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INDIA: Fukushima Won’t Stop World’s Largest Nuclear Facility

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Apr 28 2011 (IPS) - While the Fukushima tragedy has not deterred India from going ahead with building the world’s largest nuclear power facility at Jaitapur on the western coast, the government has announced a tighter safety regime for its ambitious nuclear power programme.

Following a high-level meeting convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a government statement said that the “Jaitapur project would be implemented in a phased manner with two 1,650 Mw reactors to begin with.”

The statement said that a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of these reactors, to be imported from France, will be done when they become operational by 2019.

Originally the Jaitapur project, in western Maharashtra state, was to have been commissioned in 2018 with the French Areva supplying six 1,650 Mw reactors at a cost estimated to be not less than 12 billion dollars. Areva will also supply the uranium to fuel the reactors.

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said at a press conference that followed Singh’s meeting, that each reactor will have its own independent safety systems and be operated and maintained separately.

“Fukushima,” said Ramesh, “saw the cascading failure of one reactor after another, and that is what caused much of the public concern on Jaitapur.”

More importantly, the government announced that it would legislate to create an autonomous Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India to replace the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), long under criticism for lacking independence from the country’s powerful and secretive Department of Atomic Energy.

“This is a welcome development,” said A. Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear scientist and former AERB chairman who, for years, has been carrying on a crusade against the secret functioning of India’s nuclear establishment.

Gopalakrishnan told IPS that he hoped the promised legislation would be “purposeful and bring in sufficient transparency and accountability since that was the best way to prevent future Fukushimas.”

According to Gopalakrishnan several of India’s own nuclear “incidents” were covered up simply because the civilian nuclear sector falls under the Official Secrets Act that goes back to colonial times.

“India should ideally model the new regulatory body on the French Nuclear Safety Authority,” Gopalakrishnan said.

The government said in its statement that it would it would seek assistance from the Operational Safety Review Team of the International Atomic Energy Association and that “the best available expertise will be used to ensure the highest levels of safety.”

As for dealing with local protests around Jaitapur led by groups supporting the interests of farmers and fishermen, the government said it would shortly be announcing a new compensation package for those displaced through land acquisition for the nuclear park.

“A generous new compensation package has been worked out by the (Maharashtra) state government and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and will be announced soon,” the statement said.

Last week, clashes between protesters and police had resulted in the death of one villager and injuries to 20 others. The regional Shiv Sena political party has also pitched in to declare that it would not allow any nuclear park to come up in Maharashtra.

Last month, a mammoth petition signed by eminent citizens was sent to the prime minister, calling for an independent safety review of nuclear installations in India and, pending that, a moratorium on further nuclear activities.

Signatories to the petition included former Indian navy chief Lakshminarayan Ramdas, former vice- chancellor of Delhi University, Deepak Nayyar, historians Romila Thapar, Mushirul Hasan and Ramachandra Guha, economists Amit Bhaduri and Jean Dreze as well as writers Arundhati Roy and Nayantara Sehgal.

Ramdas told IPS that centralised energy generation through nuclear power encouraged secrecy and fostered “the creation of a vested interests in an unaccountable, undemocratic and technocratic elite.”

However, the government reiterated plans to quadruple nuclear power output from the current 4,650 Mw to 20,000 Mw by 2020, saying that the country’s energy needs were vast and that it viewed nuclear energy as an important and clean energy option.

India’s existing 20 nuclear reactors are small, indigenously built and have low output, accounting for less than three percent of total power capacity.

This situation, blamed on a technology and materials embargo imposed on India for clandestinely exploding a nuclear device in 1974, changed after the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers group (NSG) of nations allowed a special India-specific waiver to allow this country, which is not signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to resume international nuclear commerce.

This was followed by the conclusion of the landmark Indo-U.S. Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 2008. Gopalakrishnan said while he supported “necessary forward movement” in scaling up nuclear power, he was opposed to the Jaitapur project because it was based on political considerations overlooking safety concerns around Areva’s untested “Evolutionary Pressurised Reactors (EPR)”.

The world’s first EPR reactor, being constructed in Olkiluoto, Finland, is mired in litigation over safety issues. A second one at Flamanville in Normandy in France has also come up against safety issues raised by the French regulator, threatening Areva’s future.

“The Areva deal was a reward for the support that France gave for the special waiver given to India by the NSG,” Gopalakrishnan said.

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