Strange Love

The Indian Government has completely smothered the rights of its citizens in the interests of the nuclear industry
Radioactivity

On 26 April, the 25th anniversary of the disastrous accident at Chernobyl, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a high-level meeting with the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and several other senior members of his government, including the Minister of Environment and Forests and the Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). This meeting reviewed the status of the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant, which has been the focus of severe public opposition. The concerns raised by many local and national groups, in this context, have only been reinforced by the nuclear accident at Fukushima. However, instead of conducting a meaningful review, the Government simply held a press conference and reiterated its determination to go ahead with the project. This is unfortunately just the latest example of obduracy at the highest levels of this government when it comes to the question of nuclear power.

Three years ago, the Government of India staked its survival on a civil nuclear deal with the United States. This deal, which was initiated in 2005 by Manmohan Singh and George Bush without any public consultation, was opposed by many, including the Left parliamentary parties. Although the first UPA regime was dependent on the Left for its survival, the Manmohan Singh Government chose to risk a vote of confidence to force the issue. Even at the time, there were allegations that the Government won this vote using bribery. The recent WikiLeaks revelation that an employee in the US embassy was shown a chest of cash before the vote has only served to aggravate suspicions, not only of such corruption but also of the role played by the US in this saga.

The Government claims that it undertook all these actions for the sake of energy. In a press release, the Prime Minister’s Office justified its insensitive Chernobyl Day announcement on the same grounds: ‘India’s energy needs are vast and growing and nuclear energy is an important clean energy option.’

Earlier, in mid-2008, during the parliamentary debate on the trust vote, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee explained that the Nuclear Deal was essential to avoid a cataclysmic shortage of power in the future. Without the deal, he claimed, by 2050 “our energy deficit would be 412,000 megawatts”.  Mukherjee then went on to tell Parliament that, by a curious coincidence, the deal would provide India with almost exactly this amount of power and “reduce the deficit... to only 7,000 megawatts.” In other words, the deal would allow the Government to embark on a frenzy of nuclear construction amounting to roughly two-and-a-half times the country’s total current installed power generation capacity in four decades. 

In fact, estimates of both the deficits and contribution of nuclear power were questionable and seemed engineered to influence the debate on the deal. In 2008, Anil Kakodkar, secretary of the DAE, presented these figures for the first time in a talk in Bangalore where he also claimed that the deal would allow India to expand its nuclear programme by more than a hundred times by 2050. The history of nuclear energy in India offers no precedent for such an increase, although it does provide many examples of grand pronouncements. The first secretary of the DAE, Homi Bhabha, predicted that India would produce 18–20,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear power by 1987; when 1987 came around, India’s nuclear power production capacity was stuck at 512 MW—less than 3 per cent of Bhabha’s projection. In the 1980s, the DAE launched a ‘profile’, claiming that it would install 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity by 2000, but the Comptroller and Auditor General’s review of this programme in 1998 found that the ‘the actual additional generation of power… was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5,291.48 crore’.

Not only have no lessons been learnt from these past failures, but, on independent grounds, the DAE’s current projections are technically infeasible. They rely on untested technology, and are based on erroneous calculations.

Given this background, there are good reasons to doubt both the projections of energy shortage for 2050 and the ability of nuclear power to meet it. However, even the process of trying to set up nuclear power capacity to the extent possible imposes many economic and non-economic costs on society that India can scarcely afford.

‘WE HAVE TO KEEP THE INTERESTS OF FOREIGN COMPANIES IN MIND’

The key feature of the deal was that it gave India access to nuclear technology in the international market. The Government plans to use this new freedom to import several large reactors from the very countries that helped secure the deal, including of course the US but also France and Russia. France seems to be first in line. The six reactors that the Government has promised to import and install at Jaitapur are called EPRs and are being sold by a French company called Areva. Each EPR—an abbreviation for Evolutionary or European  Pressurised Reactor—will produce 1,650 MW, which is almost one-third of India’s total nuclear-power-generating capacity today, and about four times as much as that of the Fukushima-Daiichi I reactor.

The Government’s hurry to seal this deal has been puzzling because no EPR is in commercial operation anywhere in the world. Apart from two EPRs in China, where construction has not advanced particularly, there are two other EPRs under construction in Olkiluoto (Finland) and Flamanville (France). These two have already run up costs of over $7 billion apiece. In the US, the EPR is caught up in regulatory hurdles. It has not cleared the regulatory process in Britain either.

Why then would India rush to buy these exorbitant reactors from France? The answer was laid out clearly by Kakodkar. Writing for Sakaal Times, in Marathi, he candidly explained that ‘we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there… America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects’.

In fact, the nurturing of foreign business interests has been of such importance to the Indian Government that it has often been willing to take away the rights of its own citizens. Before they sell anything to India, these companies would like to wash their hands off the consequences of any disaster at their reactors. To enable this, the Government spent the entire 2010 monsoon session of Parliament passing a nuclear liability law whose primary purpose was to

prevent victims from being able to sue suppliers for compensation in the event of an accident.

‘I HOPE THEIR PROFITS WILL TELL THE TRUE STORY’

In May 2010, Robert Blake, a senior official in the US State Department, sternly told the Indian Government that the US expected India to pass legislation “consistent with the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC)” since this “would provide a very important legal protection and open the way for billions of dollars in American reactor exports and thousands of jobs [in America]”. Four days later, India’s Foreign Minister SM Krishna genuflected in front of the US-India Business Council, assuring it that, “The Government [of India] is committed to put in place a nuclear liability regime… [and] we look forward to US companies investing in India.”

The interests of reactor manufacturers are clear: a nuclear accident can cause so much damage that they would go bankrupt if they were forced to pay adequate compensation. For example, in 1982, a study by the US-based Sandia National Laboratory concluded that a worst-case disaster at the nuclear plant at Indian Point, near New York, could lead to economic damages of almost $300 billion (in 1982 terms). Neither GE nor Areva can afford to pay such amounts. Indemnifying them, however, is not only unfair, but also dangerous. Manufacturers are less likely to be punctilious about improving safety if they know they will not be held responsible for the fallout of an accident.

A second involved party is the ‘operator’ of the nuclear plant, which, in India’s case, will be the public sector Nuclear Power Corporation. In the future, it is possible that large business houses like the Tata Group or Reliance might enter this business, and they too are unlikely to be able to bear the costs of compensating victims adequately.

So, the issue of nuclear liability involves a three-way conflict of interest between the supplier, the operator and the victims. The Government sought to resolve this conflict by bringing in a law that channels liability to the operator and caps it at Rs 1,500 crore even if the magnitude of damage to victims exceeds this amount. While the law completely denies victims the right to sue the supplier, it also contains an interesting quirk: the operator has a limited ‘right of recourse’ that allows it to recover some costs from the supplier in the event of an accident.

The story of how this quirk made its way to the Indian bill is both interesting and revealing. The Government first prepared a draft law that, almost to the word, followed the US-engineered CSC. This convention requires all signatories (except the US, which is exempted by a special ‘Grandfather clause’) to pass laws that indemnify the manufacturer of a nuclear plant unless it has explicitly accepted responsibility in a contract.

However, the draft Indian bill deviated at one point: it allowed the operator to recover costs from the manufacturer if an accident were to result from the ‘wilful act or gross negligence’, of the supplier. The CSC did not contain the two words ‘gross negligence’ and the US was livid. The prominent American lawyer Omer Brown told a newspaper that, “The differences between negligence, gross negligence and wilful act are as clear as the differences between a fool, a damn fool and a goddam fool!”

The DAE promptly circulated a note to the parliamentary committee studying the bill, recommending that this clause be deleted entirely. However, this note was leaked to the press by progressive members on the committee, and it led to an outcry. The DAE had to retract its suggestion, with its secretary calling the note a “mistake”.

However, the Government was not done with its mischief. The final report of the committee pretended to strengthen this clause by stating that the operator could demand recourse if the accident were to result from a ‘latent or patent defect’ or the supply of ‘sub-standard material’ by the manufacturer. However, it also recommended that the word ‘and’ be appended to the clause just above this, which referred to the existence of a contract between the supplier and the operator. This way, both conditions would have to be met. In effect, it meant that the right of recourse could only be exercised in the unlikely event that the supplier had signed a contract accepting responsibility for an accident!

When this came to light, the Government was again forced to backtrack. However, its machinations to protect multinational vendors continued. The Union Cabinet recommended to Parliament that the ‘and’ be deleted but replaced with the qualifier that the operator could demand recourse if an accident were to result from an act of the supplier ‘done with intent to cause nuclear damage’. Under this provision, the operator would have to prove deliberate sabotage to win damages; which supplier would deliberately cause its reactor to malfunction?

Although the Government had to delete the ‘intent’ clause under public pressure, it continued to look for ways to protect suppliers. One option that has been widely discussed in the business press is for the Government-controlled Nuclear Power Corporation to voluntarily give up its right of recourse in the contracts it signs with companies like Areva.

These ridiculous contortions are a revealing indicator of the motivations of the Government and its efforts to satisfy foreign companies at any cost. The Prime Minister has been quite forthright. In attempting to reassure international manufacturers after the passage of the Nuclear Liability Bill, he said: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating… much will depend on how the rules are formulated… I hope their profits will tell the true story.”

‘WE WERE UNABLE TO VISIT THE SITE BECAUSE OF AN AGITATION BY LOCAL PEOPLE’

Those who live near sites where the Government plans to put up nuclear plants, unsurprisingly, are unwilling to risk their lives and livelihoods for the sake of these profits. In Jaitapur, at the public hearing for the environmental impact assessment, inhabitants of the area overwhelmingly opposed the project. Expectedly, the environment ministry cleared the nuclear complex anyway, citing among other reasons the interests of “global diplomacy”.

Locals have continued to protest this imposition. According to media reports, of the 2,375 families eligible for compensation, only 114 have accepted the package offered by the government. When Maharashtra’s Chief Minister visited Jaitapur in February, he was rebuffed by a large number of protestors.

In December, one activist died when he mysteriously met with an accident involving a police jeep. In April, another activist died in police firing, and a yatra from Tarapur-to-Jaitapur led by activists and several eminent citizens was blocked by the police. Several others, including the sarpanch of Madban, a village close to the proposed reactor site, have been served notices asking them to leave the area. According to media reports, Narayan Rane, a former chief minister of Maharashtra, threatened activists from neighbouring districts by saying that “No outsider who comes to Jaitapur to oppose the project will return”!

Similar protests have started at other sites where the Government plans to showcase the wondrous results of the Nuclear Deal, including the two sites reserved for US-made reactors—Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh and Mithi Virdi in Gujarat. In Mithi Virdi, villages have barricaded roads leading to the area, to keep government surveyors from entering the territory. At Kovvada, according to media reports, a Navy helicopter crew was confronted by fisherfolk who were under the impression they were from the DAE. At Haripur, a site earmarked for Russian reactors, a member of the DAE’s site selection committee told the press: “We were unable to visit the site because of an agitation by local people.”

In all these locations, one major concern is the impact of reactors on the livelihoods of local inhabitants. At Jaitapur, for instance, the land around the reactor site is very fertile and there is a large fishing community in the vicinity. Farmers grow a variety of crops, including cashew nuts and Alphonso mangoes. All of them are concerned that the mere presence of the reactors and their routine operations would impact agriculture and fishery.

The greater concern at this point, however, is the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, as demonstrated by the multiple accidents at the Fukushima reactors and the earlier one at Chernobyl. Such an accident could devastate the area. Chernobyl had long-term impacts on human health and the environment, including the contamination of large tracts with various radioactive elements. An area of over 3,000 sq km (almost 80 per cent the size of Goa) still remains officially evacuated because it is contaminated with a radioactive element called cesium-137. A surrounding region that is thrice as large is designated as an area of strict radiation control, requiring decontamination and the control of intake of locally grown food. It takes 30 years for the radioactivity from cesium-137 to halve, which means that relief would be a long time coming. A recent large study carried out by the US National Cancer Institute found that thyroid cancers continued to occur among those who, as children, were exposed to another radioactive element called iodine-131 following the accident.

The accident in Fukushima showed that no reactor is immune to devastating accidents and that the highest price for a mishap is paid by local inhabitants. Does the Indian Government, which has worked so hard to protect the interests of the international and domestic nuclear industries, even care about them?

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The authors are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Ramana is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (forthcoming from Viking Penguin)