India is not Japan. That’s the argument being put out by both sides of the nuclear debate in India in the wake of the disaster in Japan. The government of India is trying to reassure the public that Fukushima could not happen in India.
Japan lies squarely on a fault line. None of India’s 20 nuclear reactors are in seismic Zone 5, which is most vulnerable to earthquakes. The Madras Atomic Power Station safely shut down when the 2004 tsunami struck. The Fukushima reactor is a boiling water reactor while most of India’s reactors are pressurized heavy water reactors with passive cooling systems.
India is not Japan, agree anti-nuclear activists. Japan’s much touted, highly advanced disaster preparedness couldn’t stop the radiation leaks. India, on the other hand, is “disorganized and unprepared for the handling of any kind of even much less severity” says Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, former chair of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), in an op-ed in the newspaper DNA. India has been lucky its systems haven’t had to face something like what happened in Fukushima. Environmental activist Praful Bidwai points out in the Hindustan Times that India also has boiling water reactors in its nuclear plant at Tarapur—“designed by General Electric, the same as Fukushima’s, only smaller and one-generation older, probably with weaker safety systems.”
The government is standing its ground. While publicly saying that Japan is a wake-up call and ordering a review, it insists there will be no “rethink on the nuclear energy programme.” India now generates only three percent of its energy from nuclear power. It wants to increase its nuclear power capacity fivefold in the next ten years to 20,000 MW and then to 40,000 MW by 2030. That would be one of the largest expansions in the world.
It’s unlikely that any of the big nuclear powers are going to urge India to slow down. Russia, France, the United States are all involved in building the new reactors. The United States is planning to invest some $150 billion in the next 30 years.
Right now both sides are zeroing in on one of the new reactors—the 9,900 MW plant being proposed in Jaitapur in western India. Jaitapur is in a seismic zone. 3,000 social activists have already been arrested for opposing the project. Srikumar Banerjee, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission told Samay that Jaitapur can withstand a tsunami of the magnitude experienced by Japan. But former AERB chair Gopalakrishnan says the government just doesn’t know. The reactors are being called state of the art. But that really means neither the Indians, nor the French know very much about them. On top of that the radiation impact from a tsunami was not even covered in its Environment Impact Assessment. Nuclear plant safety isn’t included under the domain of the environment ministry says Jairam Ramesh, the Minister for Environment.
That’s the big problem, say opponents of the power plant. No one knows where the buck stops when it comes to safety. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India sets up nuclear plants. The Atomic Energy Board looks at their safety. But both are under the government’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). That closeness helped smooth the way for the Indo-US nuclear deal. But now it means the AERB is no watchdog. It’s just a “lapdog” of the DAE, scoffs Gopalakrishnan.
But to be frank, until Fukushima, there was little public interest. When the chair of Atomic Energy Commission addressed lawmakers about the Jaitapur project, television cameras showed several of them taking a nap.
If Jaitapur is seen to have violated environmental regulations it could be scrapped, Jairam Ramesh told CNN-IBN. The government, he said, is reviewing all projects that had been cleared on India’s coastline.
But even as it concedes to a review as opposed to a rethink, the government is playing another card. For years, India has been criticized for dragging its feet on climate change because it does not want to put any brakes on its economic growth. That means India needs its nuclear power, says Ramesh. “From a climate change point of view, it is the best source because it does not have any greenhouse gas emission,” he told the Business Standard.
Sandip Roy works in New America MEida as a writer and radio host.