Japan’s tsunami-triggered nuclear alert has had particular resonance in India, where nuclear power has been widely embraced as an efficient way to meet the country’s leaping energy demand. And after Delhi signed a long sought-after deal with the US effectively allowing it to take part in global nuclear trade, the desire to beef up its capacity has been relentless.
But in the weeks after the disaster, many in India voiced consternation: if a sophisticated nation like Japan couldn’t cope with the fallout, then how could India, with its admittedly lower building and safety standards, expect to be ready for a disaster on such a scale?
The epicentre of the growing nuclear dissonance has now emerged as the town of Jaitapur, 400km south of the country’s commercial capital Mumbai, where locals are opposed to plans to build a giant nuclear complex.
To be built by the Indian government in conjunction with French company Areva – which specialises in building nuclear reactors – the plant would be the world’s biggest power station, generating 9,900MW.
Local opposition to the plans reached fever pitch this week, with police firing on protesters on Monday, killing one. It has also become a political issue, with the hardline Hindu fundamentalist outfit the Shiv Sena, linked to the main BJP opposition party, seizing upon the protest to make some political inroads. “Thousands of police are in the region,” says Vinuta Gopal, Greenpeace India’s climate and energy campaign manager. “Most locals are opposed to the plans and are deeply worried about their livelihoods,” she says.
“Particularly after what’s happened in Fukushima, locals are extremely worried about a nuclear incident in Jaitapur. If that can happen in Japan, which has an extremely tight disaster management capability, what would happen in India?”
Areva insists the process is transparent, despite what activists say.
“Public acceptance is a major parameter for Areva on the nuclear projects we manage,” said Areva vice president Arthur de Montalembert by email.
“We are confident that through open and transparent information about the [Jaitapur] project, it is quite possible to alleviate the people’s legitimate concerns for their safety and environment, while not ignoring the advantages it will bring locally in terms of activity and employment.”
He says knowledge gained from previous industrial accidents has been worked into the most advanced reactor designs, to help withstand disasters.
Nevertheless, it is true that Jaitapur is not an ideal place for a nuclear plant: while also being a region of great biodiversity and home to flourishing agriculture and fishing industries, it is in an earthquake-prone area, with a rating of 4 on a seismicity scale of 1 to 5. However, it might just be that mounting public protests manage to bring the project crashing down, well before any earthquake does.