Praful Bidwai at

Even zealous supporters of nuclear power should logically concede three things to their opponents. First, after Fukushima, it’s natural for people everywhere to be deeply sceptical of the claimed safety of nuclear power, and for governments to phase out atomic programmes, as is happening in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and now Japan.

Second, nuclear power, like all technologies, should be promoted democratically, with the consent of the people living in the vicinity, and with scrupulous regard for civil liberties. And third, safety must be paramount in reactor construction and operation, with strict adherence to norms and full compliance with the rules laid down by an independent safety authority.

The way the Indian government has dealt with the opponents of the Koodankulam nuclear reactors being built in Tamil Nadu violates all three red lines. Rather than treat such opposition as natural, logical and an indication of citizens’ engagement with the world, the Department of Atomic Energy and its subsidiary Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd see it as a pathological condition to be cured by psychiatrists from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore.

The government has all along demonised Koodankulam’s opponents. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, no less, vilified them as inspired by “foreign-funded” NGOs without citing an iota of evidence. The government even deported a German tourist living in a Rs200-a-day room, alleging he was “masterminding” and financing the agitation. This week, it summarily deported three Japanese activists who were planning to visit Koodankulam. All this shows official disconnect with reality. Globally, nuclear power was in retreat even before Fukushima. The number of operating reactors peaked 10 years ago, and their installed capacity has been falling since 2010. Nuclear’s share of global power generation has declined from its peak (17 percent) to about 11 percent.

Post-Fukushima, the global nuclear industry faces its worst-ever credibility crisis. With increasingly adverse public opinion, and rising reactor costs (which have tripled over a decade), it’ll probably go into terminal decline. Jeff Immelt of General Electric, one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment says, nuclear power is “really hard to justify”. However, India continues its Nuclear March of Folly and has unleashed savage repression against anti-nuclear protesters. Hundreds of FIRs have been lodged against several thousands of people in Koodankulam (according to one estimate, an incredible 55,000 people), and many are charged with sedition and waging war against the state – for organising protests without a single violent incident.

It’s hard to think of another occasion, including the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, or the 1992 Babri demolition, where the state has charged so many people with such grave offences. On September 10, the police launched a vicious lathi and tear-gas attack on peaceful protesters although they were obstructing nobody’s movement. The police literally drove many agitators into the sea, molested women, arrested scores and looted their houses. Police firing killed a fisherman.

A fact-finding team led by Justice BG Kolse-Patil and senior journalist Kalpana Sharma describes the Koodankulam situation as a “reign of terror”, marked by “extreme and totally unjustified” use of force, physical abuse, vindictive detention of 56 people, including juveniles, and targeting of women. Such thug-like police behaviour, it says, “has no place in a country that calls itself democratic”. Yet, repression of movements against destructive projects is becoming part of a deplorable pattern in India. No socially desirable project can be built on the ashes of citizens. This in and of itself is a strong reason to oppose the Koodankulam reactors.

Manmohan Singh last year suspended work at Koodankulam and promised to allay people’s apprehensions regarding safety. But he had no intention of doing so. The sarkari experts he appointed didn’t even bother to meet the people’s representatives or answer their queries about the site’s vulnerability to tsunamis, volcanic activity and earthquakes. People’s fears grew as NPCIL refused to share relevant information with them, including the Site Evaluation and the Safety Analysis Reports. Despite a Right to Information request, a legal petition and a parliament question, NPCIL failed to disclose the text of an Indo-Russian intergovernmental agreement, which reportedly absolves the reactors’ supplier of any liability for an accident.

This puts a disturbing question-mark over the official claim that the reactors are safe, and accidents are all but impossible. If so, why is the supplier evading liability? That brings us to the third factor mentioned above: NPCIL’s non-compliance with safety protocols, and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s approval for fuel-loading in breach of the own norms. This is a grim story. Last year, following Fukushima, the AERB set up under state orders a task force to suggest improvements in reactor safety. This made 17 recommendations, pertaining to freshwater and power backup, improved sensors and instrumentation, etc.

The Koodankulam plant is not compliant with as many as 11 of the 17. The AERB first told the Madras High Court that it wouldn’t permit fuel-loading unless full compliance was established. But within four days, it made an about-turn – probably under pressure from the government. As the comptroller and accountant general has established in a recent report, the AERB lacks independence and is totally subservient to the government. On August 10, it permitted NPCIL to start fuel loading. NPCIL has since been loading live nuclear fuel into the first reactor. This is wrong and dangerous, and shows reckless disregard for safety procedures.

The AERB is guilty of yet more safety violations. Its own rules say there must be absolutely no population in the “exclusion zone” covering a 1.6km radius from the plant, and that the population in the 5km area must be under 20,000. Now, as anyone who has been to Koodankulam will testify, a a tsunami rehabilitation colony, with 450 tenements, stands less than 1km from the plant. At least 40,000 people live within a 5km radius. The AERB, supposedly the public’s nuclear watchdog, has turned a blind eye to this. Equally disgraceful is its failure to enforce another rule which stipulates that no fuel-loading be permitted until an off-site emergency preparedness drill is completed within a 16km radius under the joint supervision of NPCIL, the district administration, the state government and the National Disaster Management Authority.

This involves full evacuation procedures, with prior warning, identification of routes, commandeering of vehicles, and clear instructions to the public. No such drill was ever conducted. And yet, the AERB cleared initial fuel-loading. This amounts to playing with the public’s life.

India is loath to move away from nuclear power although the world is abandoning it rapidly. The transition is fastest in the OECD countries, which account for 70 percent of the world’s 429 reactors. There are just two reactors under construction in the West. Both are mired in safety problems, long delays and 130 percent-plus cost overruns. Even France, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from atomic reactors – a fact the global nuclear industry repeats as if that were clinching proof of its own safety and reliability – will reduce its nuclear dependence to 50 percent by 2025.

As nuclear declines, global investment in clean, flexible renewable sources like wind and solar has grossed $1 trillion since 2004. Their costs are falling dramatically. Renewables are the future.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1