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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.
Critics say India is woefully unprepared to handle the world's largest nuclear plant.
The need for an independent regulator
Safety is hardly the only issue of concern when it comes to India's plans for nuclear expansion.
Even as the central government debates changes to land acquisition laws that led to deadly riots in West Bengal in 2007, it's steamrolling ahead with a forcible "land grab" in Maharashtra to smooth the way for the first big-ticket nuclear project signed after the India-U.S. nuclear pact.
In what critics allege is quid pro quo for French support for the move to let India bypass the non-proliferation treaty, India granted the contract to Areva without inviting tenders from competitors — potentially making the green power generated by the project too costly for ordinary Indians to afford.
And the lines separating India's nuclear industry and its nuclear regulator are too blurry to allow for independent assessment of risks.
“It is probably time to have an independent regulatory authority which is separate from the Department of Atomic Energy, something on the lines of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States," Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said in an interview with the Indian Express earlier this month, following claims that conflict of interest influenced the regulatory board's radiological impact assessment for the Jaitapur project. On Wednesday, he wrote a letter to the prime minister opposing large nuclear parks like the one proposed for Jaitapur, saying "Jaitapur will have 10,000 MW capacity. Is it wise?"
Even before the disaster at Fukushima, Areva's plans for Jaitapur had prompted serious questions from Indian anti-nuclear groups like the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP). Apart from general objections related to the size and potential impact of the project in the case of an accident, the coalition drew attention to Areva's design for the pressurized reactors — which it criticized as an "untested" technology.
The safety of the reactors' failsafe controls been called into question by nuclear regulators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States. And the pressurized reactor projects that Areva has underway in Finland and France have been plagued by delays caused by apparently basic errors in construction — like failing to pour concrete or weld steel structures to technical specifications. Scholars opposed to nuclear power agree.
Areva's growing pains
"The previous design from Areva [the N4, four units built in France in the late 1990s] had design flaws that were only discovered after plant completion, and the construction record at Olkiluoto and Flamanville is awful," said Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich. "Until Areva has units built to time and cost and they are operating reliably, why [should India] take the risk?"
In an emailed response to queries from GlobalPost, Areva said that the safety authorities who questioned the designs for pressurized reactors said the issues identified "do not put into any doubt the overall safety of the EPR reactor itself" and added that the U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive has already accepted its designed modifications.
Concerning its construction problems, the company declined to specify the cost overruns that errors and delays entailed. But it pointed out that its added experience since means it is unlikely to face the same problems in India. Arguing that even its first installation has proceeded swiftly in comparison with other "first of its kind" reactors, the company said that the two pressurized reactor projects in China it began subsequently are "well within schedule and budget" and will be finished in less than 50 months.
"This shows the impressive learning curve of the new EPR reactor series, which NPCIL [Nuclear Power Corporation of India] will also benefit from in India," according to the company email.
"Isn't it amazing that the world's largest nuclear builder ... is arguing teething problems?" said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based energy consultant who opposes nuclear power. "This is supposed to be a mature technology, even if the design has been modified. This is not a revolutionary reactor, it's called an evolutionary reactor. One wonders if after 40 years of operational experience and building experience, how much time do they need to get over teething problems?"