest destruction from mining for fuel, the health costs of the miners or the workers at the plant, nor the health costs of the people and environment of the region. Data from other nuclear plants around India have shown serious health impacts for people living near the plants due to the radioactivity in the environment. To build this plant will require over 2000 acres of land, not to mention an exclusion zone of a 5km radius where no other development will be allowed. For this the Maharashtra government has used police brutality, arrest and stifling of non-violent protest and media presence in Ratnagiri. Villagers have refused to part with their land as the compensation offered is paltry compared to their loss of livelihood. Over 1500 people were arrested in the last protest that took place during Sarkozy's visit to India. Hundreds more have been arrested before. If these didn't seem like enough reasons to avoid building this plant the shocker is the location – Jaitapur is part of the same seismic area as Latur, and is rated at higher risk for earthquake damage.

So why is the Indian government in such a hurry to sign this deal? Is it the promise of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Is it the promise of more French imports of Indian goods? Or is it just plain stupidity? Meanwhile, just a few months ago the US approved the world's largest solar project. The plant that will be located in California will produce 1000MW of power and using an integrated thermal process will provide electricity even post sunset. And this at a cost of 6 billion dollars. Despite the lack of advanced technology, renewables in India already outperform nuclear, contributing nearly 8% to our energy mix while nuclear contributes less than 3%. All this in a much quicker time frame to setup and at a much lower cost.

Nuclear waste dumping in France has been causing radioactive poisoning of water and vineyards. High levels of radiation has been found in French wines. The choice seems clear – keep these dangerous reactors out of India, and invest in clean energy. Keep the delicious mangoes of Ratnagiri radiation free!

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