by Surabhi Dhar

The not so recent agitation against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant brings us back to the worry of development at what cost; social or otherwise? India’s experience with nuclear energy has not always been the smoothest whether it was about our stand on not signing the Non Proliferation Treaty or a cause for concern in government support. But, what do we really know about Nuclear Power Plants and the use of nuclear energy for civil purposes.

This post will try and understand the cause for concern in the Kudankulam Power Plant. The plant was first agreed on in 1988 by Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhael Gorbachev in the last years of the Soviet Union. A lot has changed between then and now. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster  that occurred in March 2011 changed the way the world viewed Nuclear Energy again. Years had been spent in convincing us about the civil use of nuclear energy when, Fukushima jolted the world by reigniting the same fears. Although, it has been admitted that the safety risks related to the plant were underplayed for fear of agitation, it has also been established by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee that a lot of the disaster was man-made and could have been averted if there was an alternate freshwater storage and power back up. What does that teach us? Something that we know in theory: that, natural disasters have their worst effects because of man induced faults. This can mean one of two things with respect to the possible stands that states have taken – either that Fukushima scares the rest of the world like Japan or Germany to eventually completely phase out the use of Nuclear Energy or the other is to react like the way the Indian Government is reacting, which is to present a front that appears to have taken care of all possible problems that might arise out of a nuclear disaster like Fukushima (see here and here). And, of course, there is the utopian stand that a country has actually taken care of all probable disasters that can occur in a Fukushima-like situation or any other nuclear disaster; which is probably not something any nation, company or scientist is in a position to say.

The government seems to believe that India, with its growing needs in the power sector cannot afford to take any steps back and that there are enough mechanisms at play to take care of any contingency. The standard and unfortunate polar view has been taken about how a few people are hindering the progress of the entire nation. However the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NCPIL) did admit that especially in the aftermath of Fukushima the fears of the people should have been addressed. Now it is another aspect that this reaction of NCPIL is suspect in the larger scheme of any development project’s nightmare: deadlock and protests. It is also suspect whether fears will be addressed merely with false consolation.

At this point though we need to understand what the agitation is really about. Is it about a worry that a Fukushima-like disaster will occur in India as well or is it something more? Apparently it is a lot more than a worry because the agitation has only re-surfaced when the Atomic Energy Regulation Board gave clearance to load one of the two reactors at the plant with fuel (which is one of the last steps before the plant can start producing power) combined with the wake of Fukushima. It is evident that any protest to gain legitimacy would need more than just a worry to base their campaign on. The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, founded in 2003 is not about eradicating the worries or the possible problems, man-made or natural, which might arise out of the said power plant but, is to close down any operation at Kudankulam notwithstanding any new safety mechanisms that might develop in the future. Why is that? Thirteen Reasons for agitating against the said Power Plant  include: the fact that Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) that are required to be conducted have not been conducted, the inevitable displacement of people as well as their livelihood as a consequence, the impossibility of evacuating the large population that resides near the plant in case of a disaster, the low grade waste that will be dumped and  impact the fish production and catch, the violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), the possibility of natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks, the phase out of nuclear energy post Fukushima in many countries as well as suspicion about the real benefactors being profit making Corporations in Russia or the Indian Military and not the civilians as is made out to be.

Now it is true that the Anti-Kudankulam stand is one of livelihood lost either because of displacement or destruction of fish stock, impact on future generations and other suspicions on the fact that the government does not tell the local people the full story. However, within the local community there are small industries that suffer huge losses that are caused by frequent power cuts who are excited about an alternate option of energy. Their voice is unheard most likely because they form a minority of the locals or maybe even because the pro-Kudankulam stand is suppressed when it comes to the locals.

The matter is sub judice and is being heard in the Supreme Court (SLP 27335 OF 2012 and W.P. (C). No.464/2011) along with the petition that is challenging the constitutionality of the cap on the Operator’s No Fault liability that has been fixed under The Civil Liability of Nuclear Damage Act 2010 which the petitioners’ claim is in violation of the absolute liability principle setup of the apex court. The petition regarding the Kudankulam Power Plant alleges that the plant has been setup without first ensuring that the 17 critical safety features recommended by the Central government’s expert task-force are put in place. The petition also brought out that “India’s nuclear safety regulator AERB (Atomic Energy Regulation Board) is a body under the control of the very department it is supposed to regulate and merely acts as a rubber-stamping authority, and thereby, it has put to grave risk the rights of the citizens under Article 21 of the Constitution”. To address this problem the  Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011 was introduced in Parliament to replace the AERB. The Bill establishes the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) to regulate nuclear safety.

This piece in the Hindu discussed the real legal grounds for the Kudankulam agitation. Under the CRZ the only exception to the prohibition to industrial activity within 500 metres of the High Tide Line is industries and projects of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) directly requiring waterfront or foreshore facilities. The NCPIL being a government company is distinct from a government department and the requirement for freshwater not being one that requires waterfront facilities are the reasons that the power plant are violating the CRZ. The piece also suggests that although the plant was approved in 1989, the work related thereto started only after the EIA notification in 1994 and the said notification has not been complied with. The non compliance of the EIA, as mentioned is one of the many reasons for the agitation. The environmental impact of storage, transportation and reprocessing of spent fuel as well as the impact of six desalination plants on marine ecology were not assessed at the time of initial clearance, and has not been done till date.

The Kudankulam Power Plant agitation raises uncomfortable questions about the representations made by the government about the future of a development project as well as the real reasons for a particular agitation. These questions are not very different from those that need to be asked off other development projects. If the government only sees progress the way they want to see it, then protests are inevitable but, if protests occur without an informed base and on knee-jerk reactions then, they would be in vain. How much do the government officials or the agitators know about nuclear safety? Who is informing both sides of the debate? And is this information necessarily correct? Is this the problem with any Nuclear Power Plant or is it the specificities of this particular Power Plant that the agitators have a problem with. If Fukushima is the primary concern then the agitation pervades all nuclear plants for any purpose but, if it is this particular plant with its CRZ and EIA violations along with the population of Kudankulam and its proximity to water and consequent dependence of fisherman is the concern, then the concern is the uncomfortable and increasingly frequent face-off between development and displacement. Either or both of the concerns are big enough for the government to need to take concrete steps apart from giving vague reassuring statements to media houses while, at the same time the people agitating should understand what they are really protesting. The last thing India needs is a hunger strike at the drop of a hat without an informed participating base. That would be counter-productive to any agitation as it might face a dismissive front from those in power and all the nation will be left with is a lack of much needed dialogue.

Image Courtesy: here, here and here

(Surabhi Dhar is Associate Articles Editor with the Journal of Indian Law and Society)

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