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While Germany phases out its atomic energy production following the Fukushima accident and the expansion of nuclear power in Europe is mostly slowed down or even put to a halt, the Indian government plans to increase the country´s nuclear power production capacity by a factor of 100. By 2050, the then most populous country in the world could be dotted with of the capacity to produce 470 GW of nuclear energy, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The installed capacity in India would in this scenario be higher than today´s production capacity of all nuclear power plants worldwide combined. French energy company AREVA and other nuclear power providers are keen to make use of this new opportunity to sell their technology.
No development without energy
The main argument put forward by the government in favour of large-scale nuclear expansion is the projected future energy needs, which are based on outdated Western economic models which have little to do with India´s economic structure. Nuclear energy is promoted as being a cheap and efficient solution to cater for these needs. The simple slogan – ‘no development without energy’ - lies at the heart of this thinking. Nuclear energy production has for the ruling elites for decades been synonymous with modernisation and indispensable in order to catch-up with the industrialised countries. The leader of India’s largest party, Sonia Gandhi, labelled opponents of this technology as ´enemies of progress and development´. Since the world becomes more and more aware of climate change, the argument of nuclear being CO2-free and thus an environmentally friendly source of energy has only been strengthened.
90% of this electricity would be produced by Fast-Breeder Reactors. The current pilot plant in Kalpakkam, close the Southern Indian city of Chennai (Madras) only runs a fraction of the time scheduled as it has experienced numerous accidents. The technology used in these reactors and efforts to contain run-away costs renders them, in addition to being much more accident-prone, dangerous and more expensive than other reactors.
The civilian-military nexus
Apart from economic arguments, strategic, military and foreign policy considerations play a pivotal role in defining this policy. During the Cold War, India received Western support for its civilian nuclear research. But it used these supplies to build nuclear weapons. After a nuclear bomb test in 1974, Western countries announced a boycott of India´s civilian programme. When India run out of uranium and the US wanted to improve its relations with a strategic partner in Asia, the 2008 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement was forged. It brought parts of the Indian civilian nuclear programme under the IAEA regime but left plants like the fast-breeder, from which the government hopes to enrich its weapons plutonium, deliberately out. In return, the purchase of nuclear plants worth billions of dollars was agreed with US, French and Russian companies.
Energy for whom?
Little is done to provide the roughly 400 million Indians without access to electricity with basic services. Locally-adapted decentralised production based on renewables, such as biogas based on agricultural waste, small wind, water and solar technologies could boost the local economy and create much more jobs than the government´s plans to build big plants, argue Indian NGOs. Even less is done by the utilities to combat the enormous transmission and distribution losses, which according to different sources amount to up to 40% of the generated electricity. Over the past decades, the percentage of energy lost in the system has increased. Instead of tackling the problem, one big generation project after the other is announced, without paying attention to fierce local resistance, security or environmental concerns.
Repression of protests
In a densely populated country like India, finding space for the construction of new plants is difficult. With knowledge, local resistance increases. According to social scientists, no other social movement has been as fiercely suppressed by the authorities as the anti-nuclear movement over the past decades. As the nuclear question is considered to be of crucial national interest, opposition is not tolerated. At all of the sites proposed for building new power plants and at the uranium mining site in Jharkhand, protests have emerged. Lately, the confrontation between the government and local people are hardest in Koodankulam in the Southern State of Tamil Nadu. The Indian Supreme Court ruled in June 2013 that the blatant violation of environmental legislation when building the plant was not relevant given the national importance of the project. Local activists are speechless, but plan to continue their fight.
In Jaitapur, construction has not yet started, with fierce local resistance among the reasons. The proposed site is set on the coast between the tourism paradise Goa and the mega city Mumbai. The government agreed to a deal with the French company Areva to build six pressurised reactors. Once installed, the Jaitapur complex would be the biggest nuclear power production facility in the word. Protests are huge. Farmers refuse to accept the compensations offered by the authorities (despite increases to the amount offered), fishermen protest against the feared loss of their rich fishing grounds due to billions of litters of cooling water that will increase the temperature of the sea. Regular demonstrations and assemblies take place. The government reacts strongly. An act from British colonial times is applied in the region – meant for extraordinary circumstances like civil war – that forbids the gathering of more than five persons. Over 10,000 legal cases have been at taken against the demonstrators. Two persons were even killed in the confrontation between police and demonstrators. Despite this repression, the people continue to stand up against the Jaitapur nuclear power project.
National coordination of the movement
The protests are coordinated by the Delhi-based Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP). It was founded in 2000 by more than 250 civil society groups in opposition to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons rivalry. At its 10th anniversary, the Coalition embraced the goal of fighting civilian nuclear power production as provider of fuel for weapons. Over the years, it has developed into a resource centre supporting local movements. In July 2013, the CNDP plans to gather NGOs and nuclear opponents to adopt a Citizens Charter Against Nuclear Power. It will be sent to all political parties for the upcoming elections. But in spite of all the movement’s efforts and hopes to convince one of the major parties to take an anti-nuclear stance, chances are slim. International solidarity and support in their struggle to convince the government of their cause is therefore welcome. Because, as the Indian activists argue, if one of the mega-nuclear power plants has a serious accident, it would for sure affect the whole world.
Written by: Anna Cavazzini and Janna Schönfeld