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Japan's Fukushima crisis drives protests over world's largest nuclear plant in India

Even as Japan has decided to forgo nuclear expansion following the Fukushima crisis, India's government is insisting it will proceed with the world's largest nuclear facility despite mounting public opposition.

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Growing tide of disquiet

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Even before the Fukushima incident, protests were building steam. But now they've grown so large and so regular that thousands of police have massed in the region to handle them. And the slain antinuclear protester became an almost instant symbol of the movement.

More than 80 highly respected people have signed a long petition against the power plant, including the former head of India's main nuclear regulatory body, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), along with a former Indian naval chief and a one-time UN ambassador. The statement called for a thorough independent review of the country's nuclear policy and installations.

Antinuclear activists dismiss the AERB's effectiveness and say there is a vital need to overhaul the country's existing nuclear regulatory framework altogether and replace it with something more impartial.

Response to public outcry

The AERB, for its part, defends the emergency preparedness plans for India's nuclear power plants in place, and, in the wake of the Fukushima emergency, insists that it is carefully reviewing safety measures.

"All the reactors in India are designed to withstand the effects of earthquake and tsunamis of specific magnitude, which are decided based on conservative criteria," said AERB secretary R. Bhattacharya by e-mail.

Areva, which has signed a number of other nuclear deals with India recently, says it is also mindful of the public outcry.

"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," said Areva vice president Arthur de Montalembert, adding that its reactors are being redesigned to help further withstand disasters after Fukushima.

Other options?

Still, antinuclear proponents question whether nuclear power really is the answer to India's ever-growing energy needs. The threat of contamination and accidents aside, it is an expensive option.

Prominent antinuclear activist Praful Bidwai, cofounder of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, argues that India should focus more attention – and funds – on options such as coal based thermal power, hydroelectricity, wind power, and solar thermal energy.

Says Mr. Bidwai: "China is the world leader in this, and India should be doing more."

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