Saying no to nuclear

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The Radioactive Exposure Tour highlights the need for caution when it comes to nuclear power in India, reports?Jyoti Shankar
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Every time you visit India, you see the change, bigger malls, new flyovers, the lifestyle in the cities not very different to what you experience in the streets of any capital city in Australia, and, fewer power cuts. Move a bit further away from the cities and you realise that not much has changed. Dirt roads, constant blackouts, people struggling to make ends meet. And the paradox of progress hits you. Nuclear power is just another aspect of this big picture where the pursuit of economic ?growth? at any cost seems acceptable. India is power hungry. It needs power for its burgeoning millions, as well as for industries that supply cheap goods to the consumers in the developed world. And the government is pursuing this objective setting aside all its democratic principles. Nuclear power is portrayed as a greener option, but scratch the surface, and a different story is revealed.
These are the issues that were highlighted by Bhargavi Dilipkumar, a campaigner from the Delhi Forum, a platform for social movements, in her presentation at UTS, Sydney. She was in Australia participating in the Radioactive Exposure Tour organised by the Friends of the Earth. She visited uranium mines, met with indigenous communities fighting to keep nuclear waste out of their backyards and saw firsthand the environmental impacts of this industry.
Julia Gillard recently overturned a long-standing decision of the Labour party not to supply uranium to India. While many Indians considered the earlier decision as racist, they are quite unaware of ?radioactive racism? prevalent around the world. It is the poor and disenfranchised people who are disadvantaged when governments make decisions about nuclear plants and its waste disposal. In Australia, the British carried out nuclear tests in the 1950s at Maralinga where Indigenous people have suffered the effects. Nuclear dumps are sought to be created in areas such as Woomera and Muckaty, populated by Aboriginal communities, with little consultation.
At Kundakulam, the epicentre of anti-nuclear protests in India, two nuclear power plants were set up with Russian aid. This coastal fishing community is on a seismic fault line and we can easily imagine what another occurrence like the 2004 tsunami could do. There is a tsunami rehabilitation colony in the vicinity of the plant, and thousands of others live within the 16 kilometre disaster evacuation range. The project that began in the 1980s met with many delays over the past twenty five years, including ones due to the Russian political situation, but is expected to be commissioned soon. The public protests have also been going on for this long. Last September, protests resulted in the deaths of two fishermen and many are still in jail for conducting a ?war against the state? and sedition, when in reality they were fighting for their rights of livelihood and for the future of their community.
Concerns about the plant?s safety are rife. Nuclear waste is another big issue. Nuclear plants produce highly radioactive spent fuels with extremely long half-lives. What this means is that these substances are harmful to humans for a long time and have to be stored appropriately. While it awaits permanent underground storage, or reprocessing, it is stored in cooling pools, and loss of cooling due to power failures can see disasters like Fukushima happen.
Nuclear power is the most water-intensive energy source, consuming typically around 20 billion litres per year. The impact of this is on groundwater systems and ocean habitats are immense. A recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has pointed out serious organisational and operational flaws. The AERB, being the regulatory body as well as the nuclear promotional body, faces conflicts in its dual roles. The Fukushima Independent Investigation Commission identified absence of such separation as one of the factors that led to the Fukushima accidents.
India has 20 nuclear power reactors. However, there is no long term radioactive waste disposal policy. There is no distinction between military and civilian nuclear affairs and this means that the government does not disclose any information about this sector to the public.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty aims to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promote disarmament, while giving signatories the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful ends. However, India is one of the countries that has not signed this treaty.
India has entered into nuclear deals with countries like US who are looking to revitalise their economies, while ignoring the concerns of the poor villagers who live near these plants. At Kudankulam, the agreement indemnifying the Russian supplier against accidents mocks the very absolute liability principle that deters foreign corporations from setting up nuclear plants in India.
Politicians often delay decisions in the hope that people will tire and conflicts will dissipate. This is not so easy now with an increased awareness of the dangers of using nuclear energy. Anti-nuclear movements are lending support to each other globally. A Public Interest Litigation has now been filed against the Indian government?s nuclear programme at the Supreme Court. The Right to Information Act (RTI) has been used well by the locals to gather information to support their struggle, though little is forthcoming. Bhargavi points out that the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to blame American and Scandinavian NGOs for instigating the protests as a way of undermining Russian nuclear credibility. And when Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and Dr Shantha of the Cancer Institute have spoken about their satisfaction regarding the safety of nuclear plants, the common man?s voice is silenced. But they continue to protest.
Nuclear power is a centralised form of power supply that does not empower the local community. It makes them vulnerable to the decisions and interpretations of scientific and technological experts. All this falls through when a disaster happens. It is the locals and their future generations who bear the brunt of the accident. What India and the world needs are safe, small-scale, renewable power options.
“If you believe this, say NO to nuclear, speak to your local politicians, and stop the sale of uranium to India,” is Bhargavi?s plea.

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