Opposition to huge India nuclear plant hardens after Japan

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 15, 2011 11:29 AM

By Tony Munroe

JAITAPUR, India (Reuters) - As far as Taramati Vaghdhare is concerned, there is no question of accepting compensation to make way for the world's largest nuclear power plant.

"If you want the land, make us stand on the land -- shoot us -- and then take the land," said the feisty 53-year-old, wearing a blue and gold sari and gesturing with a spatula.

In the yard outside her house, a young man sorted green mangoes of the prized Alphonso type from her family's orchards.

"Our land is our mother. We can't sell her and take compensation," said Vaghdhare, who was among villagers detained during recent protests against the plant.

The stakes are high for chronically power-short India. The plant would eventually have six reactors capable of generating 9,900 megawatts of electricity -- enough to provide power to 10 million Indian homes.

Long-running opposition to the proposed plant at Jaitapur has hardened amid the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, with village posters depicting scenes of last month's devastation at the Fukushima plant and warning of what could be in store for this region in the Western Ghats north of Goa.

Even if villagers and fishermen manage to derail the plant, India is unlikely to back down from its broader nuclear ambitions given surging power demand and a lack of alternatives.

India suffers from a peak-hour power deficit of about 12 percent that acts as a brake on an economy growing at nearly 9 percent and causes blackouts in much of the country. About 40 percent of Indians, or 500 million people, lack electricity.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staked his political career on a 2008 deal with the United States that ended India's nuclear isolation dating to its 1974 test of a nuclear device, opening up a $150 billion civilian nuclear market.

India now operates 20 mostly small reactors at six sites with a capacity of 4,780 MW, or 3 percent of its total power capacity. It hopes to lift its nuclear capacity to 7,280 MW by next year, more than 20,000 MW by 2020 and 63,000 MW by 2032 by adding nearly 30 reactors.

Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant at Fukushima and triggered a global rethink of nuclear power, Singh said India's atomic energy programme was on track but regulators would review safety systems to ensure that plants could withstand similar natural disasters.

"I do not believe that there is any panic reaction in terms of calling for a halt for the nuclear projects," said M.R. Srinivasan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, who selected the Jaitapur site.

"We will certainly review, in respect of new projects, the safety of those sites and the installations we propose to bring there in the context of an extreme, low probability but nonetheless possible natural event such as occurred in Fukushima," he said.


A recent visit to the 938 hectare (2,216 acre) site saw few signs of activity other than a group of policemen playing cricket. Defaced signs and milemarkers on the road to Jaitapur, about 300 km (185 miles) south of Mumbai, are evidence of the opposition to the plant.

While the surrounding area is thinly populated, farmers in nearby villages grow cashews, jackfruit and the Alphonso variety of mangoes considered to be the world's best.

About 120 of the 2,370 families eligible for compensation for their land have accepted it, according to Vivek Bhide, a doctor and mango farmer from the district. Community members say they are unified, and those who have accepted compensation are mostly absentee landowners.

Nearby, the bustling fishing port of Sakhri Nate is home to some 600 vessels that bring in about 50,000 kg a day of prawns, squid, kingfish and other species. Residents fear the plant will disrupt access to fishing grounds and raise water temperatures.

"The warm water which will come into the sea will drive away the fish," said Majeed Latigowarkar, a 45-year-old fisherman with a clipped mustache, striped shirt and skullcap.

He said officials have offered electronic gear such as fish-finders and GPS systems in a failed effort to win the support.

"If the government wants to give us something, just give us back our sea," he said.


During a December visit to India by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the two countries signed a framework agreement for state-owned Areva to build two of its next generation 1,650-megawatt EPR reactors at Jaitapur and supply reactor fuel for 25 years in a deal worth 7 billion euros ($10.1 billion).

The Areva reactors would be the first of as many as six at the site, with construction set to start this year and operation to begin by 2018. Final contracts have yet to be signed.

Russia's state-owned Rosatom, meanwhile, plans to build 18 reactors in India, while the General Electric/Hitachi joint venture and the Westinghouse Electric unit of Toshiba are also eyeing opportunities in India.

Opposition to the Jaitapur plant is based in part on worry about seismic activity in the region and concern that India would not be prepared to manage a crisis.

India suffered one of the world's worst industrial accidents in 1984 when about 3,000 people were killed by gas leaks from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.

State-run Nuclear Power Corp of India Ltd (NCPIL), which would own and operate the plant, has said no active geological fault is within 30 km (20 miles) of the site.

Critics also say Areva's EPR technology is untested and expensive. No EPR reactors are in operation but four are under construction -- one in France, two in China, and one in Finland, which is three years behind plan and may force Areva to write down as much as 2.6 billion euros ($3.76 billion).

NCPIL has said the price of power from Jaitapur will be competitive.


Whether the Jaitapur plant is built or not, India has little choice but to add a lot more nuclear power.

While numerous thermal power projects are at various stages of development, environmental and land use restrictions mean power producers are having difficulty securing coal, which accounts for 60 percent of India's energy use.

Gas output from the KG basin, for which India has high hopes, has lagged expectations, while competition for imports is intensifying. Alternatives including wind and solar are relatively expensive and lack the scale and storage capacity to provide base load supply.

"We are getting increasingly concerned about India's energy position in the context of supply shortages in most fossil fuels," Kotak Institutional Equities wrote in a recent note.

While New Delhi is committed to nuclear power, India's democratically elected leaders are sensitive to public opinion. China, which is pressing ahead with its own ambitious nuclear programme, is less constrained.

Residents in Jaitapur are encouraged by the long history of civil disobedience in India and say they are bolstered in their argument by the crisis in Japan.

"It only vindicates the doubts, views, we have been raising for the past few years," said Mangesh Chavan, who lives nearby and works in agricultural development, referring to Fukushima.

Last week, activist Anna Hazare ended a five-day hunger strike after the government Delhi gave in to his demand for a tougher anti-graft law.

His campaign drew the support of thousands and comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi's protests and hunger strikes that helped end British colonial rule.

In 2008, farmers in Singur in the state of West Bengal blocked Tata Motors from building a factory there to make it's ultra-low-cost Nano car.

Praveen Gavankar, a farmer and leader of opposition to the nuclear plant, said villagers plan to start farming on the site and if the government tries to block them they are prepared to go to Delhi and stage their own hunger strike.

"We will have to change the government's mind," he said, speaking outside a meeting at a temple in Midgavane village. "The government can't do anything to change our minds."

(Editing by Bill Tarrant and Robert Birsel)