A hundred thousand men, women and children demonstrated earlier this month in Koodankulam in south India, with several of them launching a week-long hunger-strike to demand a halt in construction of a Russian-designed 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant. The project has sparked controversy over safety conditions in the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima facility in Japan in March. As well, protesters worry about the impact completion of the Koodankulam plant (which already has one reactor working) could have on the local environment and the livelihoods of millions of fishermen who work along the Coromandel coast. Of particular note was the presence among the protesters of many Catholic priests and nuns, many of whom were born in the area and are closely connected to local residents, whose cause they openly espouse. Catholics and other Christian denominations form a significant part of the coastal population of Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring maritime states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala, where most people work in subsistence fishing and prawn farming. Both industries are sensitive to the warming of sea currents and could be threatened by unchecked waste water discharge. After more than a week, the protests were called off after the federal government and the administrations of Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, the two affected states, called a temporary halt to work on the nuclear plant and promised talks with local residents. It remains an open question whether the government will indeed halt further work and eventually shut down the existing reactor, but the fear is that the government will not. The issue of nuclear energy, whether for peaceful purposes or not, remains locked in a stranglehold of hyper-nationalism and the needs of a growing economy in a country whose people aspire to be a global superpower in the near future. This nationalism has made reasoned debate on safety and security issues all but taboo, with just a handful of activists and academics involved in genuine dialogue. Years of nuclear isolation, when its only technological support came from the then Soviet Union, accentuated India’s paranoia that the world wanted to keep it away from cheap power for economic growth. A clandestine nuclear experiment by the military propelled the country into the ‘nuclear club’ when the regime of late prime minister Indira Gandhi carried out an underground blast in the early 1980s in Rajasthan. Two decades later, the government of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, leading a National Democratic coalition headed by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, carried out a series of detonations at the same testing grounds. Neighboring Pakistan, a traditional enemy, followed suit with its own nuclear experiments. It is estimated that both countries today have more than two hundred strategic nuclear warheads mounted on ground and air-borne missiles, and possibly also on warships. This show of might, and an end of the soft military alliance with Russia, has helped India reach pacts in nuclear material with the US and Europe, who look on the expanding Indian market with deep interest. Electricity for industry and homes remains a critical need for India, which does not have great reserves of oil and only limited reserves of high-grade coal for hydrocarbon-fuelled thermal power plants. With most of its northern rivers flowing through unstable seismic regions prone to earthquakes, the safety of existing hydro-electric power plants has been called into question. The collapse of the tunnels in the Teesta river project in the northeastern state of Sikkim during last week’s earthquake has revived the paranoia first evoked when a quake hit the Koyna dam in the state of Maharashtra some years ago. Jawaharlal Nehru and his scientific advisers thought succour lay in clean nuclear energy. In 1962 Homi Bhabha, the father of atomic energy in India, projected 20,000 megawatts in nuclear power generation capacity by 1987 based on imported reactors. The target, and future targets, could never rally be achieved. The Department of Atomic Energy now has a target of 20,000 megawatts by 2020. Its current energy derived from nuclear plants is 5,000 megawatts. The crippling of the Fukusima plant in Japan in the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 has for once brought the safety debate into the public domain. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s global expert fact-finding group has in its June report said “there were insufficient defence for tsunami hazards,” the likes of which devastated the Coromandel coast of India, as also Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, in 2004. The Nuclear Power Corp of India has undertaken safety evaluations of 20 operating power plants and nuclear power plants under construction, suggesting a series of safety procedures, especially for plants along the coastline. But India has clearly indicated it will not abandon the quest for nuclear energy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is emphatic about the future of India’s nuclear energy program, saying “there will be no looking back on nuclear energy,” and in fact is proposing an expansion of India’s civil nuclear energy with adequate safety measures. Indian society is not convinced that the measures will really be adequate to prevent a future disaster. Neither is Koodankulam or the fishermen in its neighbourhood. John Dayal is a journalist and documentary film-maker, as well as former president of the All India Catholic Union and secretary general of the All India Christian Council.
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