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Another Republic Day, another compromise on nuclear safety?

A year after giving in on nuclear liability during Barack Obama's visit, India's enthusiasm to seal a deal with France on the expensive and dangerous Jaitapur nuclear project is disturbing.

On Tuesday, chief guest Francois Hollande looked on as India showcased its military might at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Nearly 2,000-km away in Maharashtra, farmers and fisherfolk in the port town of Jaitapur are gearing up to protest the French president’s visit. They believe that the nuclear reactors India wants to import from France pose a threat to their lives, livelihoods and the local ecology.

Untested and unsafe technology

In the joint declaration issued on Monday in New Delhi, the two governments reaffirmed their commitment to go ahead with the nuclear deal. The project has been in the pipeline for almost a decade now, and last several bilateral annoucements have ceremoniously menioned the nuclear agreement. The intense negotiations to finalise the commercial agreement are yet to be completed as the staggering cost of the project remains a major sticking point.

The Modi government has added "make in India" in the declaration, a reference to the prime minister's ambitious plan to turn India into a hub of manufacturing. Now, this is more than a ceremonial insertion and has potentially dangerous implications. The joint declaration mentions "large-scale localisation" of components for the nuclear power project at Jaitapur, a Memorandum of Understanding for which was signed between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and French government-owned nuclear corporation Areva last year. "Transfer of technology" is also being considered, claims the declaration.

The French company Areva, which is verging on bankruptcy after the Fukushima disaster, desperately needs this project to survive. Its terminal financial crisis has also led to a major re-structuring in France. To save Areva from bankruptcy, the Électricité de France, a govt owned electricity utility company has bought majority stake in Areva. Areva has resorted to massive job cuts – it did 6,000 lay offs worldwide in 2015 - and is frantically seeking investors to rescue itself from the crisis.

It is actually this financial crisis that has forced Areva to consider partial closure and outsourcing of its reactor manufacturing business. There too, it is giving away only the parts which it cannot absolutely manage on its own for financial and safety reasons. And the European Pressurised Reactor design fits in this scheme. France is building reactors in Jaitapur of the same design, of 1650MWe capacity each. Totalling 9,900 Mwe, Jaitapur would be the world’s largest nuclear power park.

The safety of this design, especially the vulnerabilities of the Reactor Pressure Vessel – the huge iron core where radioactive fission takes place – came under serious questions, raised by France’s own nuclear safety regulator Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire in April last year. Later in 2015, Areva had to ask the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend certification review for EPR design. The US has been postponing certification for the European Pressurised Reactor( since 2007. In Finland’s Olkiluoto, the only other place where Areva is building these reactors, the project was supposed to be completed in 2009 but has run into massive cost and time over-run and cannot be completed before 2018. The Finnish regulator has taken Areva to the court on this issue and Finland has cancelled the order for the 4th reactor. Even in China’s Taishan, the only other place where such a reactor is under construction, the project has been delayed. Ironically, just after two days of publication of Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire’s report, Modi re-affirmed the commitment to buy the reactors from France during his visit to Paris last year in April.

In another extremely dangerous irony, the Modi govt is lauding Jaitapur as a "Make in India" project. The localisation in this case is nothing more than Areva passing off its burden and risks to Indian companies. Without much experience in nuclear sector, Larsen and Toubro has been given the task of collaborating in manufacturing of pressure vessel, the same crucial equipment in which the French regulator has found vulnerabilities. There is also pressure on L&T to keep the cost to the minimum, which would have its own safety implications. Technology transfer in this case actually means experimenting an untested and unsafe technology on the Indian people.

The joint declaration yesterday, for the first time, mentions an MoU with Électricité de France, rather than Areva. The modalities and responsibilities involved are not clear, and they have potential safety implications too. The secrecy with which the Indian government is pursuing its nuclear agreements goes against the basic tenets of democracy and accountability towards its citizens.

Not just the project cost

The current phase of negotiations on Jaitapur are about the price of reactors, which remains a major sticking point. Although the former chief of India’s Atomic Energy Commission promised a tariff of maximum Rs 6.50 per unit for the electricity produced in Jaitapur, independent experts have claimed it will be much higher – between Rs 15 to Rs 20 a unit, far more expensive than even domestic nuclear power plants.

If we go by the cost of such reactors in Britain, each Indian reactor may cost as much as Rs. 60,000 crore, meaning the two reactors in Jaitapur’s first phase would cost equal to the total expenditure on science and technology including the departments of Space, Science and Technology, Biotechnology, and research laboratories throughout the country. At a time when renewable sources have become increasingly more efficient and competitive, this appears an obvious absurdity. A diplomatic cable revealed by the Wikileaks quoted the General Manager of the Nuclear Power Corporation as saying that India is paying a "high" price for Jaitapur.

However, the concerns of the local community in Jaitapur go much beyond the cost of the project.

Jaitapur is located in the stunningly beautiful Konkan, replete with verdant plateaus, magical mountains and undulating hills, lagoons, creeks, the open sea and infinite greenery. The NPCIL has labelled nearly 65% of the region’s land as barren, which the local people find outrageous. Konkan is one of the world’s 10 “Hottest Biodiversity Hotspots”, sheltering over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 of mammals, 508 of birds and 179 of amphibians, including 325 globally threatened ones.

The region offers prosperous life to its inhabitants. Altogether, the nuclear park would jeopardise the livelihoods of 40,000 people. The annual turnover of Jaitapur’s fishing villages is about Rs 15 crore. In Nate alone, there are 200 big trawlers and 250 small boats. Nearly 6,000 people depend directly on fishing and over 10,000 are dependent on ancillary activities.

The community is apprehensive that once the project gets operational, the elaborate security arrangements around it would block the fisherfolks’ use of the two creeks of Jaitapur and Vijaydurg. The fish population will also be affected since the plant would release a huge 52,000 million litres of hot water into the Arabian Sea daily.

Environmental dangers

Jaitapur has highly fertile land, which produces rice and other cereals, and arguably the world’s most famous mango, the Alphonso. Cashew, coconut, kokum, betel nut, pineapple and other fruits are also found in abundance. The land is also quite productive in terms of its use for cattle-grazing and rain-fed agriculture.

The Environmental Impact Assessment for Jaitapur, conducted by the government-run National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, did not even look into the crucial aspects radiological releases, decommissioning and nuclear waste, besides summarily neglecting the vital issues of ecosystems and livelihoods, terrestrial ecosystems and farming, mangrove forests and the fragile marine ecology and fisheries in the region. The Institute, while admitting that it does not have an expertise on radiation-related issues, platitudinously says in its report that all the stipulations of the government's nuclear regulator would be followed. The then Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, had himself termed these assessments a joke. Even that environmental clearance, granted on 35 absurdly weak conditions, was given only for a period of five years which lapsed two months back. Citizens groups and independent experts have demanded a fresh Assessment in place of an extension.

India’s nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is itself a toothless body which ironically depends on the Atomic Energy Commission for its finances and human resources, which it is supposed to supervise. India’s newly proposed nuclear regulator – the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority – would be even a weaker body than the Regulatory Board, according to Board's former head Dr AK Gopalakrishnan. In fact, India is the only country to further dilute its already lax safety regulation to accommodate foreign-imported reactors as Areva’s reactors might not pass the licensing procedures of even the existing regulations.

Independent experts and the government's own institutions have also cautioned about active seismic faultlines in the region passing exactly beneath the proposed reactor site. There have been 92 earthquakes in Jaitapur over past 20 years, and the Department of Atomic Energy remains in denial about it.

To placate international vendors, India has bent environmental clearance procedures, undermined land acquisition and liability laws for the nuclear projects, overlooked safety concerns and violently bulldozed local community’s protests. In Jaitapur, one person called Tabrez Soyekar was killed in indiscriminate police firing in April 2011 during a peaceful protest march demanding scrapping of the project after Fukushima. Hundreds of activists and eminent citizens including the former naval chief and retired Chief Justice were detained during a people’s march to Jaitapur from Tarapur, India’s first nuclear plant.

Thirteen village councils in the Jaitapur region passed unanimous resolutions against the nuclear power project as recently as November last year. It is utterly hypocritical to laud India’s democratic credentials for international diplomacy if the voices of elected democratic bodies at the grassroots are neglected violently in such manner.

U-turns and misadventures

For its entire 10-year entire stint in the opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party kept opposing Manmohan Singh government's nuclear policy, but now nuclear deals have become matters of pride for Modi’s foreign sojourns. In 2010, the BJP had sought a review of the environmental clearance given to the Jaitapur project on the eve of the visit of the then French president Nicholas Sarkozy. But now the government has sought an extension of the same.

Last year on the Republic Day, to please the United States President Obama who was the chief guest, Modi government effectively surrendered the govt’s option to sue the nuclear vendors in case of a nuclear accident by creating an insurance pool from public funds to channel suppliers’ liability back to the taxpayers, taking an about turn from earlier strong reservations of the BJP on nuclear liability.

This year, Modi’s government seems bent on finalising an insanely dangerous and destructive nuclear project.

Kumar Sundaram is Senior Researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, India.

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