Women from rural northern India raise their hands during a protest. The protestors alleged the government was acquiring their fertile lands for different industrial projects including a nuclear plant at prices much lower than prevailing market rates. –Photo by AP

NEW DELHI: India on Sunday gave environmental clearance for a nuclear power plant to be built in collaboration with French firm Areva, days ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s scheduled visit to New Delhi.

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said the go-ahead for the Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra state, which will use nuclear reactors supplied by Areva, was granted with 35 conditions and safeguards.

“From an environmental point of view, nuclear energy is a cleaner option than coal,” Ramesh said in a press release, adding that he has called for further studies into the power station’s potential environmental impact.

A 34-year-old embargo on civilian nuclear exchanges with India, imposed in 1974 following a series of Indian nuclear tests, was lifted in 2008 after years of negotiations between India and the United States.

France has since signed an agreement with India covering nuclear energy cooperation, while Russia has also signed a similar accord.

The power station will be situated in the coastal region of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital of Mumbai, and has faced protests from locals and anti-nuclear activists.

Ramesh said nuclear energy accounted for about 2.9 per cent of India’s energy generation, and the government wanted to increase the figure to six per cent by 2020 and possibly 13 per cent by 2030.

Some local media reported that Areva and the Indian state-run Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) would sign the agreement during Sarkozy’s trip to Delhi.

The French president’s itinerary has yet to be confirmed but he is expected to arrive in India at the end of next week.

The NPC predicts the first reactor, costing an estimated four to six billion euros will be commissioned in 2017-18.

The proposed project will eventually have six reactors generating 1,650 megawatts each. It has several more government regulatory hurdles to overcome before being given the final go-ahead.

India is dependent on oil imports for 70 per cent of its fast-expanding energy needs, and is on the hunt for new sources to fuel its rapid growth.

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