Anuj Wankhede

Ten years is a long time – One decade, half a score or third of a generation.

That’s the number of years since the fight against a nuclear power project has been raging in Jaitapur, Maharashtra on the west coast of India.

On 28th August, in the idyllic Konkan region, the local community held public demonstrations and a non violent offer to go to prison rather than allow the project to come up. Every year, the locals have expressed their objections to the hideous project touted to be the largest single-site nuclear power station on the planet.

Perhaps ten years ago, this might have impressed some.

Now, nuclear energy is so out of fashion that giant multinational companies such as General Electric (GE) have distanced themselves from building new reactors and are focusing on making money in the dismantling of old ones put up during the heydays of nuclear – the Cold War Era.

Nuclear energy is passé.

It’s “sell by” date has passed.
While there is no official cutoff date of course, it can be safely said to be March 11, 2011 when the Great Eastern earthquake and tsunami knocked off 50+ nuclear reactors out of business in Japan and spewed radiation.

The world watched stunned even as the horrors unfolded.

Many nations took a call to shun the deadly nuclear power and opted for cleaner, safer and cheaper alternatives such as solar and wind. Others quietly shelved plans of expansion.

As new orders dried, once giant corporations began to feel the heat. Nuclear was never a profitable business proposition and nuclear power was never cheap. It has survived solely on the basis of government subsidies. With new orders gone, companies like Areva had to file for bankruptcy as was Westinghouse – the former was bailed out by the French government while the latter was rescued by a Canadian private equity firm but not before it almost brought down the Japanese giant Toshiba along with it.

Prices of uranium have fallen 66% to just about US$23 per ounce since 2011 which reflects the fact that there are simply no buyers in the international market for the raw material needed to run these reactors.

This is the scenario today.

Clearly, nuclear energy is not even an option today for any sensible government (the keyword here is sensible, but more on that later).

Now add to this the time needed to build even ONE nuclear reactor (six are planned at Jaitapur). Globally, the median is seven years but in the Indian context, time has no meaning. Which is why, the Kudankulam nuclear power plant took a whopping 25 years from conceptualisation to operationalization. Further, the technology sought to be deployed at Jaitapur is a new, untested one which has seen massive time and cost overruns in Finland and France.
So even if construction begins today, it will not be before 2027 that a single unit of power is generated – and this is the most optimistic timeframe.
Will something that is already out of favour be relevant in 2030? That too in face of sweeping changes in the electricity generation, storage and distribution space.

Cheap, clean renewable energy is already a reality and that married with massive battery storage has rendered white elephants like nuclear power plants obsolete. This is not science fiction, it is now and real – the Tesla Gigafactory in south Australia has demonstrated this at utility scale i.e. it is not a lab demonstration but powers whole cities using wind power stored in battery “farms”. Another is being built in Nevada, USA while China is building at least three such facilities. Above all, the Australian Gigafactory was built in 100 days!

In face of such developments, the whole notion of setting up a 10,000MW power project is senseless. And that brings me to the question about “sensible government”. Look at some reasons (apart from the ones detailed above) and decide for yourself if building a nuclear power station at Jaitapur is the act of any sensible government:

1) Jaitapur is located in the most ecologically fragile region, and has one of the largest biodiversity found on the planet with many rare and endangered species present here.
2) Jaitapur lies on an earthquake fault line which means that it is susceptible to earthquakes and which could result in a repeat of Fukushima.
3) The region surrounding the proposed site is world famous for its agricultural produce – its Alphonso mangoes and cashew are prized and fetch a premium price world over.
4) The proposed site will devastate the fishing community by denying them access to the sea as well as by destroying marine life due to the release of hot water from the reactors.

These are just some of the reasons why it makes no sense to build a nuclear power station at Jaitapur.

Apart from these, there are plenty of other reasons such as constant dangerous radiation, the problems related to disposal of nuclear waste (to which there is no solution), the huge capital investment needed for such projects, the thousands of tons of cement, concrete and steel used whose manufacturing is highly polluting and is a primary source of greenhouse gases.

The government acquired land for the project by surreptitious, underhand means. Many of those who did not want to surrender their lands were coerced or tricked into accepting “compensation” for “voluntarily” surrendering it.
And yet ten years since the agitation began, the people around the proposed project are firm about not allowing it. The government must listen to the voices of the locals, act democratically and sensibly. I realize that it is virtually impossible for the government to do any one of the above – let alone all three.
But any rational person would reach the conclusion that building a nuclear power station here is lunacy and that the land acquired for the project be returned back to the original land owners – with an apology.

For 10 long years, the villagers have demonstrated peacefully despite provocation by the government – police have opened fire on them killing one of them. Yet, the villagers have maintained peace and have kept the faith.

The government should not push it’s luck and must forthright declare that the Jaitapur nuclear power project stands cancelled.

(The author has been involved with various agitations across India and abroad protesting the use of nuclear energy and weapons.
He can be reached via email at [email protected])