Thanks to the dramatic scenes of protest at Kudankulam, whose intensity has risen in the past few days after the Madras High court refused to stop the loading of fuel in the plant, the debate about about the issue has become an increasingly polarised one and unless lessons are learnt, the nuclear power industry in India only risks facing similar problems elsewhere.
Kudankulam isn't the only nuclear power plant facing problems in the country. The Maharashtra government, which is all for the creation of a massive nuclear plant in Jaitapur, has been facing protests from political rival Shiv Sena and local NGOs that have remained adamant about not letting it function.
The grounds of protest against the 9,800 MW plant in Maharashtra are somewhat similar to those being echoed in Tamil Nadu. The protestors argue that the plant will damage local ecology, their consent for the plant wasn't sought and also speak of the obvious fear of how a potential accident at the plant could affect them. While the issue is currently not in the headlines anymore, the agitators in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra are no doubt closely following the developments in Kudankulam.
What perhaps is common to both plants is an easily whipped up paranoia, with fears of radiation spreading rapidly, despite little evidence to suggest the same. Even the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission RK Sinha admitted in a recent interview to Frontline, that they were forced to react to the fear that was spread in the area.
"In Kudankulam, where the benefits of having a nuclear power plant in the neighbourhood are yet to be seen, the perception of a small section of the local people was moulded by some anti-nuclear groups. We, however, reacted quickly by augmenting our mechanisms to reach out to all sections of our population through direct interactions, publications, the media and the Internet. We have learnt to be proactive and in continuous touch with stakeholders," Sinha said.
Paranoia about nuclear energy isn't new. Most nations have shown a similar paranoia when it comes to nuclear energy following the disaster in Fukushima. Japan now talks of reducing its dependence on nuclear power altogether by the 2030s. Germany has also begun decommissioning old plants and also speaks of weaning itself off it altogether by the 2020s. The US despite promoting nuclear energy in India, is caught at a crossroads when it comes to developing its own nuclear power programme.
In Japan a major loss of confidence in nuclear energy came after it was discovered that the nuclear safety regulators had allowed the plant to function despite problems being evident earlier.
India's nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, while having an unblemished record when it comes to safety measures in India's nuclear power plants in the country, has unfortunately not acquired the reputation of being an independent agency that speaks its mind when it comes to shortcomings in the nuclear power establishment. The recent report by the Comptroller Auditor General only reinforces that perception. When it comes to geological surveys and other reports as well, the government is viewed as being opaque in its dealings making it easier for opponents of nuclear power to spread fears.
In an editorial in the Hindu, Rahul Siddharthan from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences argues that a reason for the lack of transparency in India's nuclear power plants has to do with them being used earlier to boost the nation's nuclear missile arsenal. However, after signing the nuclear deal with the US , the nuclear power establishment has had to separate its nuclear facilities meant for military and civilian purposes and has to adhere to international norms when it comes to safety.
Siddharthan says that it is largely the distrust of the regulator and other processes carried out to build the plants that has resulted in crisis in Kudankulam and the Department of Atomic Energy needs to address people's concerns earlier in order to prevent standoffs like the one being witnessed.
He also points to the plan to create a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) that has been in abeyance and could help restore people's faith in the regulator again.
Unfortunately with Kudankulam, the larger point of having an independent regulator will come too late. Whether it will be the Supreme Court to deal the final blow, and if even that can put an end to the protests remains to be seen.
For a nation that has plans to generate 63,000 MW by the year 2032, perhaps the only step forward is to take the field of nuclear science out of the mysterious and perhaps show why it is important, and encourage informed debate on it. While accusations of the nuclear power lobby influencing policy cannot be easily pushed away, perhaps the only route forward for the government is to be more transparent in its dealings in the field.
Hopefully, by the time the government has to deal with the standoff in Jaitapur and potentially other plants in the future, it would have learnt valuable lessons from Kudankulam and won't rely on mud slinging and impassivity as a defence against very pertinent concerns.