Gorakhpur Nuclear Power Plant Inviting Disaster

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to soon lay the foundation stone of the 2800-MW Gorakhpur Nuclear Power Plant (GNPP) in Fatehabad district of Haryana. According to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), 1,503 acres of land have been acquired for the project, which will accelerate the pace of ‘development’.

What has been left unsaid is that this water-guzzling plant is located on the fragile Fatehabad Branch of the Bhakra canal system. For operating this plant, the Haryana government has allocated 320 cusecs of water from the State’s share under the Bhakra Water Sharing Agreement of 1959 between Punjab and Rajasthan. Haryana, being the successor state of Punjab, is legally bound by this agreement. Since the agreement mandates that Bhakra water can only be used for irrigation and generation of hydel power, the Bhakra-Beas Management Board (BBMB) cannot allocate water to the nuclear plant.Water use allotment for irrigation in the cultivable command area is 2.25 cusecs per thousand acres. According to estimates, 320 cusecs can irrigate about 142,000 acres. Thus, diverting this quantum of water to generate nuclear power will deprive a vast area of irrigation. Even after taking into account that 30 per cent of the water will be recycled back to the canal, the potential irrigated area lost would be about 100,000 acres. Further, the polluted water that would return to the canal would slowly poison downstream agricultural fields and drinking water. This canal is also plagued with frequent breaches that could pose a serious danger to the safety of the power plant.

Water is the lifeline of this semiarid region. Power generated in this nuclear plant would no doubt lead to the ‘development’ of MNC/commercial/ residential/industrial complexes, malls and theme parks in Delhi, Gurgaon and other places, but in the project-affected area, agriculture will suffer and radiation will cause serious damage to wildlife. In fact, on this count, the National Green Tribunal had ruled against the setting up of a GNPP residential colony in the neighbouring Badopal village.

There was no public consultation about the project. Prime farming land was acquired for the project, allegedly through coercion and bribing of landowners with huge compensation.

Legally too, this diversion of water is untenable. Water comes within the guarantee of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. A huge quantity cannot be diverted in an already water-deficit area in violation of the 1959 agreement, which permits collaboration for improving irrigation and generation of hydroelectric power only. The Environmental Impact Assessment of the project does not address this critical issue. All it says is: “….The Government of Haryana confirmed allocation of 320 cusecs of water for consumptive use through Fatehabad branch canal, sourced by Bhakra mainline tail-end at Tohana headworks”.

There was no public consultation about the project. Prime farming land was acquired for the project, allegedly through coercion and bribing of landowners with huge compensation. The Central government is fully involved in this skullduggery. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCI) is the owner of the project, and the Ministry of Environment and Forest has dealt with the water issue in a most shabby manner by giving conditional environmental clearance to the plant. Pursuing a pre-set agenda, the Planning Commission has also given its in-principle approval.

Be that as it may, there are certain basic realities about nuclear power. First, people see, quite correctly, the nuclear reactor as a major threat to their lives and livelihood when the reactors are located in areas that support lakhs of people living off farming, fishing and other occupations. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, this concern has become much more severe and tangible. The Indian government’s response has been a combination of coercion, bribery, and propaganda. Clearly, its nuclear efforts are not respectful of human and democratic rights

The second reality is that nuclear energy is not the answer to India’s electricity problems. The current nuclear capacity in the country is just 5,780 MW, about 2.5 per cent of the total generation capacity, and meeting not more than 1 per cent of the country’s electricity needs. Even with optimistic assumptions, this is unlikely to increase to more than 5 per cent for decades. The DAE has long made ambitious projections and failed to deliver. In 1969, the nuclear establishment had predicted that by 2000, there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear power-generating capacity. In 2011, the figure was only 4,800 MW and the government’s ambition to increase it to about 64,000 MW by 2032 is utopian and impractical.

This is because the DAE’s plans involve constructing hundreds of fast-breeder reactors. In the early decades of nuclear power, many countries pursued breeder reactor programmes, but practically all of them have given up on breeder reactors as unsafe and uneconomical. Imported light water reactors are unproven and prohibitively costly. The DAE has simply not learnt from the history of nuclear technology globally, and, thus, has shown a lack of organisational learning.

THE third reality is that India needs electricity that is cheap and affordable, whereas nuclear power is expensive. If all costs—construction, commissioning, operation, decommissioning and safe storage of spent fuel—are honestly factored in, nuclear power is way costlier than any other source of electricity. Future reactors, both imported and indigenous, will continue to be much more expensive, making electricity generated here unaffordable for many sections of society. Expectations that the nuclear industry will learn from past experiences and lower the construction costs have been belied repeatedly. On the other hand, the cost has been going up while wind/ solar power costs are declining.

What is worse, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Report says that India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is weak, under-resourced and “slow in adopting international benchmarks and good practices in the areas of nuclear and radiation operation”. The PAC recently tabled a scathing 81-page report in Parliament, critical of the decades-long delay in establishing an independent regulator for the nuclear industry.

The sum and substance of the PAC Report is that the failure to have an autonomous and independent regulator is clearly ‘fraught with grave risks’ for setting up nuclear power plants in India. The Fukushima lessons, as brought out by Japan’s Independent Investigation Commission, are pointed, poignant and portend ill for nuclear power in an over-populated India with limited land and water resources and weak regulatory governance. In the event, the Prime Minister laying the foundation of GNPP is odd and inappropriate!
The writer is a former IAS officer of the Haryana cadre with experience in the power sector—government and corporate. He was formerly SDM of Fatehabad subdivision, where this plant is located.

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