Rich tropical forest, vibrant wildlife, water of Kali river will be in line of destruction

Nuclear Energy

The Satoddi waterfall in the Western Ghats, in Uttara Kannada district, where the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant is also located. Credit: Getty Images  The Satoddi waterfall in the Western Ghats, in Uttara Kannada district, where the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant is also located. Credit: Getty Images

The biodiversity of the Western Ghats, already under a lot of anthropogenic pressure, will suffer even more if the expansion of the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which is to come up for public hearing on December 14, goes ahead. That this will be done for generating power through a technology that has several alternative and much benign options is even more ironical.

To understand this, an overview of the related issues is necessary.

In May 2017, the Union government decided to commission ten nuclear power reactors of the type Pressurised heavy-water reactor (PHWR) of 700 MW capacity each in different parts of the country. Two of the ten PHWR type reactors are proposed at the Kaiga NPP, in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district.

Let us first consider the terrain around Kaiga NPP. It is made of undulating hills covered with thick forests as an important part of the Western Ghats (WGs) on the west coast of India. According to a 2011 report by the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests, the forests around Kaiga NPP, a World Heritage site, are considered to be some of the best tropical forests in the world with very high ecological value, rich tropical bio-diversity and many kinds of unique species. The hill ranges of the WGs, of which these forests are critical parts, are  considered as the backbone of the ecology and economy of South India, and are also very good carbon sequestration systems in addition to being the water fountains of Peninsular India.

In view of the fact that the existing transmission lines (4 lines of 400 kV rating) to evacuate power from Kaiga NPP will not be adequate for the new capacity of 1,400 MW, there will be a need for additional transmission lines to evacuate the additionally generated electricity. These new lines may require the clearance of a 75 metre-wide corridor for more than 100 km for the right of way. This means the destruction of many sq kms of thick tropical forest of very high ecological value not only for the WGs, the state of Karnataka, and the country, but to the global environment itself because of the good Carbon sequestration capability of the thick forests in the tropics. The total cost (both direct and indirect costs) of such a destruction of tropical forests will be incalculable from the ecological perspective to India, whereas the benefits of the additional electricity from the expanded project will be negligible from the country’s projected power sector capability by 2030 (year by which the two reactors may get commissioned).

The forest cover in the Uttara Kannada district, where Kaiga is located, has come down from a high of about 70 per cent of the land area in the 1950s to less than 25% now due to various ‘development projects’ including the Konkan Railway, Sea-Bird naval base, national highways, industries, many dam-based hydel projects, and the Kaiga NPP since 2000. As against the National Forest Policy (adopted in the 1980s) target of 33 per cent land cover by forests & trees, Karnataka’s forest & tree cover at present is less than 20 per cent for which the forests of Uttara Kannada district are major contributors. Any further loss of such rich forests in the WGs can spell doom not only to the drought-prone state of Karnataka, but to the whole of Peninsular India, for which the WGs are considered as water fountains.

As per the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) IV Assessment Report, “the emissions from deforestation are very significant—they are estimated to represent more than 18 per cent of global emissions”. It also says, “Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

At a time when the mitigation aspects of climate change have occupied the minds of global leaders, it is a moot point to consider how rational it will be to loose many sq km of thick tropical forest around Kaiga NPP for the sake of a technology, for which there are many benign and much less costly alternatives. While the nationwide efforts to plant tree saplings are laudable, the same cannot replace the rich original tropical forests. It would be unacceptably destructive.

The increase in nuclear power capacity by 2.6 times at Kaiga NPP should also mean an additional fresh water demand on the Kali river, which is flowing adjacent to the project, by a similar magnitude. If this also leads to an increase in the temperature of the discharged water from the project back to the river, it should be a matter of concern from the perspective of the creatures dependent on that river.

Due to the increased volume of the used-water discharge from the project, the pollution level of the river water downstream of the project is likely to go up, despite the claims of project authorities on water purification processes to be deployed. It is a moot point as to what impact will this distorted quality of river will have on the concerned stakeholders. It is impossible to imagine that it will be beneficial from any perspective.

The impact of the vastly increased radiation density (because of the 2.6 times increase in nuclear reactor activity?) on the bio-diversity and the people working and living in the project area cannot be anything but negative. Additionally, the risk of any unfortunate nuclear accident can only multiply because of the need to store on site the vastly additional quantity of highly radioactive spent fuel for hundreds of years (India has no policy as yet to store the spent nuclear fuel and other associated wastes away from the nuclear reactor site).

In summary, the expansion of Kaiga will be catastrophic for the biodiversity of the area, which in turn will have effects on Karnataka, India and even the world. It will be a travesty of social and environmental justice, and the violation of the provision of the country’s Constitution to allow the diversion of more than 54 hectares of dense forest land of very high ecological value, and 6,346 cubic metre per hour of fresh water which can meet the daily needs of more than a million people to this enormously risky project.

Clearly, Karnataka and India can do without so much destruction. The costs of the expansion of Kaiga are unacceptable and just not worth it. The government should give serious thought before taking any further decisions on the project.

Shankar Sharma is a power policy analyst and professional electrical engineer with over 38 years of experience in India, Australia and New Zealand

ciurtesy- down to earth