From Jaitapur to Koodankulam: Resistance to Nuclear Hegemony in India

July 29, 2013

by Rajeev Ravisankar

As a brief outline, I’ll begin by providing a brief historical overview of India’s nuclear program before discussing more recent policy developments, namely the Indo-US nuclear deal initiated in 2005. Then I’ll move into the ramifications of the drastic push to expand nuclear power and the amazing movements that have emerged to resist projects in different parts of the country.

India’s nuclear energy program was initiated soon after independence as the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru articulated a vision of atomic energy tied to notions of national progress and scientific advancement. The Atomic Energy Act was enacted in 1948 (later updated in 1962), and just six years later the Department of Atomic Energy was established. DAE is comprised of several bodies involved in research, development, regulation, and promotion, among other things.

An important point about nuclear power is the inability to separate so-called civilian nuclear energy and the pursuit of nuclear weapons, as the former directly feeds into the latter. In the Indian context, the country’s first nuclear plant in Tarapur, Maharashtra, which was built with U.S. corporate assistance from Bechtel and General Electric, contributed plutonium for India’s first weapons test. The plant’s track record also exposes the dangers associated with nuclear energy as the plant leaked radioactive fuel to the tune of 3000-4000 gallons per day and stored open drums of radioactive waste.

The 1962 border war with China is often cited as the impetus for the development of the weapons program. India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, until recently, was excluded from nuclear trading, leading to claims in Indian political discourse of a ‘nuclear apartheid’ between nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. India engaged in high-profile nuclear weapons tests in 1974 with the so-called ‘peaceful’ explosion named Operation Smiling Buddha, and in 1998 by the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist Bharitiya Janata Party, which was motivated by a desire to assert a masculinist nationalism. The more recent tests came just two years after 149 countries had signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and foregrounded the challenge to US control of the global nuclear regime. However, a situation marked by antagonism and the imposition of sanctions by the US soon gave way to nuclear cooperation

In 2005, India and the United States initiated a framework for the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, which was promoted by powerful segment of the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community. The deal pushed for full nuclear cooperation between the two countries and for India’s civilian nuclear facilities to come under the International Atomic Energy Association. The Nuclear Suppliers Group, which exists to regulate nuclear trade with the aim of reducing weapons proliferation, granted an exemption that gave the go ahead for India to engage in nuclear fuel and technology transfers. The nuclear deal faced strong political opposition in India, particularly from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other parties in the Left Front coalition. Unfortunately, these parties challenged the deal on the basis of ‘national interest’ rather than making broader arguments about nuclear energy and the associated environmental degradation and corporate profiteering. As writer Aniket Alam stated in an EPW article “…it is crucial for any Left opposition to such a nuclear deal to question the very model of ever-growing energy resource consumption which capitalism fosters and normalizes.”

Nuclear power proponents in India have repeatedly articulated a vision of massive expansion, making projections of an additional 20,000 MW of nuclear energy capacity by the year 2020 and 63,000 MW capacity by 2032. Indian business elites expect hundreds of domestic companies to be major beneficiaries of the nuclear expansion, which could create as much as $100 billion in business deals. As it stands, 21 operating nuclear reactors produce around 5000 MW, which is about 3 per cent of India’s total energy production. While cheerleaders of nuclear energy in India have big dreams, the prospect of a ‘nuclear renaissance’ has produced nightmares for many others. Safety of nuclear power plants, radiation exposure, and storing nuclear waste are among the major concerns that continue to persist. Regarding waste, some nuclear proponents have promoted the idea of establishing a repository in a mountainous area akin to Yucca Mountain in the US.

Another critical issue is nuclear liability law in India and the corporate pressure exerted to weaken it. The law does not allow for a victim to sue the supplier even after an accident related to design defect. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited can sue under particular circumstances, but the cap on liability is lower than international norms. Liability mainly rests with taxpayers following an all-too-familiar model of socializing risks while privatizing profit. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s agenda for his visit to India includes discussions about the Indo-US nuclear deal and making the liability law even more amenable to US corporate interests.

Additionally, the social and environmental costs associated with thorium and uranium mining are totally neglected by nuclear power proponents who insist on describing nuclear as ‘clean’. A particularly egregious example is the mining operation in Jaduguda, Jharkhand state where waste has been dumped in open fields. Toxicity related to the mine has caused birth defects, deformities, higher cancer rates, diseases among animals. A proposed uranium mine in the West Khasi Hills of Meghalaya has faced significant opposition due to concerns about safety, health, environment, and displacement. In both places, the resources identified for extraction are in predominately Adivasi communities. Domestic uranium mining is an important aspect of the planned nuclear expansion because of shortages in global supply and the need for domestic uranium in nuclear weapons production.

Not surprisingly, people in different parts of the country have responded to nuclear nightmares with movements in resistance. Local residents in Jaitapur, Maharashtra have strongly opposed the nuclear project involving French company Areva, voicing concerns about seismic activity in the area and waste storage. Farmers have refused to accept compensation for land acquisition and over 1,000 people were arrested during a protest in 2010. If the plant is built, it would be the largest in the world with production capacity of 9900 MW, and Areva has designs on more nuclear projects in India, especially with Germany reducing and decommissioning power plants.

In Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, villagers rejected compensation and went on hunger strike against a proposed nuclear project, and the High Court put the required land acquisition on hold. Similarly, the Mithi Virdi project in Gujarat, a massive 6900 MW plant that involves Westinghouse and General Electric-Hitachi, has been challenged by local residents and farmers. The project would require 777 hectares of land in an area that is important for agricultural activities, specifically fruit and vegetable production.

Finally, another major site of resistance is the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu. The project dates back to 1988 (just two years after the Chernobyl disaster) in a deal between the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. After a period of dormancy following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, talks on Koodankulam picked up again in the 1990s. In the initial deal reached in 1998, Russia agreed to supply equipment and enriched fuel, and construction officially began in 2001.

However the project experienced delays along the way, which pushed back the potential commissioning of the plant. At the same time, resistance was building as people had serious safety and livelihood concerns related to the effects on fish of hot water discharge into the sea. The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) kept attention on developments at the power plant and maintained mobilization of local residents. The Fukushima disaster in Japan justifiably heightened fears among people about nuclear safety and environmental issues (especially regarding seismic activity and the potential tsunami threat), but proponents continued to moving toward commissioning Koodankulam.

As resistance to the project entered a new phase, the state and mainstream media responded in a typical manner. The dominant narrative promoted in some major media outlets described the villagers as unable to understand the operation of a nuclear plant and manipulated by interest groups. Opposition could be dealt with simply by having the ‘experts’ come in to tell local residents about the plant’s impeccable safety. The state went further and sought to delegitimize the movement by pointing to the role of the ‘foreign hand’, specifically foreign non-governmental organizations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who made this claim, did not see irony in calling out opponents for supposed foreign support while actively advancing foreign corporate interests through India’s nuclear energy sector.

Police forces have dealt with dissent harshly, maintaining a huge presence, arresting protestors on multiple occasions, and even cutting off access to basic amenities. Over 8,000 people have sedition charges against them. Also, a Fukushima survivor was denied a visa to enter India, and a German national with anti-nuclear connections was detained and deported. Throughout all of this, local residents continued to apply pressure and did not shy away from the daunting challenge posed by the state, and PMANE activists repeatedly went on hunger strike to express their opposition to the plant. In 2012, supporters from other parts of the country converged on the site to show solidarity as part of the ‘Koodankulam Chalo’ action.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court recently approved the plant’s operations despite objections, allowing it to be commissioned. However, people continue to stand up against nuclear hegemony in Koodankulam and elsewhere, and this vibrant opposition could leave the dreams of the nuclear elite unfulfilled. I’ll end with a quote from S.P. Udayakumar, a leading activist for PMANE and someone who I used to work with and consider a friend. Dr. Udayakumar is a thoughtful and committed activist who has followed this issue for so many years. This is how he sums up the struggle:

“To put it all in a nutshell, this is a classic David-Goliath fight between the citizens of India and the powerful government supported by the rich capitalists, MNCs, imperial powers and the global mafia. They promise FDI, nuclear power, development, atom bombs, security and superpower status…But we fight for our children and grandchildren, our animals and birds, our land, water, sea, air and the skies.”