Two months before it was due to generate 1,000 MW of electricity – and after costing by some estimates $3.1 billion – India's Kudankulam Nuclear Plant has had regular work on it virtually halted as a blockade of roads by protesters continues.
For months, a coalition of activists from Australia, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and Canada have swarmed across the 27 villages in Kudankulam. A few locals (interestingly most of them Christians) have joined in with the protests, which have been called over claims by environmentalists that there’s a risk of a disaster at the plant that would make Fukushima look like a picnic.
The Catholic Church in India, in particular, has a long tradition of its clergy getting involved in anti-nuclear activities, and Kudankulam appears simply a continuation of their allergy to India going the nuclear route. It’s an attitude that for decades has been shared by the bulk of the international community, notably China, the United States and EU, all of which have sought at points to pressure India to downsize its nuclear programme.
In fact, the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (which when all units were operating was expected to generate 4,000 MW of power) is touted by Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) scientists as being one of the safest in the world. They point to a host of safety features, including a ‘core-melt catcher,’ which in the event of a core melt would catch the fuel in a massive tank of water. There’s also an innovative filtering system to sift out any debris in the seawater used for cooling the reactor, and a 5 kilometre ‘sterile zone’ around the reactor where population growth will be restricted.
None of this has had any impact on the activists, who appear determined that India go the way of Germany, which in a panic reaction to Fukushima has ordered that all its nuclear power plants will be phased out, a decision that’s already leading to power shortages in the country. And, while China is speeding ahead with its nuclear power plans, Japan appears to be having second thoughts.
Still, planners point out that India has – given the existing mix of technologies – no option but to go in for a large-scale nuclear power programme if it’s to avoid polluting the planet on the scale China is presently doing. Given that Prime Minister Singh and his Man Friday Montek Ahluwalia (now Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission) have from the start been less than enthusiastic about an acceleration of India's indigenous nuclear power programme, foreign collaboration is the only option.
However, although tentative deals have been reached with France and the US in addition to Russia (which is building the Kudankulam plant), the fact is that neither of the first two options seems likely to operationalize, at least so long as Barack Obama remains president of the United States. Obama has long been viewed as sceptical of India's nuclear programme, and his administration has front-loaded so many conditions on cooperation that such a partnership seems stillborn.
As for the French, there’s a world of difference between Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy. While the former pursued a Gaullist policy of independence from Washington, Sarkozy is in the ‘poodle’ mould of Tony Blair, not venturing farther than the United States wants him to go. Also, French nuclear firm AREVA has depended on Japanese suppliers for a number of parts, and after Fukushima, these too are being nudged away from India by their government. It will be a while, therefore, before we see whether the enthusiasm of India-based Western activists for stopping work on nuclear plants continues if a French or US, rather than Russian, project is involved.
Six years since the ‘historic’ Singh-Bush nuclear deal was announced in Washington, there has been very little to show for the 2008 IAEA ‘clean waiver’ to India to import nuclear materials and technologies. Indeed, the IAEA has itself gone back on its decision, by subsequently insisting (under pressure from the Obama administration) that only countries that have signed the NPT will have access to such technologies. Thus far, the Indo-US deal has failed to give any extra advantages to India, despite the Sonia Gandhi-led United Progressive Alliance government practically abandoning India's quest for self-sufficiency via the use of thorium, and its mothballing of critical nuclear facilities (such as the CIRUS reactor) and the placing of most of the rest under stringent international inspections and safeguards.
Unless heir apparent Rahul Gandhi , who is said to have been whispering in Singh’s ear over Kudankulam, gives up his infatuation for advice from international NGOs, or a Republican takes over the White House, it would appear that India’s nuclear quest is entering quicksand. Good news for the coal industry and for those dealing in technologies relating to that resource.