By Nikhil Ghanekar
THE PROPOSED site for the Jaitapur nuclear park is a sight for weary eyes with blankets of lush grass covering the plateau 25 metres above sea level. The N-park will house six reactors, the biggest one having a capacity of 1,650 MW, eclipsing the largest units at Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant with a capacity of 1,315 MW.
But on 2 August, the idyllic site became a battleground when a team of Nuclear Power Corporation India Ltd (NPCIL) officials and workers came to collect soil samples as part of the foundation planning exercise. A group of people from villages around the site pelted stones at the team. Retaliation from the State was swift and disproportionate: 55 demonstrators were charged with crimes like attempt to murder, vandalism and physical assault. The feeling of despair and helplessness that pervades the atmosphere is aptly summed up by an elderly person who conveys the mood thus, “Demons are taking birth here, demons!”
TEHELKA travelled to Jaitapur and neighbouring villages in Ratnagiri district to listen to the voices of people who will be affected by this park, which will be the largest in the world, generating 9,900 MW. At that juncture, a platoon of around 50 policemen was positioned at the plot, readying itself for the arrival of Konkan zone Inspector General (Police) Param Veer Singh. The mood among the villagers had been tense for the past month.
We asked Singh about the deployment of force, obstructing free movement of villagers and complaints of intimidation. The IG said, “This is a pre-emptive action. We are just following orders by promulgating Section 144 and 141 (relating to unlawful assembly). I don’t think anybody is being obstructed here.”
The villagers have a different story to tell. Madban village, closest to the proposed site ( just half a kilometre away), brims with voices well aware of the perils of a nuclear power plant. There are apprehensions about the possibility of radioactive material spreading in the environment. Posters and flyers around temple walls and newsstands condemn what is termed ‘destructive progress’.
The 938-hectare site was chosen by the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra in 1995. The first notices informing the farmers their land was being acquired were sent in 2006; NPCIL acquired possession of the total area in January this year while the legal transfer of titles took place over the next three months. Yet, only a motley group of 20-30 people have collected compensation, a fact confirmed by project director CB Jain. According to him, the villagers want higher compensation and hence they are threatening others who have accepted the cheques.
IN REALITY, there has been little effort to convince villagers that the plant is for the public good, leave alone explaining the computing of the compensation. Jain has a dismissive attitude to the local community, saying, “Let them oppose it, they will be in a minority later. Such projects of national interest do not stop for a few people.” As if realising that this is not politically correct, he adds: “But I respect the principles and ideas of the villagers.” Too little, too late.
The ‘principles’ he is mentioning in this perfunctory manner are expressed emotionally by Vijay Raut, a 51-year-old farmer and Ganesh idolmaker. “Kill us all, makes us stand in a line along with our kids, but we will not back down,” he says. “And you will hear this voice from all the villages.” He is still smarting from being picked up from his home by the police. “Is this democracy or dictatorship?” he thunders. “My family has never taken loans from the government, never asked it for any help. We won’t give up our mother, our land, like a piece of cake. This land, our land, is so diverse, so ecologically rich.”
There are many other potential pitfalls. The reactors and fuel will come from French energy giant Areva, following the Indo-French civilian nuclear deal signed on 1 October 2008, providing for reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from reactors in France under safeguards. Areva is being sued back home for contaminating French rivers. Moreover, regulatory bodies in Finland and UK have not approved Areva’s evolutionary European pressurised reactor (EPR), six of which are to be installed at Jaitapur.
NPCIL’s Jain told TEHELKA the final deal with Areva for fuel has not been inked yet, and moreover that this aspect is not in his domain. What is in public domain, however, is that the comprehensive deal promises a lifetime supply of spent nuclear fuel for these reactors. This made France the first country from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group to sign such a deal with India after global restrictions on nuclear trade with India were lifted. Also, Areva was allocated the chance to supply reactors.
This sophisticated deal-making at the global level, however, has to now be translated into reality at the local level. A yawning gap is already apparent, with violence being used by villagers to make their voices heard. In the police atrocity that typically followed, the most shocking is perhaps that perpetrated on 18- year-old Sanket Bhatkar, who was picked up from his home when his father was away. He recalls, “I tried to explain that I was at college in Hativale when the stone-pelting took place: I showed them the punched bus ticket too. But they refused to believe me. For seven days, they kept me in jail for no reason and now they have charged me with attempt to murder.” Sanket’s first hearing was slated for 6 September and he had not engaged a lawyer. He had no idea about what would happen in court.
If the villagers are worried about their land, Sakhri Nate village — which boasts of an annual fish catch of 10,000 tonnes, worth Rs.. 16 crore — is concerned about its livelihood. Amjad Borkar, vice-president of the forum Macchimar Kruti Samiti, says, “We posed a lot of questions in the public hearing that took place on 6 May this year about the restrictions on navigation and yield once the project starts (TEHELKA has a copy of the minutes of the meeting). But neither CB Jain nor Collector Madhukar Gaikwad could answer our questions.” The problem, according to Borkar, is, “The fishermen cannot anticipate today what losses they will face five-seven years from now, and the 5,500-strong population of Nate has all of 51 hectares and the sea at our disposal. The fish is exported to Japan, Europe and other countries. What will happen when the plant starts?”
These concerns should, of course, be addressed in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which is mandatory. But the draft report prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Institute (NEERI) is facing rough weather. The 1,600-page report has been questioned by environmentalists, activists and the Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. It is being criticised for lack of clarity on safety, pollution, animal grazing, farming and displacement.
The plant would discharge six million cubic metres of warm water into the sea daily. NEERI has brushed aside the impact on marine life, citing the Kalpakkam plant’s example. This is a specious comparison since the Jaitapur plant is 25 times bigger.
The report is also mum on the impact of a 2,300 metre-long breakwater (stone barrier) to be built near the sea shore. It would cause deposition of sand near the Vijaydurg creek, blocking the natural flow of water.
Radioactive waste is another contentious issue. Jain says the solid waste will be stored in lead containers buried in trenches dug into the earth. Naturally, people are worried about the impact on the groundwater table and soil. There seems to be some basis for this concern, as when TEHELKA visited the site, Nilesh More, 25, of Soham Foundation, Belapur, Navi Mumbai, who had come to collect soil samples, found that 20 metres down, porosity is almost 9-10 percent.
The EIA was also debated upon in the public hearing organised by the environment ministry on 6 May this year. The minutes were sent to the ministry. A top NEERI official has told TEHELKA that radiological studies are not its area of expertise — these should be conducted by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Body (AERB). But since AERB also approves the technological designs in the capacity of a regulatory body, it would lead to conflict of interest.
Lok Vidnyan Sangathana, a Mumbai-based organisation promoting public debate on scientific issues, has been debating the pros and cons of the project with top ranking AEC officials and the MoEF. Its convenor, Adwait Pednekar, says, “We want the process of regulation to be brought in public domain by AERB. The people want to express their views. Until and unless the process is transparent, the existing EIA should not be approved and in the meanwhile a fresh EIA should be prepared, addressing every important factor.”
The people of Madban are obviously a gritty, determined lot, who are sustaining this protest without political help. And as a precursor to a prolonged agitation, they plan to go on hunger strike on Ganesh Chaturthi. As Nandkumar Raut, a villager, puts it, “What better way than praying to the Vighnaharta (the one who takes away sorrows and pain) to free us from this trouble?”
The apprehensions at Jaitapur are clearly a fallout of the whispers about health hazards at the ‘crown jewel’ of India’s nuclear power programme, Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS), 600 km away. When we visited villages near TAPS, a worker from Unit 4, on condition of anonymity, narrated a telling incident which led to a 14-day shutdown.
“There is a chamber where robotic arms open and close the vault where enriched fuel bundles are replaced. The ball screw of one of the robotic arms, which was holding the spent fuel, fell down and the fuel rods were dangling precariously. After much deliberation, the expert team assigned workers to do the job: the robotic arm was held by heavy chains and the spent fuel rods were pushed back,” he said.
ASKED ABOUT this incident, S Bhattacharjee, station director of units one and two, conceded there was a two-week shutdown but dismissed the possibility of such a sequence of events. “Although I am not in charge of that unit, I can say with confidence that workers could not have been involved in the rescue operation,” he said. “They don’t know anything about it.”
‘The people want to express their views. Until and unless the process is transparent, the existing EIA must not be approved,’ says Adwait Pednekar
This claim, that the layman cannot understand technicalities and must perhaps subordinate his health to national interest, is hardly likely to be valid in the next decade. When TAPS came up in 1969, there was no public awareness of safety issues. After the Bhopal gas disaster judgements and the fuss over the Nuclear Liability Bill, however, the public has woken up to the dangers.
Rajesh Keware, a 34-year-old pharmacist from a primary health centre in Dandi village near the plant, said that out of 17 cases of tuberculosis treated there this year, five worked at the plant. TEHELKA tried to obtain records of cancer and tuberculosis patients from doctors running private dispensaries. Most were hostile; some were reticent, while one doctor refused to divulge information.
It is this lack of transparency that is worrying the local people at a time when the government pays lip service to involving all stakeholders in decision-making processes. They do not want another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island on their shores.
Photos: Tushar Mane