Electricity for whom?

The nuclear debate

Local people are opposing construction of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. People of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra are opposing the Jaitapur nuclear plant. Mamata Banerjee has scrapped the proposed nuclear power plant in Purba Medhinipur.

Germany has decided to close all nuclear power plants by 2022. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, is determined to push increased generation of nuclear electricity at any cost despite opposition from local people. This determination of the prime minister can be interpreted in two ways. Positive interpretation is that he is aggressively pursuing increased generation of electricity for securing high economic growth and providing electricity to the people. The not-so-charitable interpretation is that he is pushing for increased generation to provide benefits to big power companies and to provide electricity to the rich.

Opponents of the Kudankulam project allege that an Environment Impact Assessment has not been done. The project does not have clearance under the Environment Protection Act. There is a provision under the Act for holding a public hearing where local people can voice their grievances and the government is required to factor these into the decision making process.

The local people’s voice has been muffled by not holding a public hearing. Prof Shivaji Rao of Gitam University, Vishakhapatnam says that in the US it is mandatory to prepare environmental assessment report including risk analysis, nuclear accident scenario, emergency preparedness plans and disaster management report before a nuclear project is approved. Why the prime minister is not getting these reports prepared and not placing them before the people, he asks.

The Kudankulam plant will use Russian VVER 1000 reactors. These have not been used anywhere in the world till now. In other words, the prime minister has converted the project into a testing laboratory for the Russian nuclear equipment supplier.

India has recently enacted the Nuclear Liability Act. Under the Act, the supplier of the nuclear equipment has to bear a part of the damages in case of an accident. However, the Russian supplier says that it is not covered under this Act.

The entire liability in case of an accident will have to be borne by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India which is building the project. Russia insists that it is supplying the equipment under the inter-governmental agreement signed in 2008 by the Indian and Russian governments and it does not provide for the Russian supplier bearing part of the accident costs. The prime minister should explain why the earlier agreement should not be revisited and aligned with the Act promulgated subsequently by our Parliament? Also he should explain why the agreement has not been placed in the public domain.

Empty statements
The prime minister has assured Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha that he attaches the highest importance to ensuring that the nuclear energy in the country meets the highest safety standards; that he will not compromise on safety in pursuit of our nuclear energy programme; and that nothing will be done that would threaten the safety or livelihood of any section of society. But he should have placed the Environment Impact Assessment and other reports before the people instead of making these empty statements.

Yet it has to be accepted that demand for electricity is increasing in the country. Electricity has not reached many villages. Power cuts are plaguing our cities. This requires increased generation. But how much electricity should be produced?

Obviously, the electricity produced should bring in large benefits to the aam aadmi and the costs imposed upon him are less. Problem with the prime minister’s policy is that costs to the aam aadmi are large while benefits mostly accrue to the richer people. The aam aadmi is affected by nuclear accidents. The rich living in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai who consume most of the electricity will not be much affected by accidents in plants that are made far away.

 the prime minister should examine who is the final consumer of the electricity. Then it will become transparently clear that present policy is made to meet the ever-increasing consumption of the rich. Diversion of a mere 2 per cent of present generation is sufficient to provide lifeline consumption of 30 units per month to all the unelectrified households in the country. Instead of diverting this small amount of energy for the poor, we are trying to increase generation so that ever more electricity can be provided to the rich.

The second argument in favour of increased generation is that of global competition. Indeed, it is true that countries like China are destroying their environment and selling goods cheap in the world. One way to face this is for us to destroy our environment and produce cheap goods.

Other way is to impose an ‘environment tax’ on imports from China. We should follow the latter, not the bad policies of China. The prime minister should reconsider his approach of ‘electricity at any cost.’ He should order a dispassionate assessment of the benefits and costs to the poor and the rich for each project. He should push only those projects where benefits to the poor are much greater than the costs. That is not so with Kudankulam or Jaitapur.

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