The “strategic partnership” between India and Russia received another symbolic boost with the visit of India’s prime minister to Moscow from December 15 to 17. While the bilateral relationship between the two countries has always been important considering India’s defense equipment has largely been of Soviet/Russian vintage, the connection has also been of special significance for India’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, a prominent showcasing of this was to be the commissioning of the first unit of the Russian built nuclear power plant at Kudankulam. Two units of the power plant have been under construction for the good part of the last decade, and the first unit was due to become critical before the end of this year.
But work on the plant, which was nearly 90 percent complete, came to a halt several months ago as a result of public protests expressing fears about nuclear safety. The nuclear establishment and the central government have since engaged in efforts to assuage the fears of the local population through proactive engagement. Yet no breakthrough has been possible that will allow for resumption of work.
Despite the persisting agitation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reassured his Russian counterpart that work on the timely commissioning of the plant would be resumed soon. However, it’s now obvious that the plant will miss its original commissioning date. And it’s also clear that this episode should hold a special lesson not just for India’s nuclear program, but for all countries that looking to build nuclear power plants.
The construction and operation of a nuclear power plant is obviously a major development for local populations living close by. Concerns need to be handled with the utmost sensitivity, and it’s also important that an emotional connection with the project be built and nurtured so that a situation of “us vs. them” can be avoided. This can be done by providing employment opportunities to the local population at the site, which helps give people a reason to want a plant in their community beyond power generation. Local citizens must be given an opportunity to be stakeholders in such projects.
Second, a nuclear power plant must become the centerpiece of general economic growth in the region by encompassing a range of socio-economic projects besides the plant. General economic wellbeing will make the local population appreciate the benefits of the plant, which may otherwise seem abstract, distant or even a threat. Such an approach will obviously require different government agencies at the national and local levels to adopt a cooperative and synergistic approach for planning, implementation and cost sharing. In fact, where plants will be built with foreign collaboration, an arrangement of “offsets” akin to the policy used in the defense industry can be crafted to ensure wider development opportunities.
Third, education of the local populace on all matters nuclear is extremely important. The nuclear establishment must be proactive in continuously engaging with local NGO’s, schools, colleges, and administrative units at the rural level to explain the inner workings of the plant. People should be encouraged to clarify their fears and express doubts. The nuclear industry must, for its part, also be available to address any concerns. This may require the nuclear establishment to train and engage a cadre of effective representatives who can convey scientific information in simple terms. Being dismissive or patronizing is exceptionally harmful, as the Kudankulam experience clearly illustrates.
A repeat of the Kudankulam experience is completely avoidable. Preliminary ground work – literally as well as figuratively – must be undertaken seriously before concrete steps are embarked upon when considering any new nuclear project.
These are lessons that must be understood by nuclear power aspirants across the world.