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Who knows, who cares? Environmental and social safety violations in nuclear projects in India

Manju MENON

08 / 2011

From March this year, the world has been witnessing an ‘accident’ and a ‘natural disaster’ of immense proportions. Following the earthquake and tsunami, the radiation crisis caused by the damages to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex is uncontrollable. While this has not been the first such disaster, it is indeed the first time, people all over the world got to see images of the explosions and the large populations of affected people fleeing the radiation zone through television. The news of the disaster, the immediate responses of the affected people, governments, companies and all others involved has been covered extensively by the media.

The nuclear disaster comes at a time when the Indian nuclear establishment is feverishly working towards commissioning its new plant at Koodankulam and building several more to expand its energy portfolio. The first unit at Koodamkulam, a coastal area in Tirunelveli at the border of Tamilnadu and Kerala, is to be commissioned in September this year and the safety drills proposed by the project builders has caused much anger among the villagers of the surrounding areas. On August 15th, India’s Independence Day, the villages passed a resolution to shut down the plant and since then, the area has been the arena of massive peoples’ protests, relay hunger strikes and blockades. The dissentors have brought to centre stage all the problems, scientific, political, economic and social about nuclear technology, nuclear power and the nuclear bureaucracy.

The birth of a nuclear nation

The history of nuclear energy or the nuclear programme in India is tied to the story of a nation that was born after a long struggle for independence and had aspirations to make itself a strong, modern and self-reliant economic power. Following independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru began the task of building a new and modern India, a young nuclear physicist, nephew of Sir Dorabji Tata, trained at the University of Cambridge and founder of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, got his attention. Their meetings led to the establishment of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1948, a year after independence. It was passed through a bill in Parliament with clauses that allowed extreme secrecy in matters of atomic energy and an unquestioned assumption that nuclear energy would power this new nation (Ramana, 2003).

The secrecy about the details of a nuclear programme means that information on several fronts are unavailable to the public. These include:

  • the question on what exactly is the purpose of the nuclear programme- production of energy, or use of nuclear technology for ‘peaceful’ purposes, for India’s security or for all purposes.

  • what is the extent of nuclear energy potential in India on the basis of fuel to be used

  • what is the extent to which technology is imported from other countries

  • how much is spent on the development of nuclear technology and individual projects in India

The lack of information on these fronts limits a public discussion and debate on whether India is developing nuclear technology towards greater weaponization, and its relations of trade and exchange with other weapons producing or nuclear countries/companies. Further it makes it impossible to debate the economic feasibility of nuclear energy to meet India’s energy needs. It also limits discussions on the specific environmental and social impacts that each project is likely to have on the physical environment and on communities who share the landscape with nuclear projects. Scientists and activists around the world have brought notice to the fact that nuclear technology has radioactive impacts at every step of its development cycle, starting from mining of ore to production of energy and to disposal of nuclear waste.

Apart from the law that shields the nuclear programme from the public, it is the nuclear bureaucracy that guards its projects and schemes.

The AEC was first set up under the Dept of Scientific research. When the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was set up on August 3, 1954 under the direct charge of the Prime Minister through a Presidential Order, the AEC was brought under it in 1958. The Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Atomic Energy is ex-officio Chairman of the Commission. The other Members of the AEC are appointed for each calendar year on the recommendation of the Chairman, AEC with the approval of the Prime Minister. Unlike most policy matters where the cabinet has the ultimate authority, the AEC is composed primarily of scientists and dominated by the top leaders of the Department of Atomic Energy. (Ramana, 2003)

The DAE is responsible for both nuclear research and nuclear energy. Under it come all the institutions that teach courses and conduct research programmes such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai. The Nuclear Power Coporation of India (NPCIL), the public listed company, sets up nuclear energy projects and Indian Rare Earths Limited and Uranium Corporation of India are engaged in prospecting, mining and processing of nuclear material.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board was set up in 1983 to carry out the regulatory functions of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. Its main task is to ensure that development and deployment of nuclear technology does not cause environmental and health hazards. It issues authorizations to the plants of the DAE, reviews the submissions of the plant authorities and monitors the implementation of safety measures to be taken up by the plants. These and several other functions such as taking up research studies and surveys on environmental health around plants and documentation and safety analysis are done by separate committees or divisions all under AERB.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a government owned Company is wholly responsible for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants in India. Since the first plant built in Tarapur, Maharashtra in 1969, the Company today owns 20 nuclear reactors in Tarapur, Maharashtra, Rawatbhata, Rajasthan, Narora, Uttar Pradesh, Kakrapar, Gujarat, Kaiga, Karnataka and Kalpakkam, Tamilnadu. Construction is on for a project on Koodankulam, Tamilnadu and new projects are to come up in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Plans were also on for projects in Bargi, Madhya Pradesh, in Fatehabad, Haryana and in Haripur, West Bengal. So far the contribution of nuclear power to India’s total electricity production has not been more than 3%. The estimates of what will be its share in India’s energy portfolio has always been overestimated by the nuclear establishment. We’re still well under half of the target (10,000 MW) set for 1980! (Praful Bidwai, 2007)

Impacts and Consequences

From the beginning of the nuclear programme in India, it is this nuclear bureaucracy that has justified the investment and resources needed for the development of nuclear technology and the projects that are taken up for energy production. This bureaucracy, through its powers to hold critical information in secrecy, produces cost-benefit analyses, environmental impact assessment reports and risk management plans for each of its projects. The reports are drafted by the very agencies proposing the projects. There is no scope for independent review. Most of them summarise the benefits of nuclear energy as an “abundant, safe and economically competitive energy source, which is rapidly growing the world over, and emerging as a solution to the grave problem of global warming caused by fossil-fuel burning”.

When additional units were being added to NPCIL’s Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamilnadu, a Public Hearing was announced. The EIA report and its executive summary were made selectively available to some who wanted to read it prior to the hearing. It is as per the Environment (Protection) Act under which the Public Hearing was being held. The same law has also institutionalised, since 1994, the practice of having sectoral Expert Appraisal Committees under the Ministry of Environment and Forests to evaluate projects and recommend the grant or rejection of environment clearance to infrastructure and development projects. However, at the time when the Koodankulam project was being considered, there was no Expert Appraisal Committee constituted to evaluate nuclear power projects.

When such projects come up for Public Hearings, it seems illogical to debate issues on the facts provided by the nuclear establishment about their own projects. Noted columnist and long standing critic of India’s nuclear programme Praful Bidwai in his submission to the public hearing panel wrote “The Environmental Survey Laboratory of BARC is not an independent body. Nor is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Both function as parts of the Department of Atomic Energy. And NPCIL is a wholly owned subsidiary of the DAE”. Referring to all the agencies engaged in the EIA process of the project, he was pointing to the complete lack of any independent review of the facts presented by the project authorities at the Public Hearing.

What are most represented in Public Hearings are the realities of the site and people who share the landscape with the proposed project. Most sites chosen for the projects are highly populated by DAE’s own standards. For example if the DAE were to follow its own siting regulations i.e., a 1.5 km-radius totally uninhabited “exclusive zone” around the reactor, and a further 30 km radius with a sparse population, it would have to evict over 10,000 families before setting up of the Koodankulam project. Many of these sites are either located on the coast in areas very prone to cyclones and tidal surges. Structural designs like construction of dykes or walls to protect the reactor are not known to help in such events. The use and subsequent discharge of sea water at much higher temperatures affects marine life.

Commenting on the EIA report of the Koodankulam project, M.V Ramana writes, “one basic flaw with the EIA is that while it gives fairly trivial and unimportant information in great detail (examples are the pollution attenuation factors as a function of green belt width for different atmospheric stability classes or the noise level due to the cooling water pump at a distance of 2 m), it does not give far more vital information that will be needed for reliable evaluation of the environmental impact. Some examples are the expected inventories of different fissile materials on site at any given time, the over-pressure that the containment dome is designed to withstand, and the expected volumes or masses of radioactive effluents that flow out into the sea under routine or accidental circumstances.”

It is not only the information in EIA reports that is suspect due to the conjoined role of the nuclear establishment as the promoter and regulator. All investigations of impacts of the functioning of atomic projects and official reports of nuclear accidents are subject to doubt. Many organisations of a coalition called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace have conducted investigations, surveys and studies to reveal the impacts of nuclear technology. The most critical of the impacts are due to radiation in both routine emissions and sudden accidental releases. Bidwai writes, “Each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle releases ionising radiation, an invisible, intangible, silent poison, which damages the DNA of cells and causes cancer or genetic disorders. Radiation can’t be eliminated or extinguished; it can only be relocated. Radiation is harmful in all doses…” This is important particularly in light of the usual responses from the nuclear bureaucracy on the question of radiation. They maintain that nuclear power stations and reactors are safe and their efforts are always to minimise the risk of accidents.

The exposure of mine workers, local communities living around uranium mines, those exposed to it during transportation are most often forgotten when impacts of nuclear power projects are being discussed. Following the production of power, the radiation from the stored spent fuel is not accounted for either. Ramana notes, in “ the (Koodankulam project) EIA talks about radiological pollution through the atmosphere and through water routes, (but) it does not discuss the potential environmental contamination by spent fuel that will have to be necessarily stored on site for several months at least in order that it may cool. The spent fuel contains the bulk of the radioactivity that leaves the reactor. This fact is not even acknowledged and we are not told what is to happen to this spent fuel.”

Radioactive wastes, produced by any kind of nuclear activity, and for which a full proof system of permanent storage or disposal is yet to be found, are what will outlive all life forms.

Nuclear accidents seem to be a regular feature with atomic power stations and reactors rather than an exception. Most writers critical of nuclear technology say that the technology itself is accident prone and when their siting is on the coasts or in seismically active zones, natural calamities add to the risk of accidents. A list of some of the accidents that took place in India from 1990 are mentioned on the website of GreenPeace India. As per a recent article in the Down to Earth magazine, the AERB identified 134 problem areas during a safety audit in 1995. These has also been identified by the DAE as early as the 70s and 80s. But these reports remain classified and out of the reach of citizens till today.

It is impossible to not mention the catastrophic accident that took place at Chernobyl where 95,000 people were killed and many are still dying. The landscape of 10,000 km2 that was brought under monitoring for radiation control was rendered an accident zone, poisoned and destabilised for generations to come. The compounded disaster at the Daiichi nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan this year following the earthquake and tsunami has caused several national governments to give up their plans for investing in or expanding their nuclear portfolio. Many new projects have been shelved and old ones are to be decommissioned. This strengthens the already existing trends of the phasing out nuclear energy with more projects being phased out than the number commissioned.

Contrary to being cautioned by the immense disaster that has unfolded in Japan, the Indian nuclear bureaucracy shows continued belief that grand technological systems are predictable and stable and that they can be made to work as desired. Officials were quick to issue press releases stating that the location and technological designs adopted at the Indian plants ensured that they were beyond damage by natural disasters. (1) These assurances appear so false when people all around the world witness an entire country suffer the consequences of a technological failure.

Ulrich Beck, the author of ‘Risk Society’ in an interview shortly after the Fukushima disaster said that we are now subject to a new kind of risk, one that is ‘unlimited in space, time and social dimension’. Can the social movements against nuclear power challenge the immorality of the nuclear bureaucracy in the largest democracy?

(1) Read for example A.P.J Abdul Kalam, Srijan Pal Singh, ‘Nuclear power is our gateway to a prosperous future’, in The Hindu, November 6, 2011 (Editor’s note)

Mots-clés

industrie nucléaire, énergie nucléaire, risque nucléaire, production d’énergie


, Inde

dossier

Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia

Notes

This article is available in French: Projets nucléaires et atteintes à la sécurité environnementale et civile en Inde

Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at manjumenon1975(@)gmail.com

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