By Ranjit Devraj
HAVANA TIMES, March 14 (IPS) — Anti-nuclear campaigners in India see the earthquake that hit Japan last week, which threatens the meltdown of the Fukushima atomic power facility there, as a wakeup call for this country’s ambitious nuclear power program.
When India completed a nuclear power cooperation deal with the United States in October 2008, it threw open a 270 billion U.S. dollar market for nuclear reactors. Now members of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers’ Group are queuing up for contracts.
The biggest of these contracts was signed in Dec. 2010 with French state- owned manufacturer Areva. The contracted 9,900-megawatt nuclear power park, the world’s largest, ran into public resistance over its location in Jaitapur-Madban, in the Konkan area of western Maharashtra state.
“Apart from our opposition to nuclear power we object to the selection of the site on the Konkan coast which falls in a known seismic belt,” Laxminarayan Ramdas, one of the leaders of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, told IPS.
“The unfortunate events in Japan and the possibility of a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant should serve as wakeup call for the proponents of nuclear energy in this country,” said Ramdas.
Jaitapur, on the Konkan coast, falls in the “high damage risk zone” in the official earthquake hazard map of India.
Over the past 20 years there have been three earthquakes in Jaitapur exceeding five points on the Richter scale, and the worst of them in 1993 – measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale – left 9,000 people dead in the Konkan region.
“The Konkan is one of the world’s hottest biodiversity hotspots and a nuclear accident could result in extensive and long-term damage from radioactivity,” Ramdas said.
Ramdas, who served as India’s naval chief (1990 – 1993) and won the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding for his efforts at building peace between Pakistan and India, has been barred from entering Jaitapur by the Maharashtra government.
“The government is promoting an exorbitantly expensive reactor design [European Pressurized Reactor or EPR] which has not been cleared by the nuclear regulatory authority of any country, including France,” Ramdas said. “We don’t know who they are trying to please.”
The world’s first EPR reactor, under construction in Olkiluoto, Finland, is mired in litigation with Finnish, French, British and U.S. nuclear regulators who have raised a slew of serious safety issues.
India’s public sector Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) has so far signed nuclear cooperation agreements for the supply of equipment or fuel with the U.S., Russia, France, Britain, Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Namibia – and has plans to set up ten nuclear energy parks.
But, plans to set up nuclear energy parks in Kudankulam, in southern Tamil Nadu, Mithi Virdi in western Gujarat, Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh, and Haripur in West Bengal have run into protests by local farmers’ or fishermen’s groups.
The loudest of the protests has been coming from Kudankulam where a 9,200-megawatt power plant is fast coming up with Russian VVER (water- cooled, water-moderated energy reactor) technology, popular in the former Soviet bloc countries.
S.P. Udayakumar, who leads the influential National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements, and is based in Nagercoil city in Tamil Nadu, told IPS that what happened at Fukushima could happen anywhere in the world regardless of precautions.
“There are serious lessons here for India, just as the world is preparing for the 25th anniversary of the deadly nuclear power plant accident at Chernobyl on Apr. 26,” stressed Udayakumar. “But the Indian nuclear establishment is in denial mode.”
“After the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami damaged the Kalpakkam nuclear facility [also in Tamil Nadu] and caused several deaths there, India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) busied itself with assurances that India’s nuclear power plants were safe,” said Udayakumar.
While the reactors of the Madras Atomic Power Plant (MAPP) at Kalpakkam escaped damage, DAE officials admitted that they were not constructed with the possibility of a tsunami, of a type that killed 225,000 people in 11 countries, in mind.
“After Fukushima Daiichi, the Indian public must sit up and assert itself on the dangerous nuclear power program that the Indian government and the nuclear establishment are foisting on the people,” Udayakumar said. “So far, this has been marked by lack of transparency, unaccountability, forcible land acquisitions and police repression.”
Indian experts and officials continue to insist that the 20 functional nuclear power plants scattered all over the country are safe. On Sunday, the NPCIL released a statement saying that the event in Japan was being reviewed. “Resulting out of such review, any reinforcement as needed would be implemented,” the statement said.
NPCIL also said: “After the severe [7.6 on the Richter] earthquake of Gujarat, Bhuj on Jan. 26, 2001, the Kakrapar atomic power station continued to operate safely. Similarly, during the tsunami event in 2004, MAPP was safely shut down without any radiological consequences.”
“Generally speaking, India’s nuclear plants are built to withstand earthquakes,” says Vinod Menon, an international consultant who, until last year, was a prominent member of the National Disaster Management Authority.
But Menon admits that there are many imponderables such as the actual intensity of a temblor or just how close the epicenter of a seismic event is to the surface of the earth.
“Going by what we know the densely populated Ganges and Brahmaputra valleys that lie below the Himalayas – a vast, 2,900 kilometer mountain chain – are prone to strong earthquakes, and special precautions need to be taken for any major construction in that belt,” Menon told IPS.