Kudankulam is turning into a flashpoint yet again.
The latest we have is protestors there standing waist deep in the sea imitating the recently successful Jal Satyagraha protests in Madhya Pradesh.
In fact, locations that have been earmarked for new nuclear plants – Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Mithi Virdi in Gujarat, Chutka in Madhya Pradesh and Fatehabad in Haryana among others – have also had to deal with their share of protests.
The proposal to build a plant at one of the sites, Haripur in West Bengal, was even scrapped by the new Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (it had previously been one of her electoral planks).
Today, there are 20 nuclear plants operating in India, capable of producing close to 5000 megawatts of electricity at full tilt – close to 3% of the power generated in the country.
Seven more reactors are under construction across the country.
More ambitious is the talk of scaling up nuclear power capacity to 63000 MW by 2032.
But then all this is being pushed through in an environment where there has been considerable opposition to every nuclear plant commissioned since the 1980s.
The big question is why? And if this is indeed necessary.
The protests are only gaining in strength now.
More so after the Fukushima nuclear disaster that according to a widely-quoted study could cost anywhere between $71 billion to $250 billion to clean up.
Such was the global impact of the Fukushima catastrophe that “a fundamental shift in public perception with regard to how a nation prioritizes and values its populations health, safety, security, and natural environment when determining its current and future energy pathways” was imminent, a Deutesche Bank analysis note concluded in 2011, adding that this could mean that, “renewable energy will be a clear long-term winner in most energy systems”.
But in India that logic does not seem to hold ground at least for the government.
“We are strengthening emergency preparedness and response to nuclear accidents,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said after the “tragic events at Fukushima”.
“We are determined that our expanded nuclear power programme will follow the highest standards of nuclear safety and security. It is essential to restore public faith in nuclear energy,” he went on to add.
But that is precisely the nub of the problem, is it not?
How do you restore public faith in nuclear energy?
After all, isn’t it all about battling the fear of that one fatal accident that could happen in the future? How do you allay such an overarching fear?
By simply saying that our reactors, despite being man made, are 100% foolproof?
By giving companies like Russia’s state-run Atomstroyeksport, the supplier of the reactor at Kudankulam, immunity from any possible legal action by victims in case an accident (god forbid) were to occur?
By restricting the maximum compensation available to such victims at Rs 2500 crore?
Like the anti-nuclear campaigners, physicists MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju, wrote in their article in The Hindu newspaper, “When nuclear companies are unwilling to stake their financial health on these claims of ’100% safety’, how can the government ask local residents to risk their lives?”
Once such arguments arise, addressing them demands a need a lot of time, patience and money.
It might help our leaders that the nuclear sector in India is fully government funded.
With agitations dogging nuclear power every step of the way, they have, though, to embrace the fact that every new plant turns into that much more of a challenge.
It is no more just about the plant, it is also about building a perception that a nuclear plant can dramatically alter lives in the locations and areas around it for the better.
How much of the taxpayers’ money would all this entail?
How much of time would it involve?
How many successful examples would it involve?
And then again wouldn’t one accident at a nuclear plant – in India or elsewhere – bring all that hard work to nought?
A new conventional largescale reactor, according to an article in the Atlantic monthly, may cost up to $10 billion.
Delays – caused by agitations and otherwise – only add to the expenses.
The government recently stated in Rajya Sabha that the cost of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant is estimated to go up from Rs 13171 crore to Rs 17270 crore thanks to the delay in commissioning of the plant.
Yes, there is the argument that there have been only three major accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and most recently Fukushima – in what the World Nuclear Association terms “14500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 32 countries”.
Yes, there is also the argument that they have only been almost 4000 deaths in nuclear accidents, while over a lakh people die from coal pollution every year, as the Foreign Policy magazine reported in a recent article.
Nuclear energy also remains a green fuel with zero carbon emissions
But battling the fear of a possible nuclear catastrophe is never going to be easy despite all these indubitable facts in favour of nuclear energy.
Let us also remind ourselves that the other country making a huge bet on nuclear energy is China, which plans to build 20 nuclear plants and commission 36 nuclear reactors over the next decade.
But then China isn’t a democracy.
It is something the Indian government would do well to consider before they decide to give the next proposal for a nuclear project the go ahead.
R Rajesh Kumar