The fishing trawler’s groaning engine is abruptly shut down a couple of nautical miles off the coast of Sakhri Nate, a seaside hamlet fringed with palm trees and mango groves. Sakshil Kotawadekar, 25, stands on the deck under the broiling sun, surrounded by a group of men untangling a spidery web of fishing nets and sorting their catch. “Look, that thing there,” he says, pointing at a lighthouse perched atop a barren cliff along the jagged coastline. “It threatens to rob us of our lands, our livelihoods, our way of life. It will imperil our very existence.”
Kotawadekar isn’t describing a haunted lighthouse. Adjacent to it is the site for the proposed 9,900 MW nuclear power plant to be built by the French state-owned company Areva. In all, six 1,650 MWe (megawatt electrical) European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) will be installed by Areva in phases within the next 15 to 18 years, with the first two reactors expected to come into operation by 2018-19. At full capacity, this plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district will trump Japan’s 8,200 MW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to become the world’s largest nuclear power project.
Local fishermen like Kotawadekar, who owns two trawlers and whose family has been in the trade for generations, fear that the project could cause irreparable damage to the region’s environment and marine ecology. The plant is expected to guzzle 52 billion litres of sea water every day — 15 times Mumbai’s daily water supply — and disgorge the same volume five degrees warmer back into the sea. Environmentalists say that would push away marine life along the coast into deeper waters, depleting the catch and forcing local fishermen to go further out into the sea.
Ratnagiri boasts an annual catch of 1,25,000 tonnes of a variety of fish, including pomfret, surmai (kingfish), bangda (Indian mackerel) and rawas (Indian salmon), but with the project, those numbers could dwindle significantly. Environmentalists also fear that the radioactive waste generated in the nuclear plant could permeate the alluvial soil, stunting the local mango, cashew, rice and jackfruit plantations. Image: Vikas Khot
Ground Zero The proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant site is guarded round the clock by a police outpost
Ever since Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh gave the go ahead to the project’s environmental clearance in November, a rash of virulent anti-nuclear protests has rocked the region. Hundreds of local activists, mostly farmers and environmentalists opposed to the project, have been arrested, many of them in overnight raids. Some of those spared have been slapped externment notices and barred from entering the region for fear of inciting violence.
The growing opposition to this project is a litmus test for Maharashtra’s Congress-led government headed by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who is keenly projecting the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant (JNPP) as the state’s definitive solution to its growing electricity crisis. He travelled to Jaitapur last month, shepherding a team of scientists, experts and officials, in a last-ditch effort to mollify protestors and allay fears about environmental and safety concerns — but without success. The opposition to this project has grown fiercer in recent days after an earthquake-generated tsunami smashed into nuclear power plants in Japan, raising the spectre of a possible nuclear meltdown and raising alarm about similar threats at India’s seaside nuclear plants.Safety First
C.B. Jain, the project director of JNPP at the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), dismisses those concerns. Though located on the seashore and a seismic zone, the plant is proposed to be built at an elevation, which makes it less vulnerable to the threat of tsunami waves.
EPR is one of the world’s “safest reactors”, he claims, designed to even withstand the high-speed impact of a commercial or military aircraft. “The EPR design is a direct descendent of the tested and proven N4 and KONVOI reactors from Framatome and Siemens/KWU, the most modern and most powerful reactors in France and Germany,” Jain says.
But despite such assurances, safety remains the paramount concern given that EPR is an untested reactor the world over. “Why should the people of Jaitapur be subjected to the high risk of proving out an unknown reactor in their backyard?” asks Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.
More than anything else, the project is heavily criticised for being carried out under a shroud of secrecy.
Several crucial technical questions about the project remain unanswered. One of them is whether NPCIL has devised a coherent strategy to deal with the spent fuel coming out of the plant?
In a statement to Forbes India, C.B. Jain clarified that NPCIL plans to initially store the spent fuel in an underwater storage facility adjoining the reactor building inside the plant premises. “The storage facility for spent fuel is adequate to store the spent fuel during 10 to 12 years of operation of the units,” he says. “Whenever government of India decides to establish a reprocessing facility in any location in India, the above spent fuel will be transported to such a facility in a safe manner.”
Activists and independent experts say that accessing such information has been an arduous struggle. Many demand that NPCIL should appoint an ombudsman to make all technical information about the reactors available on demand for public scrutiny.
The lack of transparency has given rise to new suspicions about the government’s motives. The chief among them is the concern among activists that the government might circumvent the Nuclear Liability Bill and secretly sign a contract to relinquish the right to seek damages from Areva in the event of a nuclear accident. NPCIL officials have not publicly acknowledged or denied such a claim.
“The AERB has no experience with evaluating EPRs and therefore there is a legitimate concern about whether safety of these reactors is assured,” says Dr. M.V. Ramana, a research scholar with Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. He recommends that NPCIL should emulate the model for transparency established by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which places all licence applications for new reactors on its Web site for public access ( http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/col.html). These applications run into hundreds of pages and include minute technical details that are subject to unrestricted inspection. Citizens can raise questions about any aspect and NRC makes it mandatory for companies to respond to each one of them.Return on Investment
Safety and environment aside, will this Rs. 1.12 lakh crore nuclear power plant be able to satiate Maharashtra’s ravenous demand for electricity — and at what cost? Image: Vikas Khot Livelihood Blues 8,500 families at Sakhri Nate depend on fishing
In Maharashtra, the total installed power generation capacity is between 12,000 MW and 15,000 MW, and the state faces a shortfall of over 4,000 MW.
C.B. Jain says that JNPP “will definitely meet the deficit of power of Maharashtra in specific and other adjoining states of the country in general.”
Ashwini Chitnis, a senior research associate at Prayas Energy group, a Pune-based NGO that acts as a watchdog on energy-related issues, is highly sceptical about that claim. She estimates that the demand for power in Maharashtra almost doubles every decade. She points out that JNPP will require at least seven or eight years to come online and will add only about one-third of its total capacity in that period — which could possibly be shared with other states. By then, she says, Maharashtra’s demand-supply situation will be very different.
C.B. Jain refused to divulge the estimated unit cost of power from JNPP as negotiations for optimising the cost of operations are currently underway between NPCIL and Areva, but he insists that the cost of the electricity produced from proposed EPR units will be “comparable with other sources of energy in the region.”
While the government has pushed nuclear power to ensure India’s long-term energy security, in the immediate term, it is prohibitively expensive.
According to estimates by the Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and Environment, the average construction cost of nuclear reactors has more than tripled from an average of $3 billion per reactor in 2002.
P. Ramesh, the managing director of the energy division at the New Delhi-based Feedback Ventures, says nuclear power from Jaitapur would not come cheap. At the current benchmark, the cost of power from Jaitapur is estimated to be about Rs. 20 crore per MWe of capacity, compared to Rs. 5 crore per MWe for coal, the main staple for energy supply in India.
To generate cheap power from Jaitapur, Ramesh says, the government will have to exclude some operational charges from the final bill. This is similar to a hydro power dam project, he says, where if the cost of running and maintaining the dam is absorbed by the exchequer, the price paid by the end consumers of power will be cheaper.
As the EPR is untested elsewhere, there are also concerns about hidden costs. There are currently four EPR reactors being set up globally, currently in various stages of construction — one in Finland, one in France and two in China. At least one of them — the EPR project in Finland — has witnessed a long delay in completion for undisclosed reasons and its costs have jumped from 3 billion euros to 7 billion euros. Areva did not respond to requests for comment on this issue.
A more cost effective option, some argue, is to promote the indigenously built Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR), which produces power at the cost Rs. 8 crore per MWe. Dr. Gopalakrishnan points out that India has built 18 PHWRs on its own over the last four decades and has perfected its design through extensive years of operation. It would be a less costly affair to “purchase natural uranium alone from abroad and multiply the number of 700-1,000 MWe PHWRs, for which India does not require any technology imports.” He says he is baffled that the government chose to purchase more expensive and untested reactors instead. Local Concerns
JNPP, locals insist, must not be judged on the merits of whether it will meet Maharashtra’s soaring electricity demand, but on whether the project is sustainable without adverse impacts on the region’s economy and environment.
“When the chief minister came here, I asked him a simple question: ‘Can you give us an assurance that when our mangoes, our cashews, our fish go to the domestic and foreign markets, the fact that these products were produced in the vicinity of a nuclear power station will not interfere with the prices for these products?’” says Amjad Borkar, the head of the fishing community in Sakhri Nate. “He had no assurances to offer us.” Image: Vikas Khot
Standing their Ground An aerial view of Sakhri Nate. The fishermen in the Average construction village fear they’ll lose their livelihood once the nuclear power project comes up
Out of the 2,300-plus farmers whose lands have been acquired for the project since 2005 — a total of 938 hectares — less than 5 percent have accepted the government compensation.
“We are offering a very, very attractive rehabilitation package,” says Nilesh Rane, the Lok Sabha MP from the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg constituency.
He says his father, Narayan Rane, Maharashtra’s industries minister, has been lobbying hard to offer an even fatter package. Farmers whose lands have been acquired for the project were paid Rs. 4.046 lakh per hectare. A government-appointed committee in March recommended a more than five-fold hike in the compensation. The proposal is under consideration. A separate compensation package is being considered for the affected fishing villages.
The government is also considering spending 2 percent of the plant’s annual profits on welfare projects for local residents and will also set up a corpus fund for the same.
When asked whether the government would consider making project affected people stakeholders in the power project, Nilesh Rane declined. “But if that is a serious demand, the people must come forward and tell us what specifically they want,” he says. “We have gone to them several times, now they must come to us.”
Rane cited the public hearing called by the Chief Minister in Mumbai on January 18 that was boycotted by the main opposing groups. “Some local residents have unreasonable concerns — fish will die, pregnant women will be harmed. We went there with our panel of experts. We told them ‘go look at Tarapur; everything is normal there,’” he says. “The government has made a huge investment. The project will happen one way or another.”
Borkar dismissed the public hearing in Mumbai as a futile “PR exercise”, but he took Nilesh Rane’s advice seriously. In February, he teamed up with about a dozen local activists, to head out on a fact-finding mission to the region around the 1,400 MW Tarapur Atomic Power Station, India’s largest nuclear power plant located in Maharashtra.
What he witnessed there, he says, has only strengthened his resolve to oppose JNPP more vigorously. Before the plant came up, local fishermen who he met told him that they would catch boatloads of fish; now the catch has significantly dwindled. He noticed that some children had misshapen limbs, which he believes is due to exposure to low level radiation. The NPCIL colony is posh, but the surrounding villages haven’t seen much development work. But the heartbreaking irony, he says, is that villages around that plant, which supplies electricity to large swathes of the country, suffer every week from several hours of power outages.
“JNPP’s proposed capacity will be almost 10 times that of Tarapur,” Borkar says. “Now imagine what that will do to our people.”
(This story appears in the 08 April, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)