February 10, 2011

Jaitapur nuclear park: Deficit of public trust

A Gopalakrishnan | DNA | February 9, 2011

The government has approved the construction of a 9900 MW (megawatt) nuclear park at Jaitapur in Ratnagiri district. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a public sector undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), will own this mega power project. The project will have six European pressurised reactors (EPR), each of 1650 MW capacity; their fuel and critical equipment will be supplied by French state-owned company Areva.

DAE does not today have any concrete basis or data to evaluate the EPR performance on their own. And yet, the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) has hurriedly approved the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Jaitapur project, citing “weighty strategic and economic reasons in favour of the grant of environmental clearance now”.

In clearing the EIA, the minister for environment has left all the crucial nuclear safety-related issues to be answered by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the NPCIL and Areva. AERB and NPCIL are secretive and evasive on such issues, and Areva works under NPCIL directions. Safety issues are at the core of the public disquiet, and the MoEF-cleared EIA does not even cursorily address these vital aspects.

Of late, a set of senior politicians and nuclear scientists have been carrying out a high-pressure blitzkrieg in favour of the Jaitapur project. The persons involved are the Maharashtra chief minister, the former and current chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the chairman and managing director of NPCIL, and agents of corporate houses and their federations, all of whom stand to benefit in one way or other.

Let us not forget that these are the very same people who colluded with the prime minister’s office (PMO) over the last six years to eventually trump up a false case to justify the import of foreign reactors. The public have hardly any trust in this unethical crowd, since their past actions indicate they are probably influenced by the corporate nuclear lobby and the directions from the PMO.

It is time now that this group starts answering the hard questions that trouble most informed people, instead of evading them. For example, they must openly defend the premises on which it is argued that the import of 40,000 MW of foreign light-water reactors in the near-term is essential to ensure energy security in the year 2050. They must explain why they chose to import the EPRs, which have never been built anywhere, instead of selecting a French LWR design on which established operational experience & confidence exist.

Does this choice make any economic sense when all indications are that the EPRs will cost Rs20 crores/MW in terms of 2010-rupees, whereas an indigenous pressurized heavy-water reactor (PHWR) plant will cost no more than Rs8 crores/ MW?

Moreover, does selecting the EPR make any technological sense in view of the world experience with unidentified failure modes and design errors prevalent in brand new untested reactors, which might then lead to devastating nuclear accidents, especially in the initial learning phase? Or, are the PM and his DAE experts knowingly leasing out the Jaitapur area for Areva and the French government to experiment with this new reactor and fix its problems far away from their own nationals, while the people of Ratnagiri and the surrounding areas are made sitting ducks for this hazardous adventure?

How much understanding, based on relevant data, do Areva and NPCIL together have on the radiological and physical behavior of high-burnup spent-fuel from these EPRs and the consequent serious safety issues related to its long-term storage, cooling, transport and reprocessing?

There are many more such serious questions that still remain unanswered. The opposition to the Jaitapur project will not abate as long as the government avoids a full and transparent debate of each and every disturbing issue, which remains unanswered.

Dr Gopalakrishnan is a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board of the Govt of India

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