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NEW DELHI: Even zealous supporters of nuclear power should logically concede three things to their opponents. First, after Fukushima, it’s natural for people everywhere to be deeply sceptical of the claimed safety of nuclear power, and for governments to phase out atomic programmes, as is happening in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and now Japan.

Second, nuclear power, like all projects, should only be promoted with the consent of local people, and with scrupulous regard for civil liberties. And third, safety must be paramount in reactor construction and operation, with strict compliance with rules laid down by an independent safety authority.

The way the Indian government has dealt with the opponents of the Koodankulam nuclear reactors being built in Tamil Nadu violates all three red lines. The Department of Atomic Energy and its subsidiary Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. see the opposition as a pathology to be cured by psychiatrists from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences.

The government has all along demonised the opposition. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, no less, vilified it as “foreign-funded” without an iota of evidence. The government deported a German tourist living in a 200 rupees-a-day (US$3.84-a-day) room for “masterminding” and financing the agitation. Last week, it summarily deported three Japanese activists who were planning to visit Koodankulam.

All this shows official disconnect with reality. Globally, nuclear power has long been in retreat. The number of operating reactors peaked 10 years ago, and their installed capacity has been falling since 2010. Nuclear’s share of global power generation has declined from its peak (17 per cent) to about 11 per cent.

Fukushima precipitated the global nuclear industry’s worst-ever credibility crisis. With increasingly adverse public opinion, and rising reactor costs (which have tripled over a decade), it’ll probably go into terminal decline. Jeff Immelt of General Electric, one of the world’s largest atomic suppliers, says nuclear power is “really hard to justify”.

However, in pursuing its Nuclear March of Folly, India has unleashed savage repression against protesters. FIRs have been lodged against several thousand people in Koodankulam, with many charged with sedition and waging war against the state — read, protests without one violent incident.

It’s hard to think of another occasion, including the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, or the 1992 Babri demolition, where the state has behaved so irresponsibly.

On Sept 10, the police attacked Koodankulam protesters with batons and tear-gas although they were obstructing nobody’s movement. The police literally drove many agitators into the sea, molested women, looted homes and killed a fisherman.

A fact-finding team led by Justice B.G. Kolse-Patil journalist Kalpana Sharma describes the “reign of terror” in Koodankulam, with “totally unjustified” use of force, physical abuse, vindictive detention of 56 people including juveniles, and sexual harassment. Such police behaviour “has no place in a country that calls itself democratic”.

Yet, repression of movements against destructive projects is becoming routine in India. No socially desirable project can be built on the ashes of citizens. This itself is good reason to oppose the Koodankulam reactors.

Dr Singh last year suspended Koodankulam construction until people’s apprehensions regarding safety are allayed. But his sarkari experts didn’t even meet the people’s representatives or answer queries about the site’s vulnerability to tsunamis, volcanism and earthquakes.

NPCIL refuses to disclose relevant information, including the Site Evaluation and the Safety Analysis Reports, and the text of an Indo-Russian intergovernmental agreement, which reportedly absolves the reactors’ supplier of liability for an accident.This puts a question-mark over the official claim that the reactors are safe, and accidents are all but impossible. If so, why is the supplier evading liability?

That brings us to the third factor: NPCIL’s non-compliance with safety norms, and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s approval for fuel-loading in breach of its own norms. Last year, following Fukushima, an AERB Task Force suggested 17 safety improvements pertaining to freshwater and power backup, improved sensors, instrumentation, etc.

The Koodankulam plant isn’t compliant with as many as 11 of the 17. The AERB first told the Madras High Court that it wouldn’t permit fuel-loading without full compliance. But within four days, it made an about-turn — under government pressure.

As the Comptroller and Accountant General has recently established, the AERB is totally subservient to the government. On August 10, it permitted NPCIL to start fuel loading. This is wrong, dangerous, and shows reckless disregard for safety.

The AERB is guilty of more safety violations. Its own rules say there must be absolutely no population in the 1.6-km-radius “exclusion zone” from the plant, and that the population in the 5-km radius must be under 20,000.

But as anyone who has been to Koodankulam will testify, a tsunami rehabilitation colony, with 450 tenements, stands less than 1 km from the plant. At least 40,000 people live within a 5-km radius.

The AERB has turned a blind eye to this. Equally disgraceful is its failure to enforce the stipulation that no fuel-loading be permitted until an emergency preparedness drill is completed within a 16-km radius jointly by NPCIL, the district administration, state government and National Disaster Management Authority.This involves full evacuation, with prior warning, identification of routes and vehicles, and public mobilisation. No such drill was conducted. The AERB’s fuel-loading clearance amounts to playing with people’s lives.

A victim of domestic and international atomic lobbies, India is loath to abandon nuclear power although the world is rapidly doing so. The process is fastest in the OECD countries, which account for 70 per cent of the world’s reactors. Only two reactors are under construction in the West — mired in safety problems, long delays and 130 per cent-plus cost overruns.

Even France, which gets 80 per cent of its electricity from atomic reactors — a fact the nuclear industry repeats as if that were clinching proof of atomic safety — will reduce that dependence to 50 per cent by 2025.

As nuclear power declines, clean renewable sources like wind and solar are rapidly expanding and their costs are dramatically falling. Renewables are the future.

By arrangement with The Daily Star/ANN