The Shiva Rules: India's nuclear nightmare?

A delegate of the India Nuclear Energy 2011 summit walks past a stall in Mumbai on Sept. 29, 2011.</p>

A delegate of the India Nuclear Energy 2011 summit walks past a stall in Mumbai on Sept. 29, 2011.

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.

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.

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?"

The local opposition

In Jaitapur, they wonder why their land should be the proving ground. Unlike the villages of so-called "backward regions" where India is pushing ahead with equally controversial mining projects, the towns and villages of the area that will be affected by the Jaitapur project are thriving — even in places the government's Environmental Impact Assessment classifies as "barren land," locals say.

From the baking hot, rust-colored inland hills, land owners cut porous, red laterite stones to sell to builders across the state for about 50 U.S. cents a brick, generating ready capital that they use to lay down topsoil and plant mango trees — which the hard stone below allows them to irrigate with well water or water brought in tankers.

The unique conditions make the area famous for the Alphonso variety, known as "king of the mangoes," which India recently agreed to export to the U.S. in exchange for Harley Davidson motorcycles. There is evidence of this thriving industry everywhere around the affected villages — whether it's mango saplings, workers mining stone or constructing new buildings, or the burnt ground that identifies a plot where diggers will soon begin to cut laterite.

As for the agricultural potential of the land already acquired for the project, the government has cordoned of the area, and does not even allow journalists to enter it for inspection.

In short, it's a place to which economic development is coming organically, where unemployment is not an issue, and where locals fear industrialization could kill the golden goose — considering that buyers already recognize that the mangoes produced here are superior to those grown closer to the highway. Milind Desai, a local doctor turned anti-nuclear activist, says that's why only 112 out of more than 2,000 farmers in the proposed plant zone have accepted checks from the government for their property (which has already been taken over without their consent).

"People here are happy with their economic situation," said Desai, who was also jailed by the local authorities earlier this month. "We're not looking at high salaries, but neither are people waiting on street corners to try to pick up jobs doing day labor."

The Nuclear Power Corporation maintains that the Jaitapur facility will cause no significant damage to the local environment, and Areva argues that both the site location and several innovations in the design of its pressurized reactors will make the Jaitapur project much less vulnerable to natural disasters than the older reactors of Fukushima — incorporating a double concrete shell to protect the reactor building, housing the fuel pool in a separate building protected by its own double shell, and incorporating three independent cooling systems to prevent overheating in the event one of them fails, for example.

But the manner in which India's nuclear agencies and state-owned NPCIL have pursued clearances for the project suggest that neither the project's cost, nor the rights of local residents, nor the impact to the environment nor the safety of a reactor design were ever considered as serious questions. They were simply hoops to jump through along the way.

What about due diligence?

Beginning in 2005, for example, when the agency responsible for developing India's nuclear power capabilities, the Department of Atomic Energy, authorized the head of NPCIL to push ahead with the Jaitapur project, the all powerful nuclear agency more-or-less granted the company the right to override any opposition to set up the plant in an open letter addressed “to whomsoever it may concern.”

The letter had its desired effect with all government agencies quickly falling in line, and “fast-tracking” work on the project. Records of meetings held by the Expert Assessment Committee for nuclear power, for example, are shallow enough to imply that they viewed their evaluation of the project as a formality.

At the final Nov. 15, 2010, meeting in which the project was granted “partial” environmental clearance, one of the conditions put forth by the assessment committee reads as follows: “The requisite prior clearance from AERB for the plant design and their safety shall be obtained.”

Two weeks earlier, at a meeting held Oct. 28, the committee had requested a huge list of information including details of how the plant would be decommissioned, the rehabilitation and resettlement plan, and how much water and land would be used by the project. On the same day the committee had also visited the project site for the first time. In this context, the sudden partial clearance granted to the project suggests that the committee was passing the buck rather than exercising due diligence in assessing risks.

Is safety is more than an afterthought?

Areva has been chosen, the site for the plant has been selected, the environmental impact assessment has been completed and the land has already been forcibly acquired from the locals by the government. Yet according to an email from the chairman of India's nuclear regulator, the official safety review of Areva's design for pressurized reactors has not even begun.

"AERB’s formal review of [the] EPR [design] will commence once we get an application from NPCIL along with the detailed Safety Analysis Report," Chairman S.S. Bajaj said by email. "So far AERB’s involvement has been limited to giving comments on [the] draft Technical Assignment document being discussed by NPCIL with Areva."

Meanwhile, the environment minister isn't the only one to suggest that the nuclear regulatory board lacks the muscle to do its work independently. Konkan Bachao Samiti, a local non-governmental organization at the forefront of opposition to the Jaitapur project, told GlobalPost that in one of their meetings with officials from the assessment committee, one of the officials clearly mentioned that the agency was under pressure from the French government.

Further, the NGO claimed that regulatory board refused to sign the minutes of the meeting saying that they did not have recordings of the meeting. The NGO also said that board always recorded their meetings. More recently, Greenpeace India claimed to have obtained evidence through a Right to Information request showing that the Jaitapur site is located in a level 4 seismic zone according to the Geological Survey of India, not level 3 as senior officials with NPCIL said data from the Indian Metrological Department indicates.

"In the case of earthquake engineering, the [NPCIL] strategy is to have their favorite consultants cook up the kind of seismicity data which suits them, and there is practically no independent verification of their data or design methodologies," according to former AERB chairman Gopalakrishnan, who commented prior to the allegations by Greenpeace. "A captive AERB which reports to the [Department of Atomic Energy] makes the overall nuclear safety management in India worthless."

For many, that will make India's dreams of expanding its nuclear power production a hundredfold over the next 40 years sound like a nightmare.

Additional reporting by Praveen Kurup in Mumbai.