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.

Vivek Prakash/Reuters
A woman shouts slogans during an anti-nuclear protest in Mumbai April 26. India will tighten safety systems at a proposed $10 billion nuclear plant, potentially the world's largest, a minister said on Tuesday, after protests against the plan turned violent in recent weeks following last month's nuclear disaster in Japan. Clashes between protesters and police in April killed one person and injured at least 20 near the plant site in Jaitapur, western India, where anger over land acquisition has intensified on fears of a similar disaster.

Japan's nuclear crisis has influenced a protest movement in India that is violently opposing plans to build the world's largest nuclear plant. As international agencies eye India's growing energy market, they'll also be watching how India responds to this case.

India's break-neck growth has driven an intense need for energy – and nuclear power has been accepted within the country as a suitable and clean way to deliver this. But in the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, citizens in and around Jaitapur, the seismic activity-prone region where the Indian government plans to build a 9,900 mega watt power station, are upset.

Tensions came to a head in mid-April when one antinuclear demonstrator was killed during a protest, and several others were injured.

"The locals, especially after what's happened in Fukushima, are not of two minds. They simply don't want it," says Greenpeace India activist Vinuta Gopal. "They see nothing to gain from it, and everything to lose," she says. On top of that, "India certainly doesn't have [Japan's] capacity for disaster management preparedness."

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India has 20 nuclear plants in operation, providing only about 3 percent of the country's energy. Another 23 are on the way, according to a former government minister, as the country attempts to more than double its reliance on nuclear power by 2030. The Indian government and nuclear reactor builder Areva, a French company, plan to start construction of the $12 billion Jaitapur facility in 2018 or 2019, despite the heated protests.

In an effort to help assuage concerns, the Indian government has promised it will undertake a safety review of all plants and reimburse those displaced through land acquisition.

But, so far, locals say that hasn’t been enough. They can't seem to keep from bringing up what happened to the fishing and agriculture industry in Fukushima.

"We have been offered compensation for giving up our land, but only around 122 of 2,335 districts have accepted the money," says Jaitapur-based farmer Pravin Gavankar. "We don't want a plant, and we don't want their money."

Indeed, similar to the towns near the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, Jaitapur is located about 250 miles south of India's financial capital Mumbai, on a scenic coastal stretch, and it is home to thriving agriculture and fishing industries. If a sophisticated nation like Japan can't deal with a potential nuclear catastrophe, they reason, just how would India fare?

Growing tide of disquiet

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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