11.09.2014 • India

Areva’s Jaitapur Nuclear Project: Another Catastrophe in the Offing?

The Indian Government is planning to build the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, in the Western state of Maharasthra. The plant is to be based on Areva’s EPR technology. The site is a biodiversity hotspot and is also known to have high seismic activity. According to critics, the project is an untested, expensive and dangerous gamble with health and land, which is being vehemently opposed. Areva and the Indian government are currently negotiating to finalise their agreement. Tarun Kanti Bose, of the Indian NGO Intercultural Resources, presents the background and the details of the Jaitapur nuclear project, and the resistance movement it has triggered in the area.

Published on 11 September 2014 , by Tarun Kanti Bose

This article is published through a partnership with Ritimo (Réseau d’information et de documentation sur la solidarité internationale et le développement durable). It is part of a collection of articles by Intercultural Resources on "People’s struggles on Urban and Energy related issues".

India’s nuclear programme was set up in 1948, with the introduction of an Atomic Energy Bill by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The act gives “exclusive responsibility/rights” over atomic energy to the state. In 1969, with the help of US, India started its first reactor in Tarapur, Maharasthra. As a non-signee to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India was excluded from international trading of nuclear commodities for many years. Its nuclear power plants were therefore built largely without external help or consultation, and outside of the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In 2008, the international trading ban was lifted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, opening the door for foreign countries that wished to trade nuclear equipment and fuel with India for civilian purposes. Deals with the US, France and Russia swiftly followed, as well as with Canada, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Namibia, South Korea and the UK.

Foreign corporations could now build nuclear reactors in India. The first potential victim of this is the extraordinary ecosystem in the coastal Konkan region of Maharashtra. This is a biodiversity hotspot, home to 6,000 species of flowering plants, mammals, birds and amphibians, including 325 threatened ones. It is the source of two major rivers, and India’s richest area for endemic plants.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is planning to install six 1,650-megawatt reactors in this region, at the port of Jaitapur in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district. The plant will use European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) designed by the French company Areva. The Indian government has ignored protests and forcibly acquired 2,300 acres using the Land Acquisition Act, which was first implemented by the British Empire. The Act, meant to acquire land for “public purposes,” has increasingly been used to benefit private companies and advance projects that put local populations at risk. As construction proceeds in Jaitapur, mountains will be flattened, trees uprooted, harbours razed, and a flourishing farming, horticultural and fisheries economy destroyed, jeopardising 40,000 people’s survival.

Nuclear Power Plant in Jaitapur

Jaitapur is planned to be the biggest nuclear power station in the world. Ever since 2006, Areva has been connected with the proposed nuclear ‘park’ in Jaitapur. Even before the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) agreed in September 2008 to make a special exception for India, New Delhi had started dangling the carrot of a lucrative nuclear reactor business worth $270 billion. This was done without any clearance from the Reserve Bank of India, without an engineering or technical assessment of the reactors, and without a transparent, broad-based study of or planning for nuclear expansion on such a massive scale.

There was no evaluation of the relevance of large-scale nuclear power generation for India’s energy security. NPCIL did not invite global tenders for any reactors, instead short-listing Areva’s EPRs, along with reactors from Westinghouse Electric Company, General Electric-Hitachi, and Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom1. For its part, France has been eager to exploit the lucrative nuclear market emerging in India. Not only has it not condemned India for its nuclear tests in 19982, it has also promised India access to sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies and offered assured fuel supplies.

In anticipation of the NSG clearance, pre-project activities started by mid-2006 and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between NPCIL and the Government of Maharashtra in September 20064. NPCIL’s camp office appeared near Madban village in early 2007. 5 Within a month of the NSG clearance in September 2008, India and France entered into a framework nuclear agreement.6 The agreement for the first two of the six EPRs between Areva and NPCIL was signed in December 2010. This event was also marked by a hastily granted clearance to the project by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Displacement and destruction facing Jaitapur villagers

The Jaitapur nuclear project is to be spread over 968 hectares of land and would wipe out five villages (Madban, Niveli, Karel, Mithgavane and Varliwada), which have a total population of 40,000. People in the area received land acquisition orders in 2007, and by January 2010, the government of Maharashtra had completed the acquisition of 938.026 hectares. Villagers were offered Indian Rupees (INR) 2.86 per square foot for barren land and INR 3.70 per square foot for cultivable land, equivalent to INR 125,000 and INR 160,000 an acre. This was subsequently raised to INR 400,000 an acre and most recently, to INR 1,000,000 an acre, with the guarantee of one job for every affected family. However, despite forcible acquisition of land, only 114 out of the 2,375 affected families have claimed the compensation offered; all others have refused to take the cheques in protest.

NPCIL has labelled 65 percent of the land as barren. The local population finds this outrageous because the land is highly fertile and produces rice, other cereals, the world’s most famous mango (the Alphonso), cashew, coconut, kokum, betel nut, pineapple and other fruits in abundance.

Besides farming and horticulture, the Jaitapur-Madban area has a sizeable fishing economy. The fishing population will also be affected, since the plant will daily release 52,000 million litres of hot water into the Arabian Sea, thus significantly raising seawater temperature. Further, Jaitapur’s community leaders fear that once the project becomes operational, its elaborate security arrangements would imperil fishermen’s unhindered use of the two creeks of Jaitapur and Vijaydurg.

As Pravin Gavankar, President of the Sanhit Seva Samiti (Sanhit Welfare Committee), a local activist organisation opposed to the plant, said, "The village is a solace for some 650 odd trawlers. Each trawler provides work for 12 men, which means finance for 12 families. If and when JNPP comes here, the warm reactor waters... will destroy the catch and in one shot all the 12 families will be affected." According to the Maharashtra Macchhimar Kruti Samiti (Fishworkers Welfare Action Committee), seven fishing villages will be threatened by the project. Even if the fish do not disappear from the Jaitapur region, the fishing industry may be irreparably harmed by the presence of the nuclear plant. A large amount of the catch is exported to Europe and Japan, where "catch certificates" - or affirmations of the quality of the fishing grounds - are required. These developed countries may reject the fish caught in range of a nuclear reactor.

EPR: a nuclear problem, not an energy solution

Till date no EPR has been fully constructed and commissioned for operation anywhere in the world. There are four EPRs in different stages of construction, and two of them are already facing serious problems. Areva sold the first EPR to Finland and plant construction started in 2005. Several construction and design problems have delayed the start-up of this plant to the second half of 2013, with costs rising 50 percent. France itself decided to set up the second EPR and the construction of this unit started in December 2007. Very similar construction and safety issues have led to a 50 percent cost increase and a delay of commissioning to 2014. China bought two EPRs, but they are moving cautiously towards the completion dates of 2013 and 2014.

In October 2009, realising that the EPR was in trouble, the French Government asked Francois Roussely, a former chairman of the Electricite de France (EDF), to evaluate the status of the EPR and the French nuclear industry in general. The Roussely Report (July 2010) has concluded that the credibility of the EPR has been seriously damaged by the problems of the two reactors under construction. Roussely states: “The complexity of the EPR comes from (questionable) design choices... It is certainly a handicap for its construction, and its cost—the EPR should therefore be further optimised based on feedback from the EPRs under construction.”

Part of the problems encountered during construction of the two EPRs relate to poor quality control and construction. Reported flaws include the poor fabrication of the pressuriser and the reactor vessel in Finland, cracks developing in base concrete at both sites, and defective welds in the containment steel shells. One of the serious design deficiencies pointed out to Areva in a joint letter from the French, Finnish and British nuclear regulators is the lack of adequate redundancy in the instrumentation and control system design, a safety issue which has not yet been resolved.

The EPR has other basic design issues that could cause serious problems in the later stages of operation. The EPR will use five percent enriched uranium, as against the normal 3.5 per cent in current Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) designs. This improved fuel economy is touted as an advantage of the EPR. What no one has highlighted is that such high burn-up leads to much higher toxicity of the radioactive waste. According to an EDF study, EPR waste will have about four times as much radioactive bromine, iodine and caesium, compared to ordinary PWRs; other reports putting these figures much higher.

Over and above the cost of the reactor, the NPCIL will have to add on other expenses. These will include the significant costs of the storage and disposal of radioactive waste, the eventual decommissioning cost, the extensive additional physical security costs including anti-aircraft batteries and extra coast guard deployment, substantial increase in nuclear fuel cost over the years, and so on. If complete transparency is not demanded from the NPCIL, these costs will be placed under other headings and in effect become the taxpayers’ hidden subsidy to promote the Prime Minister’s foray into nuclear reactor imports.

People’s Protest and Resistance Campaign

The people of the Jaitapur region have put up brave resistance to the nuclear project right from the beginning. Initially, the opposition came mainly from Madban and other directly affected villages. But soon, fishing communities, mango traders, transporters and civil society activists from the Ratnagiri district headquarters, and activists and environmentalists from Mumbai and other parts of India joined in. The state government and NPCIL have maligned the protests by attributing them to “outside elements.” However, all the five gram panchayats (democratically elected local governing bodies) in the affected area have unanimously passed resolutions opposing the project.

The central government and NPCIL are hell-bent on pushing the Jaitapur project through at any cost. NPCIL and the Department of Atomic Energy zeroed in on the Jaitapur site as early as 2003—even before Areva had designed the EPR and the Indo-French framework agreement on reactor imports had been signed.

The Maharashtra government is equally zealous about implementing the project. The state’s Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, was India’s Minister of State for Atomic Energy until November 2010 and is a dogmatic proponent of nuclear power. He regards its critics as uninformed, destructive, anti-development Luddites. The government has repeatedly stooped low in maligning the project’s critics.

The state government has unleashed savage repression on the local people for opposing the project. It routinely arrests peaceful protesters or serves them with externment notices (that is, demands for dispersal). It also prohibits protests using Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prevents “unlawful assembly,” as well as the harsh Section 37 of the colonial-era Bombay Police Act.

Grassroots wisdom, especially women’s wisdom, about their livelihoods and their democratic entitlements is a strong part of the movement. Children and women shout Anu Urja Nako (No to Nuclear Energy) to every passing vehicle. The entire area has learnt methods of peaceful non-cooperation and non-violent struggle against the administration.

The people oppose the project because it will destroy their livelihoods, just as the Tarapur reactors nearby have done. The Jaitapur population is highly literate, and knows of the hazards of radiation and the DAE’s poor safety performance, including the exposure of hundreds of workers in Tarapur to radiation doses exceeding the permissible limits, genetic deformities from uranium mining in Jaduguda, and high incidence of cancer near reactors in different locations.

More than 95 percent of those whose land was confiscated have refused to take the INR 1,000,000 an-acre compensation offered. The villagers, faced with repression, practice non-cooperation by refusing to sell food and other goods to state functionaries. When the government ordered teachers to brainwash pupils into believing that nuclear power is clean and green, people withdrew their children from school for a few days. Seventy elected councillors (panchayat representatives) from 10 villages have resigned from their positions.

An encouraging aspect of the struggle in Jaitapur is that its leadership is firmly in the hands of the local people, who have formed organisations like Janahit Seva Samiti, Madban (People’s Welfare Committee, Madban), Konkan Bachao Samiti (Save Konkan Committee) and Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti (Konkan Committee against Destructive Projects). The movement has also seen participation by civil society leaders of national stature. Leaders of political parties have also visited the area and expressed their solidarity with the people’s movement. Groups like Anumukti (“Liberation from the Atom,” the leading anti-nuclear journal in South Asia) and Lokayat (“People’s Organization,” a social activist group based in the city of Pune in Maharashtra) have played an important role in raising awareness in the area on the hazards of nuclear power.

The Jaitapur project must be halted before it is too late. If the project is stopped, some people will lose money. However, this is much better than continuing with a plan that will lead to social, ecological and public health disasters.

Tarun Kanti Bose

Photos : Tushar Mane @ Tehelka (une).

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