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Energy security, climate change and nuclear power: India's real problems and false solutions

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Kumar Sundaram ‒ researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

Dubbing nuclear energy as a solution to climate change has been a key strategy of the Indian government in recent years. The government has been using "clean energy" as a short-hand for nuclear power in international nuclear deals1, and offered nuclear power as part of its climate pledge submitted to the UNFCCC ahead of the COP21 meeting.

India is one of the few countries in the post-Fukushima world to have massive nuclear expansion plans. The Indian government has planned an expansion of the total installed nuclear capacity to 63 gigawatts (GW) by the year 2032.2 At present, the total installed capacity is 6.8 GW, merely 1.8% of the total electricity production capacity.3 In July 2017, Dr. R B Grover, senior nuclear scientist who holds Homi Bhabha Chair in India's Department of Atomic Energy, called for promoting 'Nuclear Variable Renewable Energy' for achieving 40% of electricity by 2030 from non-fossil sources.4

However, an intriguing display of extreme opposites can be seen when it comes to the Indian government's policy on climate change under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His brazen denial of climate change, during a patronising address to young students in 2014 ‒ where he claimed "it's not the climate, but we who are changing"' ‒ came under heavy criticism.5

However, at the Paris Summit in 2015, Modi adopted a strongly assertive posture against the West from a developing world perspective, which understandably resonated with some sections of international civil society, but actually meant garnering more concessions for the home-grown industries.6 In his most recent trip to France this June, Modi was seen expressing concern about Trump's exit from the Paris climate accord and reassuring the new French President of reinforced support from India.7

In terms of actual policies back home, the Modi government has been hugely scaling up the renewable sector8, but has also made an unwavering support for nuclear power, purportedly as a solution for climate change.9

To understand the co-relation between climate change and nuclear power generation, experts the world over have conducted comprehensive research on the carbon-footprints of the entire nuclear fuel-cycles and compared them to other energy sources, in the specific context of their countries.

In India, such research on the nuclear fuel cycle is rendered effectively impossible by the non-transparency of the country's nuclear establishment, which does not share with its citizens even basic information like radiation readings, Safety Assessment Reports and Site Selection Reports for its installations. The Atomic Energy Act of 1962 provides insulation to the nuclear sector here, providing it with a fig leaf of 'national security' to avoid public scrutiny. Faced with such situation, we can adopt an alternative method – study the impacts of climate change on the surrounding environment of the sites where new nuclear plants are proposed, and what would it imply for communities living there.

Chutka, in central India, and Gorakhpur, just 150 km from the national capital, offer good case studies in this regard. Both these projects are inland, so they will impact huge areas and large populations. Moreover, they are being built in ecologically sensitive regions. As such they offer important counterpoints as case studies. Also, nuclear power plants in Chutka and Gorakhpur are being set up using the 'indigenous' Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor technology, so these plans are in fact more feasible and more likely to be built than sites like Jaitapur and Kovvada where imported nuclear projects face hurdles such as financial cost, liability and the declining financial health of foreign suppliers.

Chutka: Nuking Narmada

The proposed Chutka nuclear plant in the tribal-dominated Mandla district in central India will displace hundreds of people for the second time and dangerously compound climate change impacts.10 The scars of displacement and fear of being uprooted again is visible on the faces of all inhabitants of the village – most of whom are Gond adivasi tribes. For the Bargi dam, built between 1974 and 1990, they had to leave their villages in the valley and flee uphill. They were driven out of their ancestral villages, where they had been living for centuries, for as little as 500 Rupees (less than US$10 dollars) for an acre of land.

Faced with such injustice and threats to their safety and livelihoods, villagers have started a two-month long intensive campaign which started on Mahatma Gandhi's anniversary and will culminate on International Human Rights Day, December 10.11 Memories of being uprooted are still fresh in their minds. They were among the inhabitants of 162 villages displaced for the Rani Avantibai Bargi Dam built on River Narmada.

However, the real red-herring might be the cumulative climate change impacts in the region when seen in the long-term perspective. Undemocratic and irresponsible changes in water-usage at Bargi Dam, coupled with the general decrease in water levels in Narmada owing to massive deforestation upstream, spell catastrophe especially with the siting of the Chutka nuclear plant on the same dam. When seen on a time-scale of the next 60‒70 years, there are ominous indicators that communities and industries will compete for the fast-decreasing water reserves of Narmada, and a massively water-guzzling nuclear plant on the bank of Bargi Dam will make the scenario much worse.

The problem of decreasing water availability in Bargi Dam will lead to two serious challenges – nuclear reactors in Chutka will scramble for water, along with other industries rapidly coming up in the region, and compete with the local communities including the Jabalpur city, with a population of 1.56 million, that sources its drinking water from Bargi Dam. Water shortages would also pose an insurmountable safety risk in case of a serious nuclear accident.

Gorakhpur: Nuclear plant over a canal

Four Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors are being constructed in Haryana, the state neighbouring New Delhi, the national capital of India. This nuclear plant would have a total capacity of 2.8 GW, with four reactors of 700 MW each. This will be India's largest indigenous nuclear power project built so far. The water usage for the reactor complex would be 320 cusec (783 million litres daily) for cooling and other purposes.12 However, the entire project will depend for water on a small canal, Fatehabad branch of the Bhakhra Branch Canal, which is the main source of water for irrigation in the region.13 This is perhaps the only nuclear power project in the world to have such a limited and unreliable source of water supply.

Water will pose three huge problems in Gorakhpur: the water will be inadequate even for the cooling of reactors in their normal operation; in case of an accident, the situation could be worse than even Fukushima due to non-availability of water; and the high temperature of the discharge water from the reactor will destroy agriculture downstream of the canal, which dozens of villages depend on for irrigation. Here too, like Chutka, the water was initially meant only for irrigation but now the government is undemocratically diverting it for a nuclear plant. With changing climate, water supply in the canal is expected to decrease.

Therefore, far from being a solution to climate change, nuclear power expansion is going to compound the problems in India's most eco-sensitive regions. Destroying fragile ecologies and depriving local communities of their livelihoods is all that such ill-conceived plans would achieve.