13 March 2011

No To Nuclear Energy

After the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in Japan, Paschim Banga Khet Majur Samity once again demands the withdrawal of the nuclear plant in Haripur. We repeat: “No Nuclear Plant In Haripur; No Nuclear Plant Anywhere.” 

It is time that planners in our country stopped playing God with other people’s lives. The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan has once again drawn attention to the limitations of technology and the greed of the powerful. In its eagerness to promote the profits of nuclear industry of Russia , France and the USA, the Indian government is endangering the lives of its many citizens who live near various nuclear sites. Haripur is a prime example of this. 

The Fukushima accident has shown clearly that even a rich, technologically advanced country like Japan is unable to predict nature’s fury. In Fukushima, in simple layman’s terms, the cooling system at the plant collapsed, with first electricity failing, then fall back diesel generators packing up, and finally even battery operated back up collapsing. With levels of incompetence much higher in India, this does not seem an impossible scenario in our country. S K Malhotra, who heads the public awareness division of the Department of Atomic Energy has said that in case of an accident or a disaster, the design of the plants is made such "that the reactor automatically goes into safe mode, switches itself off but continues cooling the plant". However, after Fukushima, atomic scientist Dr Gopalakrishnan warns that nuclear safety in India is compromised by the lack of independence in the functioning of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). 

Television coverage tells us that Japan has sensors in the ocean floor to predict earthquakes and tsunami, that all the people in the area affected by the nuclear plant explosion are being tested for radio activity. Can we imagine this level of caring for people’s needs and competence in a country which falters after 64 years of independence in dealing with diarrohea outbreaks and chronic hunger? Can this Government actually promise the security of the people of Haripur, Junput, Contai and surrounding villages? 

While working on the Haripur issue, we have seen that Government agencies have in fact tried to trivialise people’s threat perceptions. To deal with problems of displacement and discontent arising from that, we have seen that the Government has over time reduced the buffer zone from its original radius of 16.5 km, and has told people that it does not need so much of land for a nuclear plant, as safety standards have now improved considerably. There has been an impression created that life in Contai town will not be disturbed and only 9 villages will lose their land. On the other hand, in Fukushima, the Japanese Prime Minister has asked for evacuation of people within 20 km of the plant.  

If indeed nuclear power is so safe, why do people within 20 km of the plant have to be evacuated? News reports tell us that “radiation levels after the explosion reached the equivalent of what a human being is normally allowed to be exposed to over the course of an entire year. Three workers were being treated for severe radiation exposure. Although experts insisted that there was no risk to the wider public, health officials were distributing potassium iodine tablets to residents who, while awaiting evacuation, were told to turn off air-conditioners, stay indoors and not to drink tap water. People leaving their homes were warned to avoid exposing their skin and to cover their faces with masks and wet towels”.

Unlike Jaitapur in Mahrashtra ,  Haripur is not in the middle of a seismic zone prone to earthquakes. However, it is on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. As the past decade has shown, tsunamis are becoming more and more unpredictable. Even if we do believe that human error will be avoided, in terms of using technology in efficient ways for the good of the people of the area,  what about unpredictable natural phenomenon, beyond what technologists and scientists account for? What is to prevent Haripur from being overrun by a huge wave from the ocean at some point in the future- a wave that is beyond the calculations of the scientists? After all scientists are still not Gods who can totally control or even totally understand nature.

What makes the whole thing worse is that the people of Haripur-Junput do not at all want this bitter dose of “development”. Surveys, discussions, television interviews have all shown that the people are refusing to give their land for the nuclear plant. While their fears of safety are one part of it, the other part is that they are not willing to disrupt their lives which are culturally and economically rich. One wonders why the planners, if they are so convinced about the safety of the technology, do not use a site closer to home - for example the lawns of Lutyens' Delhi?

Despite the TMC’s stated opposition to a nuclear plant at Haripur, the UPA is obviously going full steam ahead with its plans. S.K. Jain, chairman and managing director of NPCIL, stated on March 3 2011 that the environmental evaluation process was expected to be over by 2012, to be followed by land acquisition. The first phase of the project will start within the 12th Five Year Plan Period, probably by 2014. On February 23, 2011, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, V. Narayanasamy, said in the Lok Sabha that the Government had not decided to shift the location of a proposed nuclear power plant from Haripur in West Bengal.

While the 2011 elections make the TMC-Congress alliance seem inevitable, one wonders, when it comes to Haripur, whether the alliance will prevail or whether the people’s voices will prevail.

The Parmanu Chulli Birodhi O Bheete Mati Jeeban Jeebika Bachao Committee (Committee Against Nuclear Plant and To Save Homes, Life and Livelihood) is organising a protest meeting at Haripur on the issue on March 16, Wednesday.

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