Nuclear energy and democracy

For six months, protesters in Koodankulam, India have physically stopped construction of a nuclear plant.

India nuclear protest
Protests in Koodankulam have ‘threatened to derail the establishment of a nuclear plant there’, write authors [EPA]

On March 19, 6,000 armed policemen descended on Koodankulam, a small village near the southern tip of India, to suppress a local protest that, although peaceful, had threatened to derail the establishment of a nuclear plant there. The policemen rapidly arrested hundreds of people, blockaded roads, shut out the media and laid siege to the area where the protesters were based, even stopping the supply of water for a few days.

Ten days later, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, declared victory – disregarding the continuing objections of the protesters – by announcing that the plant would start producing electricity in two months. This is the latest episode in what has turned into a conflict between democracy and the Indian government’s plan for a massive nuclear expansion.

India anti-nuclear protest turns violent

The reactors in Koodankulam are manufactured by a Russian company called Atomtroyexport and are the outcome of a 1988 agreement between India and the Soviet Union. This agreement was almost immediately met by popular opposition. In 1989, over 10,000 people participated in a rally against the proposed project. The government’s response was drastic: the police opened fire on the protesters. This battle smoldered for the next 10 years, as plans for the plant stalled when the Soviet Union collapsed.

When India and Russia resumed plans in the late 90’s, the protests resumed as well. In November 2001, activists founded an umbrella organisation called the “People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy” (PMANE). The government consistently ignored these voices, until the movement was galvanised by the accident in Fukushima.

By late 2011, as the plants neared completion, tens of thousands of people began to show up at PMANE’s programmes, culminating in protestors blocking workers from entering the reactor site to complete construction of the plant. The fact that the central government in Delhi and the state government in Tamil Nadu were controlled by antagonistic political parties meant that the protestors could not be removed by force, till a political deal was struck in March 2012.

Irritation and unscientific?

In the meanwhile, present and former nuclear officials started to tell the people that their concerns were irrational and unscientific. In November 2011, for example, the chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission explained that there was no reason to worry since the probability of a nuclear accident in India was “one in infinity”.

On another front, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – who has himself often attracted allegations of being extraordinarily partial to multinational corporations – suggested that the protests were driven by foreign money. The Income Tax Department was called in to investigate the poor fisher-folk involved in the movement, and in a farcical action an unemployed German backpacker who had nothing to do with the protest was deported from the country amidst announcements that he was “masterminding” the movement!

“The tremendous importance that the government places on nuclear energy… is in sharp contrast to the fact that the nuclear programme contributes only 2.6 per cent of India’s total electricity output.

Despite all this intimidation, the protests continue.

Koodankulam is not exceptional – there are ongoing protests at all new sites selected for nuclear plants in India: in Jaitapur (Maharashtra), Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) and Fatehabad (Haryana). Apart from worries of an accident, there is another factor that drives nuclear protests in India and other developing countries: nuclear projects adversely impact the environment as well as the livelihoods of the local people.

Nuclear reactors require land and cooling water, which must be taken away from farmers, and they discharge hot water and radioactive effluents into the sea, which affect fish workers. Studies suggest that Indian nuclear plants fail to adopt the meticulous safety practices that are required to protect their workers from the hazards of radiation. The consequent adverse impact on the health of villagers, including those who are employed contractually in the plant, has heightened opposition to nuclear energy.

The tremendous importance that the government places on nuclear energy and its willingness to override local objections is in sharp contrast to the fact that the nuclear programme contributes only 2.6 per cent of India’s total electricity output despite decades of lavish government support. After India and the United States signed a nuclear deal in 2005, the issue of nuclear energy has even acquired a central political significance. One of the unwritten commitments that interlocutors agreed on was that India would buy billions of dollars of reactors from the United States, France and Russia. Though the Koodankulam plant predated this agreement, its fate – and how the government deals with popular opposition to these reactors – is being closely watched by all nuclear reactor vendors.

Protecting multinational suppliers

Nuclear commerce in India has also been held up by the concerns of multinational suppliers that they might be sued by the victims of an accident. In many countries the nuclear industry is protected from such lawsuits by “liability laws” and soon after the deal, it began to pressure the Indian government to provide it with similar indemnification. However, to completely indemnify suppliers turned out to be impossible for the government of a country that lives with the legacy of Bhopal – where negligence in a plant operated by an American company led to one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

Nuclear electricity in India is significantly more expensive than from non-nuclear alternatives.

Although the government did end up passing a law that largely protects suppliers, the Supreme Court of India has now decided to examine whether this law violates the fundamental “right to life” of the victims. In response to a petition filed by the prominent advocate, Prashant Bhushan, the court issued notice to the government in March 2012, asking it why the law should not be struck down as unconstitutional. Given that the court has previously held that hazardous enterprises are “absolutely liable” for the damage they cause, this is precisely what might happen.

Economics has compounded the difficulties of the industry. Nuclear electricity in India is significantly more expensive than from non-nuclear alternatives, especially coal-based thermal stations, because of the high capital costs of nuclear reactors – even those constructed indigenously in India. Reactors imported from the West, especially France and the United States, will be even more expensive. Inasmuch as India’s rapidly growing economy will need cheap electricity, nuclear power is unlikely to meet that requirement.

Nuclear power cannot really be justified on the grounds of environmental sustainability, largely due to its production of radioactive wastes that stay hazardous for millenia, and the risk of catastrophic nuclear accidents that can never be ruled out. Finally, from the point of view of social equity, nuclear power is an inefficient way to deliver energy to the hundreds of millions of people living in villages spread out over a vast countryside – the very people that policy makers disingenuously use to justify their nuclear policy.

A growing, global movement

For these reasons, many of which are common across countries, and especially after Fukushima, there has been a marked decrease in public support for nuclear power. While some government like those in the United States and China have stayed the course, others in Venezuela, Switzerland and Germany have heeded democratic opinion and moved away from atomic energy.

In this evolving dynamic, the protest in Koodankulam demonstrates the power of an organised non-violent mass movement. For six months, the people of the region physically stopped the construction of a nuclear plant, while resisting a barrage of governmental propaganda. Whether or not the government is finally able to force the construction of this particular reactor, this enduring movement is likely to serve as an inspiration for environmental groups throughout the world.

MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, India. Ramana is the author of The power of promise: Examining nuclear power in India (forthcoming, Viking Penguin).