Connect to share and comment

Poverty. Riches. The world's largest democracy. An ancient caste system. Bollywood. India is a land of contrasts, a booming new power that remains baffling to outsiders and insiders alike. The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost series that decodes the many mysteries of India's uneven rise in the 21st century.

India nuclear 2012 01 03
A delegate of the India Nuclear Energy 2011 summit walks past a stall in Mumbai on Sept. 29, 2011. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

The Shiva Rules: India's nuclear nightmare?

Critics say India is woefully unprepared to handle the world's largest nuclear plant.

Editor's Note: The Shiva Rules is a year-long GlobalPost reporting series that examines India in the 21st century. In it, correspondents Jason Overdorf and Hanna Ingber Win will examine the sweeping economic, political and cultural changes that are transforming this nascent global power in surprising and sometimes inexplicable ways. To help uncover the complexities of India's uneven rise, The Shiva Rules uses as a loose reporting metaphor Shiva, the popular Hindu deity of destruction and rebirth.

JAITAPUR, India — When Vijay Raut talks about the government's plans to throw the villagers of Madbad off their land to make way for the world's largest nuclear power plant, his voice quickly rises in volume. The tendons stand out in his neck as he describes how government officials and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) have trampled local resistance.

“Is this a democracy?” demands Raut, who was jailed along with some 18 protesters after what local police termed a riot in early March. “They came and started the survey without even explaining the purpose properly to us. Then they would not let us talk as a single voice. When they came to negotiate for the land in 2006-07, if at all you could call it that, they would not let us even stand around as a group. Individual farmers were called in to tell them their land was being acquired.”

Residents like Raut have strong incentives to fight. As yet undiscovered by travelers, this part of the Konkan coast in the Indian state of Maharashtra — about 150 kilometers from foreign tourists' beloved Goa — rivals the beauty of romantic locales like Puerto Vallarta. But local fishermen and mango farmers are not the only ones who should be concerned.

When the United States inked a controversial civilian nuclear agreement with India in 2008, the biggest fear for Americans was that the pact would encourage other would-be nuclear weapons states by letting India skate past the non-proliferation treaty. But after the near-meltdown in meticulous Japan last month, it's beginning to look like the real risk may come from the reactors themselves — even as the world's nuclear industry looks to India and China to spark a renaissance in nuclear power.

“Isn't it amazing that the world's largest nuclear builder ... is arguing teething problems?”
~Mycle Schneider, anti-nuclear energy consultant

Can India handle disaster?

"In contrast [to Japan], in India we are most disorganized and unprepared for the handling of emergencies of any kind of even much less severity," said A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), in an email to GlobalPost. "The AERB's disaster preparedness oversight is mostly on paper and the drills they once in awhile conduct are half-hearted efforts which amount to more [of] a sham."

India suffers from an increasingly worrisome shortage of electricity. Today, the country faces a shortfall of around 10 percent. Blackouts, or "power cuts" due to load shedding, are a daily reality in most areas, and nearly half the households in the country don't have electricity. Meanwhile, demand for power is rising more than 10 percent a year due to industrialization and rising incomes.

But is the country's plan to dramatically increase its production of nuclear power the solution?

In Jaitapur, a cluster of villages about 375 kilometers from Mumbai, New Delhi has inked an agreement with France's Areva Group to build the first two of a planned six Evolutionary Pressurized Reactors (EPR), each capable of producing 1,650 megawatts of electricity, in what promises to be the world's largest nuclear power facility when it is completed.

But according to the plans dangled before the nuclear industry in the course of negotiating the India-U.S. civil nuclear pact, that's only the first step in a breakneck sprint. In 2008, India boosted its forecasts for nuclear power production from a target of 20 gigawatts by 2020 to 275 gigawatts by 2050 to entice the nuclear suppliers' group to grant a waiver allowing it to import civilian nuclear technology and fuel. After getting the waiver, it boosted the target again, to 455 gigawatts by 2050 — a hundredfold increase in its present capacity.

The speed of that expansion is frightening — especially considering India has already had several near misses.

India's track record

According to Benjamin Sovacool, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, "the Tarapur nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown in 1979; a fire and explosion forced the closure of the Narora power plant in 1993; the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station at Kota leaked radioactive water into a lake for two months until it was detected in 1995; and, in December 2006, one of the pipes carrying radioactive waste from the uranium enrichment facility at Jadugoda burst and distributed highly radioactive materials as far as 100 km away."

India's nuclear establishment has repeatedly downplayed the risks at its facilities since the Fukushima crisis, and the regulatory board's chairman, S.S. Bajaj, disputed some of the reports cited in Sovacool's paper. "India has not experienced any accident in its nuclear power plants involving release of radioactivity in public domain," Bajaj said in an emailed reply to questions from GlobalPost.

"The worst accident was the Narora fire in 1993, which resulted in station blackout. Operators were able to successfully implement the necessary emergency operating procedures, and cool the core safely. Based on the experience from this event, detailed reviews and upgradations [sic] were carried out at all [nuclear power plants] in India," he said.