Haryana Nuclear Power Plant: protests mount

On July 25, national dailies carried almost three full pages of the Haryana Government’s notification to acquire around 1400 acres of land mostly in the village of Gorakhpur in Fatehabad District, Haryana for setting up a nuclear power plant (NPP). The notification under Section 6 of the colonial, antiquated and soon to be abandoned Land Acquisition Act of 1894, is supposed to be the final step in the process of the state acquiring land for public purpose. But it will certainly not be the last we hear about this Project.

Farmers in the region are getting increasingly restive, especially since the Fukushima disaster which was covered widely in the media. Although many farmers of Gorakhpur village, almost half of them by some estimates, had earlier agreed to part with their land and had even accepted compensation, they are now having second thoughts. The rethink has been spurred on not only by post-Fukushima fears but also by the dogged resistance of other villagers who have been holding a dharna opposite the district secretariat at Fatehabad since August 2010 and who have been joined in ever increasing numbers by concerned residents of other villages in the project area organized under the banner of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti.

A recent public meeting organized on August 9 by the All India Kisan Sabha was attended by over 400 local residents, Kisan Sangharsh Samiti representatives, panchayat leaders and mass organizations. The author, in his capacity as President, All India Peoples Science Network delivered a special invited address.

What are the issues raised specifically with respect to the Gorakhpur project? What similarities or differences are there in relation to the Jaitapur project, opposition to which is well-known in the Gorakhpur NPP project area and elsewhere in Haryana? What issues arise regarding nuclear power in general in India?

Project and Procedures The Haryana Government has eagerly pursued the Gorakhpur NPP and the UPA-II government has responded expeditiously, keen on a huge and rapid expansion of nuclear energy in India despite mounting criticism of this policy and the manner in which it is being pursued. The central government’s incentive of sharing 50 percent of the power generated with the concerned State has been seen in power-starved Haryana as a win-win. So much so that even while opposition to the Gorakhpur project has gathered momentum in the area, the Haryana government has identified the site for a second nuclear power plant project in nearby Balsamand village in Hisar district! In this over-enthusiasm, it appears that several essential procedures as regards site selection have been given the go-bye or at best approached very casually.

The Gorakhpur NPP is being set up by the Nuclear Power Corporation Company Limited (NPCIL) in collaboration with the Haryana Power Generation Corporation (HPGC). The Project seeks to set up 4 x 700 MW units, the first two slated to become operational in 2017 and the next two by 2019. Contrary to what some local people seem to believe, these units will be based on indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) unlike in Jaitapur where untested Areva reactors are to be imported from France. In Jaitapur, new issues have arisen and objections raised as regards safety, the technology being unfamiliar and facing safety questions from regulators even in France and in Finland where a first unit is being set up, and its exorbitant but hitherto undisclosed costs. On the face of it, the familiar Indian PHWR technology need not have raised similar objections as regards safety. However, things have undoubtedly and understandably changed, not only post Fukushima but also in light of other recent and historical developments in India.

Before coming to safety issues though, some other aspects of the Project that have caused concerns should be discussed.

Even though the Project has been on the shelf from as long back as 1984, surveys in the area to establish feasibility as required by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) were conducted in 2001, 2004 and lately in 2007.  According to NPCIL and HPGC officials, the project site meets all the criteria laid down as regards type of activity in the area, quality of land, distance from populated areas, availability of water and so on. A closer examination, however, raises many questions.

One major concern is believed to have already been flagged by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The EIA Guidelines and AERB norms require abundant availability of water in nuclear power plant sites. In PHWRs, water is required mainly for cooling with adequate availability to cover emergency situations when the plant overheats. Significantly, the relevant AERB or other regulatory documents always refer to the sea, rivers or lakes. But nowhere do they even mention irrigation canals. In Gorakhpur, the only possible source of water for the NPP is the Bhakra canal. The Haryana Government has assured the Project of 320 cusecs water supply for the plant. Even under normal circumstances, this would be a high proportion of the total water carried by the canal, but would enough water be available during lean season? And what would happen if an accident occurs? In Fukushima, many millions of gallons of sea water were used in efforts to cool down the reactor. Even though PHWRs are unlikely to experience the same kind of problem as Fukushima, the water carried by the irrigation canal is unlikely to be sufficient to meet emergency requirements, especially during lean season.

Farmers in the area are seriously concerned about the impact of diverting canal waters to the NPP on availability of water for irrigation and therefore on agricultural output. Of course, this cooling water may be recycled back into the canal somewhere downstream. But it is known that temperature of this water is likely to be 5-6 degrees Celsius higher than the input temperatures and, given the relatively low quantum of water flow in the canal, it is uncertain to what extent the temperature could be brought down or what impact the higher temperature of irrigation waters would have on the crops.  Ironically, while these issues are being seriously debated as regards the Gorakhpur Project, the second site offered in Balsamand has very similar issues with water being sources from the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL Canal), itself subject to disputes between Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan!

It is not known whether these issues have at all been factored into site selection or environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Project. Indeed, it is not even known if a proper EIA has been conducted so far. There are now new guidelines for EIA for nuclear power plants prepared for the Ministry of Environment by the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad in 2010. It is also not known if the site fully conforms to the zoning criteria recommended in the ASCI guidelines as discussed below.

Siting Gorakhpur village is located near two large towns, Hisar and Fatehabad, with populations of around 300,000 and 75,000 respectively. AERB recommends that there should be no population centres of more than 100,000 population within 30km from the plant. But Fatehabad with a population already of around 75,000, with the district showing a 25 percent population growth rate every decade, is around 25 km away as the crow flies, and Hisar with almost 300,000 people is just about 30 km away. The village of Badopal where the project is acquiring 185 acres for the plant township has a population of over 20,000, and is again on the margins of the 10 km distance prescribed by AERB. And the population of the several villages within the prescribed 5km “sterile zone” radius around Gorakhpur is definitely over 20,000 as required by AERB.

The Fukushima disaster has provoked serious thinking among farmers in the region. Residents of the region who earlier thought this was an issue that concerned only residents of Gorakhpur whose land was to be acquired, are now very conscious of the fact that they too would be badly affected if something untoward happens. Residents have seen that population in a 20 km radius around Fukushima have been evacuated, and farmers have seen that farm produce from villages in this radius, and for some produce from as far away as 100 km or more, have been virtually banned from sale while other produce are facing resistance from Japanese buyers and specially by importers in other countries.

The density of the population in the region is hardly surprising given that the area is a prosperous well-irrigated agricultural land served by the Bhakra canal, with productivity over double the state average. This is in sharp contrast to the claims often made by Haryana government and HPGC officials to the effect that the land is not fertile and therefore choosing this location would not cause much loss. On the contrary, farmers in the region grow wheat and even paddy in some areas, with 3 crops a year being not uncommon. It is for this very reason that, although the Union Government has readied a new Land Acquisition Bill which provides that acquisition of multiple-crop lands will not be permitted, that the provisions will have retrospective effect for pipeline projects and that all land acquisitions will be kept pending till the Act comes into effect, the Haryana Government has declared that these provisions will apply to all land acquisition cases except for the Gorakhpur NPP! Farmers of the area are furious that they are being singled out for this unfair treatment. Many residents are also contemplating returning the compensation they have taken, some admittedly in the hope of getting substantially higher amounts going by the example of the striking farmers of Noida Extension

One of the major provisions in the EIA guidelines, as well as in any proper land acquisition process, is an examination of whether any alternatives have been explored. It does not appear that this has been done in the Haryana NPPs. Certainly, the Gorakhpur location has many problems as far as project siting is concerned.

Safety        The fact that the Gorakhpur NPP is based on the indigenous PHWR technology should have caused less anxiety on safety grounds that the untested Areva plant design selected for Jaitapur or other Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) likely to be available from the US. But Fukushima has changed public perception of safety issues related to nuclear energy. Fukushima has sharply focused attention on the necessity of having to visualize and prepare for worst-case scenarios rather than depending on the small probability of major accidents. With the higher costs this inevitably involves, and the magnitude of the damage likely to be caused in nuclear accidents, the question uppermost in the public mind is whether the risk is worth taking?

Unfortunately, the UPA-II government and the nuclear establishment has approached this deeply felt and serious public concern very casually. Within days of Fukushima, government and nuclear authorities were confidently asserting that such an accident could never happen in India. The promised safety audit of all nuclear facilities in the country was perfunctorily conducted and a clean chit predictably issued without public disclosure or discussion of the methodologies and findings of the safety audit.

This casual, some would say foolhardy and smug, approach to nuclear safety has only reinforced the worst fears and skepticism not only in the general public but even among scientists, technologists, other experts and concerned citizens.

For instance, these have long demanded that the AERB be made fully independent of the government and especially of the Department of Atomic Energy whose activities the regulatory and safety agency is supposed to exercise oversight on. The Government has assured that this would be done, but no serious moves have yet been initiated. Given the off-hand manner with which the so-called safety audit was conducted post Fukushima, is it any wonder that public anxiety has only been heightened? Many commentators have pointed out that one of the biggest casualties of the Fukushima disaster has been the loss of confidence in government and public authorities in general among the Japanese public who are normally very compliant and respectful. The average Indian today ahs little respect or faith in public authorities and when it comes to safety issues, can hardly be expected to smilingly repose his unquestioning confidence in them. Certainly not after neither the AERB nor any other authority was able to prevent radioactive material finding its way from a Delhi University laboratory to a scrap yard just outside Delhi, or even respond to it quickly and effectively afterwards. And certainly not after huge oil storage facilities in Jaipur were simply left to burn themselves out including by much-vaunted disaster management agencies.

The guidelines for EIAs for nuclear facilities speak mostly of Design Basis Accidents (DBA), i.e. those accidents that may occur within the usual parameters of a plant’s operations. It goes only to say that, of course, “beyond DBA accidents” could occur from extreme events like earthquakes, cyclones etc but that “such accidents can never be anticipated and/or fully programmed [for]” and leaves it to post-facto Emergency Preparedness Plans, which are usually non-existent or ill-prepared with little infrastructure or institutional capability for implementation, to deal with them. But the issue, especially in the post-Fukushima scenario, is precisely that major accidents can and should no longer be viewed as something you hope will not happen, as something to be responded to after the fact, but as something that could very well happen and for which preparedness should be built-in to project planning and design from the outset.

There is little sign this is happening in India. Till a proper and publicly debated safety audit of all nuclear facilities in India is carried out, preferably by or in consonance with independent experts, until the AERB is made truly independent and accountable to parliament and the public, and until safety and accident preparedness are made integral parts of nuclear and in fact all industrial projects and public institutions with full public participation, the people of India will not feel safe about nuclear power. After Jaitapur, the public opposition to the Haryana project shows that the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome is rapidly gathering momentum with regard to nuclear power plants. And if everybody says they do not want one in their backyard, well… there will be no place for them in India.