From Fukushima to Jaitapur: Time to rethink nuclear

FROM FUKUSHIMA TO JAITAPUR: TIME TO RETHINK NUCLEAR

Newsletter Jan - Aug 2011

It has been more than 4 months since a major nuclear accident took place in Fukushima, Japan in the wake of a very powerful earthquake followed by tsunami. The process of evaluation of damage and consequences continues. Three other major accidents had taken place until then in nuclear power plants - at Mayak in USSR in 1957, Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979 and Chernobyl in USSR in 1986. Only after a few weeks, unable to contain the damage, Fukushima accident was also rated 7 – the most damaging category by IAEC (International Atomic Energy Commission) making it as serious as the disaster in Chernobyl which the world is still coming to terms with.

The impact of radiation can be estimated from the fact that in the Chernobyl nuclear holocaust the amount of radiation levels released into the atmosphere was comparable to 500 atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. What may follow at Fukushima may be estimated from the damage in the two decades after Chernobyl, where approximately 200,000 people died. Women living in highly contaminated areas in Ukraine and Belarus were affected by chromosomal disorders, leukaemia, psychological trauma, depression, and multiple birth defects in their children. Among women who lived in the affected area, medical studies detected high levels of thyroid and breast cancer.

Fukushima’s radiation releases have contaminated drinking water in Tokyo, 220 kilometres away. According to preliminary estimates based on data from a United Nations agency, Fukushima has already released about one-fifth as much iodine-131 as the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, and half as much Caesium-137; both can cause cancer. With radiation levels remaining high, small children and pregnant women were the first to be moved with thousands more to be shifted into shelters and temporary housing.

But radiation is not just a concern in a nuclear accident. Each link in the nuclear fuel chain releases radiation, starting with drilling for uranium; it then continues for generations because nuclear waste includes plutonium that will remain toxic for thousands of years. Despite years of research, countries with nuclear energy programs have failed to solve the challenge of finding safe and secure storage for “spent” nuclear fuel. Meanwhile, every day more spent fuel is being generated.

Women of reproductive age are at significant risk from the effects of radiation on their bodies and reproductive systems. Studies show women’s exposure to radiation may harm their future ability to bear children and can cause premature aging. The Center for Disease Control, U.S.A., warns pregnant women that, in the event of exposure to radiation, even at low doses, the health consequences for unborn foetuses “can include stunted growth, deformities, abnormal brain function, or cancer that may develop sometime later in life.”

While the scale of destruction, the spread of radioactivity through air, water and soil, and heroic efforts of the contract workers at Fukushima Dai-ichi plant were there for everyone to see, has the Indian government learnt from such an accident?!

Future of the nuclear power

Following Fukushima, the international debate over nuclear energy has intensified. Germany has committed to closing all of its nuclear reactors by 2022, stating that it will use the opportunity to make a faster switch to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. And despite France’s dependence on nuclear energy for 75 percent of its power, 57 percent of the French people now say they oppose nuclear energy. In countries like the UK, Switzerland, Taiwan, Italy, and even USA strong protests against nuclear power plants have forced the governments of these countries to rethink their policies on nuclear power generation. The Worldwatch Institute has commissioned a report, “The World Nuclear Industry Status Report for 2010-2011: Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World,” which suggests a “bleak future” for the nuclear industry. New projects have steadily declined since the 1980s. Opposition has come from the entire world. Ten Nobel Peace Laureates have written an open letter to world leaders demanding to choose renewable energy over nuclear power. They have asserted that nuclear power is not a clean, safe or affordable source of energy. Women’s and Environmental Network (WECF) has stated that nuclear energy is not an option – it’s too susceptible to climate change and natural disasters.

Globally, civil society members and NGOs are becoming more active on the issue of climate change and the ways to prevent further destruction of the natural resources. Alternate energy sources such as wind and solar are making rounds in the discussion without a serious mention of nuclear energy. However governments of some countries like China, India, Pakistan and Iran have been pushing for the nuclear energy as a green substitute for the fossil fuel. In addition to the people in the power, corporate sector is also pushing for expansion of the sector producing nuclear energy. At present ~15-16% of the global requirement of electricity is met with nuclear power. Before the Fukushima disaster some Asian countries, mainly China and India, had major expansion plans for the nuclear power whereas the countries from the developed world were more cautious in their plans of expansion and some had actively curtailed their plans and proceeded with shutting of the plants. Since Fukushima accident, China has halted all new reactor projects and already has 4.5 times more wind than nuclear energy.

Indian government dithers as war and peace get mixed up

India has been very keen on expanding its nuclear power producing capacity and is indulging in political manoeuvres to establish itself as a leader in the region. In this context, in July 2008, after much debate and a lot of political turmoil United Progressive Alliance government won the trust vote in the Parliament on Indo-US nuclear deal, and it became fully operational in October 2008. Anil Kakodkar who was the chairman of Atomic Energy Commission during that period has always been a proponent of expansion of nuclear power. In an article published in e-Sakal in Marathi on 5th January 2011 he says, ‘... the world has begun to realise that there is no point in taking a confrontational stance with India after its having developed independent nuclear programme and getting established as a military power. .... However, we also have to keep in mind the vested interests of foreign countries and of the companies there. If, from their point of view, the real business is in the trade of other components rather than in uranium, it is necessary for India to think about this. This ‘give-and-take’ deal was unavoidable to achieve the lifting of sanctions against our country and to get these countries to recognise India as a nuclear power in the interest of nuclear trade opportunities. .... In the 45-country nuclear suppliers group, America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects’.

A number of nuclear power projects were planned in the aftermath of the deal. One of the major ones is in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. There are plans to set up six new nuclear power reactors of a French company Areva. No reactor of the kind proposed to be used in Jaitapur has been commissioned so far anywhere in the world causing apprehensions about the decision.

People vs indian government in Jaitapur

Struggle against the Jaitapur plant predates Fukushima. Environmentalists, local farmers and fishing communities have been protesting for months over the planned six-reactor nuclear power complex on the mango and cashew nut-rich coastal plains of Jaitapur, 420 km south of Mumbai, India’s financial capital. Hundreds of farmers have also objected to the compulsory acquisition of fertile land for the project. A large number of women have been part of these protests. Additionally, fishing communities from the surrounding area fear that the plant will change the ecosystem at the sea where its warm water will be released causing grave harm to the fish and hence the livelihood of the community.

While the government spokespersons mouth the platitudes of not going ahead without the support of and acceptance by the local community, at ground zero the situation is quite the opposite. Further, the recent environmental impact assessment at Jaitapur also appears to be ‘suitably modified’ to facilitate the project. A report from the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, published in 1990 draws the opposite conclusion. It says, ‘the estuarine and the marine ecosystems around Jaitapur are at present in a perfect natural and ecological balance... However, bioassay studies revealed that the thermal gradient caused by the discharge of coolant waters will have a deleterious effect on the ecobiology of the environs of Jaitapur’. The recently revised strategy by the government of Maharashtra for compensation to people near Jaitapur has, for the first time, mentioned livelihood related losses for the fishing community.

After the Fukushima disaster the protests intensified and assumed an all India character. The locals, especially after what’s happened in Fukushima, are not in two minds. They simply don’t want it,” says Greenpeace India activist Vinuta Gopal. “They see nothing to gain from it, and everything to lose,” she says. On top of that, “India certainly doesn’t have [Japan’s] capacity for disaster management preparedness.” If a sophisticated nation like Japan can’t deal with a potential nuclear catastrophe, they reason, just how would India fare?

Ministry of Environment and Forests in India and other agencies directly involved in the building of nuclear power plants have been promising to review the nuclear safety issues after Fukushima disaster but have been also declaring nuclear power safe without the review and there is no plan to stop or stall work.

CNDP [Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace] in its press statement has stated, “We strongly believe that India must radically review its nuclear power policy for appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance, and undertake an independent, transparent safety audit of all its nuclear facilities, which involves non-DAE experts and civil society organisations.”

New Vision

On this backdrop it is refreshing to read what Betsy Hartmann, an activist in women’s health movement, has written. She says, ‘In each of our movements, we need to make space for anti-nuclear activism.’ She provides some points of convergence for other movements to make strong linkages with the anti-nuclear movement. Given its impact on women she calls nuclear power a reproductive rights issue for a women’s health movement to take up. She also calls nuclear power as an environmental justice issue, a climate justice issue, a labour rights issue, a peace and security issue and a basic democracy issue as well. It is time for all of us to rethink our work, connectivity with other movements and identify growing vested interests which might become more powerful in the years to come.