It seems hard to believe, but less than a year ago the world’s nuclear energy companies seemed on a roll, as rising concerns about global warming, allied with a lack of major nuclear incidents since the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster, indicated that nuclear energy with its carbon-free emission track record, could benefit countries seeking both power expansion and winning plaudits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Then came the 11 March destruction of Japan’s six-reactor Daichi Fukushima nuclear power complex by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Since then, a number of countries have stepped back from the nuclear brink, most notably Germany, which on 30 May saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel announce that Germany would close all of its 18 nuclear power plants between 2015 and 2022.
Switzerland, Belgium and Italy have also announced their abandonment of nuclear power plant projects.
But it is in rising BRIC economic superpower India that the ultimate future of nuclear power may be decided, as current and proposed nuclear power plant facilities come up against growing public opposition in the world’s largest democracy.
Undeterred by such negative news, Indian analysts expect that at next month’s Russia-India Summit in Moscow, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian Federation President Dmitri Medvedev will conclude commercial contracts for Russia’s Atomsexport to construct an additional two reactors in India.
The facilities would complement India’s currently operating 20 nuclear power plants. New Delhi intends to quadruple its present 4,780 megawatts of nuclear power generation to 20,000 megawatts within a decade to fuel the rising energy demands of a booming economy.
But Prime Minister Singh has already had a foretaste of public opposition to the country expanding its nuclear power base in the form of southern India’s Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu, which even predates the 1991 collapse of the USSR. In November 1988 Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement on constructing Kudankulam but the project was mothballed for years following the implosion of the Soviet Union.
While the $2.5 billion Kudankulam facility is now under construction and nearing completion, it has not been without controversy, generating growing protests from local residents. If plans for the Kudankulam nuclear power complex ever come to fruition, then the facility eventually will contain six 1,200 megawatt and two 1,000 megawatt reactors.
Kudankulam’s first reactor is expected to go online next month.
In a major government PR campaign to burnish the image of Kudankulam, India's former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the father of India's missile program, on 6 November visited the site and declared, “I went to the plant as an individual. It really is a modern plant, and there are 2,000 megawatts ready to be pumped into the grid. Solar power is clean energy, nuclear power is clean energy and hydroelectric power is clean energy.” Kalam added that he was “completely satisfied and happy with the sophisticated safety features of the reactors.”
But local protests against the facility have been on the rise since September, as local Christian fishermen communities express their fears and undertake civil disobedience, including 1,000s blocking roads and a number of protestors undertaking hunger strikes, giving the central authorities in New Delhi a major public relations headache. More worryingly, the villagers are backed by the newly elected Tamil Nadu state government.
The stakes are immense, with implications extending far beyond India. Besides Rosatom, major global nuclear power companies such as the U.S. firms General Electric, Westinghouse and Bechtel and with France’s Areva and Japan’s Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi firms have all eyed India since Washington in 2008 ended its prohibition on nuclear technology transfer to India as a potentially vast and profitable new market.
Nor are the Kudankulam protests New Delhi’s only headache. In Maharashtra, locals are demonstrating against the proposed 9,900 megawatt Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant. Even worse, the costs of such projects are coming under scrutiny, as thoughtful Indian columnists are now questioning the need for foreign reactors that are four times more expensive than indigenous ones.
A. Gopalkrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, summed up the government’s failure to assuage the public’s concerns up to now by saying, "When questions are not answered, people get desperate and protest, suspecting that the entire nuclear sector is corrupt. Treating civilian nuclear energy under the Official Secrets Act is unnecessary. The department must realize that people are not village fools. If it continues this way, the sector is in for deep trouble."
As a democracy, India’s officials must take account of public opinion, however uninformed they find it and a brake on the country’s vaunting financial future.
And in the meantime, Rosatom, General Electric, Westinghouse, Bechtel, Areva, Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi are watching the outcome of “people power” versus central authority with more than passing interest.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com