By Nityanand Jayaraman & Sundar Rajan,   Chennai

Since August 2011, Tamil Nadu has witnessed renewed protests against the commissioning of the first of two 1,000 MW power plants as part of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP).

While protests have been ongoing against the project since the proposal was mooted in 1988, the impending commissioning of the reactors in light of the devastating and uncontrollable nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, has rightly triggered a wave of concern among thinking people in India.

The Koodankulam Nuclear Plant has been hit by a tsunami of protests

The protest against nuclear power plants is not isolated to Koodankulam. Even as we speak, fisherfolk and farmers in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, and farmers and residents of Gorakhpur, Haryana, are saying a loud “No” to nuclear power plants in their area.

Haripur, West Bengal, which was to be a site for Russian reactors, will no longer be on the nuclear map, as the state government bowed to local sentiment and declared West Bengal a nuclear-free state.

Wise people do learn from others’ mistakes. Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Japan have all announced that they will move away from the nuclear option, and explore clean and sustainable forms of electricity generation.

But India’s chest-thumping “nucleocracy” wants to play the death game, with peasants and fisherfolk as pawns in the gamble.

The staunch and united protests by farmers, traders and fisherfolk in Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Thoothukudi have scared the nuclear establishment.

Faced with the real prospect of having to abandon the project, the Congress-led UPA government is doing what it does best — divide and rule; communalise the issue and allege that foreign hands are at play.

At different times, the nuclear establishment and Dr Manmohan Singh have said different things — that Tamil Nadu’s industrialisation will falter without the project; that India cannot do without nuclear energy; that our nuclear plants are 100% safe; that abandoning the project at this stage could prove dangerous.

When it comes to explaining the consequences of a major disaster, Indian scientists, including Dr Kalam, have behaved more like astrologers than rationalists. How can anyone predict that no major earthquake will hit this area or that this human-made technology cannot fail?

The fears of Fukushima and the fears about continued electricity shortages have raised a number of conflicting emotions and doubts in people’s minds. This article aims to dispel some of the misconceptions about the safety of nuclear energy, and answer some frequently arising questions.

1. India is a developing country. We need electricity to develop. If we rule out the nuclear option, won’t our development be hampered?

Nuclear power is not the only option for generating electricity. There are a number of conventional and non-conventional sources of energy that can be explored for generating electricity.

It is a fact that in more than 60 years of post-independence industrialisation and modernisation, the contribution of nuclear energy to the total electricity generation is less than 3%.

Renewable energy sources already contribute more than 10% of India’s electricity and large hydro projects deliver about 22%. Large dams, though, have exacted a devastating toll on the environment and lives of adivasi communities.

For India to emerge as a true leader, we have to be careful not to destroy our natural capital — our waters, lands, air and people. By saying “No” to dangerous, risky and expensive technologies like nuclear, we create opportunities to develop cleaner, saner and less dangerous forms of electricity generation.

Increasing the available electricity can also be achieved by conservation and demand-side management strategies. For every 100 MW of electricity generated in India, more than 40 MW is lost because of inefficient transmission and distribution (T&D).

Industrialised countries like Sweden have a T&D loss of less than 7%. In other words, of the total 180,000 megawatts of electricity generated in India, 72,000 megawatts (40%) is lost, wasted. That is equivalent to shutting off all power plants in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

If efficiency were to be increased to, say 90%, the savings would be the equivalent of setting up a 60,000 MW power plant — or about 60 plants the size of the Koodankulam plant that is currently at the heart of a controversy — with a fraction of the investment, and none of the risks.

Increasing energy efficiency of electrical appliances is another way to save electricity. In Tamil Nadu alone, if incandescent lamps are converted to LED bulbs we could save about 2,000 MW.

Add to all this, the benefits of cutting on wasteful consumption. Shopping malls and IT companies burn electricity throughout the day. Night or day, lights and ACs are running even as households and small commercial establishments have to suffer power outages.

There must be a rationalisation of the use of electricity. The fact that villages surrounding Kalpakkam, where a nuclear plant is situated, are reeling under major power shortages is proof of the “inequitable distribution” of electricity.

2. Is renewable energy technologically viable? Will it be able to meet our energy needs?

Meeting India’s energy needs requires more than just renewable source, especially since electricity is merely one form of energy. In India, electricity meets only 12% of total energy needs.

People make do without electric lighting or cooling. But even the most indigent family needs fuel for cooking. Biomass (firewood or cowdung patties) is by far the most important source of energy for the nation.

Why is it that villages that are reeling under the effects of pollution from thermal plants in Singrauli, UP — once hailed as the energy capital of India — have neither electricity nor clean water? While challenging coal and nuclear, we also need to question a development model that incessantly calls for sacrifices by adivasis, dalits, farmers and fisherfolk so that others may prosper.

On the topic of renewable forms of energy for electricity generation, though, the fact remains that we have barely scratched the surface in terms of harnessing the potential.

According to the Government of India, India’s potential in renewables is as follows: wind energy — 48,500 MW (65,000 MW, according to the Indian Wind Energy Association;; small hydro power — 15,000 MW; biomass energy — 21,000 MW; and at least 400,000 MW from solar energy.

The monumental amounts of money being sunk into nuclear technology can be gainfully diverted to increase research in renewables, and electrical energy efficiency.
Already, advances in solar and wind technologies are reducing per MW costs. The capacity of existing windmills can be increased six to eight-fold by replacing older, lower-capacity turbines with newer, higher-capacity turbines, or by installing new and more efficient turbines amidst existing windmills.

In the last 15 years, India has added about 17,000 MW of power using renewable sources; China has added the same amount in just one year. So, where is the need to put all our eggs in the “nuclear basket”?

Secondly, many of the applications of electricity can be met by smart design. Tinted glass buildings in a city like Chennai require the burning of electricity for lighting throughout the day, even when the sun is shining brightly outside. Our city’s malls and IT companies in the Knowledge Corridor are examples of such “stupid” design.

In Germany’s Black Forest region, an ordinary woman named Ursula Sladek mobilised people to pay for the takeover of the electricity company after the Chernobyl disaster.

Today, the people-owned company supplies electricity generated from small, decentralised renewable sources to more than 100,000 customers. After the Fukushima disaster, an average of 400 new customers are subscribing to the company, requesting clean electricity. It is clear that electricity from renewable energy is not just environmentally sustainable but also commercially viable.

3. Can we, as Dr Abdul Kalam says, let one disaster (in Fukushima) derail our dreams of becoming an economically developed nation?

Besides the better-known disasters at Kyshtym, in the erstwhile USSR (1957), Three Mile Island (1979), and Chernobyl (1986), at least 76 nuclear accidents totalling $19.1 billion in damages have occurred between 1947 and 2008.

Most of these accidents — 56 to be precise — happened after the Chernobyl disaster. This translates to one serious nuclear incident every year, causing $332 million in damages annually.

Between 2005 and 2055, at least four serious nuclear accidents are likely to occur, according to calculations by an interdisciplinary study titled ‘The Future of Nuclear Power’ conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003. The 2011 Fukushima disaster is the first of MIT’s prophetic estimates.

And it is not just disasters that we are concerned about. Even nuclear reactors that “operate perfectly” are associated with higher risks of cancer and unexplained deaths.

In the US, where 104 reactors are operating at 65 sites, elevated rates of leukaemia and brain cancers are reported from communities near nuclear power plants.
Studies conducted by Dr V. Pugazhenthi, a physician and researcher, who provides medical services in the nuclear town of Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, have revealed elevated incidences of congenital deformities like polydactyly (webbed fingers), thyroid problems and various kinds of cancers among people living around the nuclear facility.

4. Dr Abdul Kalam says coal-fired power plants are dirty because they cause pollution and emit tonnes and tonnes of climate-changing carbon. He points to the devastating impacts of coal mining on the environment and the lives of communities in the vicinity.

Dr Kalam is right about coal-fired power plants. Coal plants are dirty and polluting. Coal mines are hells on earth. But we should not be forced to choose between two evils — nuclear or coal. Would you like to be raped or killed? My answer is “Neither”.

Dr Kalam does not talk of the effects of uranium mining on the environment and health of communities. In Jadugoda, Jharkhand, where India’s uranium is mined by the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd, the effects of radiation among the local adivasi population are horrendous.

Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, a national chapter of the Nobel-winning International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, recently published a health study on Jadugoda. The study found that:

• Primary sterility is more common in people residing near uranium mining operations.

• More children with congenital deformities are being born to mothers living near uranium mining operations.

• Congenital defects as a cause of death of children are higher among mothers living near uranium mines.

• Cancer as a cause of death is more common in villages surrounding uranium operations.

• Life expectancy of people living near uranium mining operations is lower than Jharkhand’s state average and lower than in villages far removed from the mines.

• All these indicators of poor health and increased vulnerability are despite the fact that the affected villages have a better economic and literacy status than reference villages.

The path to a sustainable and socially just future lies in moving away from environmentally destructive technologies such as coal and nuclear. Nuclear energy will not help us combat climate change. Per unit of power, nuclear energy emits four to five times more carbon dioxide (CO2) than renewable energy. If the entire nuclear fuel cycle is considered, the emissions are even higher.

5. Why are people protesting only now? Couldn’t they have told the government that they don’t want the project when it was first proposed?

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