India’s Nuclear Power Future: Tensions Rise As Plans Commence

Jaitapur is one of India’s most productive agricultural ports, renowned for Alphonso mangoes, cashews, and its abundant fishing industry. Although many homes lack electricity, life is good for villagers, who thrive on fruit and fish exports. But this way of life is threatened by the Indian government’s plans to build the world’s largest nuclear power plant on forcibly-acquired farmland. The people of Jaitapur are not happy about this at all, and since Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster, tensions are running higher than ever.
The $9.3 billion nuclear project would showcase French technology by Paris-based AREVA, who plans to introduce a new generation of pressurized reactors known as Evolutionary Power Reactors (EPR). Six 1,650 megawatt reactors- a total capacity of 9,900 megawatts- will deliver 25 percent more power than the current largest nuclear plant — the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility on Japan’s west coast.
Jaitapur is intended to be the location that heads up India’s technological renaissance, and even though the country would not sign the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the U.S. engaged in a diplomatic effort in 2008 to help India purchase civil nuclear information and uranium fuel from Western nations. Nonetheless, progress has been slow, and Senator Hillary Clinton visited India this week in an attempt to overcome some of the legal formalities for U.S. nuclear firms.
But legal formalities are only part of the nuclear project’s problem, as their dealings with the United States are faced with a great deal of mistrust.
A. Gopalakhrishnan, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board comments, “The U.S. interest in promoting nuclear power in India is solely because of their interest in establishing a huge market for [their] power business and not because of any charitable distribution to the power-starved millions in India.”
Gopalakhrishnan’s view is backed by thousands of others in India, who promise a tough road ahead for nuclear power in India. Opposed citizens have made this clear in protests, which became violent this spring following the events of the Fukushima power plant.
In April, a group of 600-700 protesters in the village of Sakhrinate stormed the local police station in an out-of-control demonstration, resulting in the death of a fisherman, Tavrez Sejkar, when police opened fire to disperse the crowd.
A group of 50 Indian scientists, academics and activists have called for a moratorium on new projects, advising that, “The Japanese nuclear crisis is a wake-up call for India,” in a letter.
Residents against the project also include environmentalists, who not only dread the negative impact the construction of the power plant will have on the region’s rich biodiversity, but the potential jeopardy the environment would face in the event of a nuclear disaster. Jaitapur lies in one of the world’s 10 greatest biodiversity hot spots.
It is also an area of regular seismic activity, and has had at least 95 earthquakes in 20 years. The largest of that time frame was a 6.2 on the Richter scale in 1993. While this is no where near as severe as the 9.0 magnitude quake that shook Japan earlier this year, many consider it sufficient cause not to build a nuclear power plant there.
Aside from the potentially destructive capabilities of the plant, farmers and fishermen in the region expect the nearby existence of nuclear reactors to severely hinder their industries. Mango farmers say that a number of customers in Western countries have already indicated that they do not intend to continue buying produce from the region once the plant starts operating in 2018, for fear of radioactive contamination.
“Nobody will buy our fish when they know that this nuclear plant is nearby,” says Atiq Hathwardkar, a young fisherman living in the Jaitapur area. However, there may not be a viable fishing industry in the area once the plant is up and running, as locals note that it will discharge millions of gallons of hot water into the sea, causing the waters near the plant to be uninhabitable by fish. A similar situation exists 160 miles north of the Jaitapur plant site, where fishing has been severely affected by hot water ejected from a gas-fired power plant.
Regardless of their passionate convictions, the locals haven’t been given a choice in the matter, as the land acquired for the site was forcibly done so. Residents were offered money for their seized property, but many refused to be reimbursed as a form of protest. The government offered 1.5 million rupees ($33,000) per hectare (2.5 acres) and has seized over 2,300 acres, but roughly only 150 of the 2,000+ landowners accepted the money.
Pramila Gawankar, the wife of a mango farmer, says she has no use for the money offered by the government and is adamant to reclaim her orchards and fields. “It’s nice to look out on the fields,” she said. “We have the sea. We have fish. We want for nothing.”
The Indian government’s agenda presents an interesting situation, to say the least. In modern times, many governments are recognizing the need for renewable energy options in order to reduce their impact on the environment. The people of Jaitapur and neighboring villages recognize this, even though many of them are with out electricity, and yet their government is pushing for them to have less sustainable lifestyles through this project. The most the people of the Jaitapur area can hope for is that their government will stop to listen to them.

Former Illegal Logger Takes Action to Protect Dwindling Borneo Forests

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is home to the largest surviving tropical forest in Asia. Nevertheless, only half of the original forest-cover remains, and it is shrinking every day due to deforestation. But there’s one man who has vowed to fight back for the preservation of his natural heritage; a man who is perhaps the most unlikely of people to take a stand against deforestation, because this particular man was once an illegal logger.
Pak Bastarian was responsible for cutting trees in the forests of West Kilimantan, Borneo where he grew up. He recalls those days with humble contrition now. “I don’t know how many trees I cut down… countless numbers,” he says.
Now, Bastarian is a conservationist, leading his village of retired headhunters in the fight against deforestation, and namely the efforts of palm oil plantations.
His mind first changed after talking to members of a local NGO established by a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Cheryl Knott.
In 1994, Knott, a biological anthropologist founded the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program (GPOCP). The program works closely with locals that live in villages bordering the Gunung Palung national park, encouraging environmental stewardship through outreach and education. Bastarian developed strong relationships with the NGO workers, who provided information about the orangutans and the forest. He comments, “ I personally grew very close to the NGO workers. They became like brothers and sisters to me.”
The GPOCP workers urge that the loss of habitat due to deforestation not only threatens orangutans, but other wildlife. Borneo is home to proboscis monkeys, flying snakes, pygmy elephants, and clouded leopards. And according to Adam Tomasek of World Wildlife Fund, an average of three new species is discovered every month in the island’s forests.
But the orangutans are the primary focus of GPOCP. Knott says, “Because orangutans spend 99 percent of their time in the trees, deforestation has devastating effects on their ability to survive. They eat, sleep, nest, and travel in the rain forest’s leafy branches, totally dependent upon the fruits, leaves, seeds, bark, and insects the trees provide. And since orangutans only bear young about once every eight years, they can’t replace their numbers fast enough.”
Orangutans only live in Borneo and Sumatra, a neighboring Indonesian island. About twenty percent of their original habitat remains.
Heavy logging driven by the Malaysian plywood industry was once the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia, but now the ever-expanding palm oil industry has been responsible for the bulk of clear-cutting for plantations. Oil is harvested from palm trees’ fruit for use in consumer products like soap, chocolate, cookies, and cosmetics. Indonesia currently produces fifty percent of the world’s palm oil, and demand is increasing. Palm oil has also played a part in the growing biofuel industry, as crude oil prices go up. The consumption of palm oil has doubled in the last four years in the United States alone, according to David McLaughlin, a former palm oil executive who now works for World Wildlife Fund.
Palm oil is where Bastarian’s efforts currently enter into the equation. PT Kayung Agro Lestari is an Indonesian-Australian company that has proposed building an oil palm plantation on land owned by Bastarian’s village. And as the elected leader of the 1,600 members of the Dayak tribe, Bastarian is heading up the opposition against the company’s deforestation plans.
Bastarian faces opposition of his own, not only from PT Kayung Agro Lestari, but from local officials, who see the proposed plantation as a source of jobs for local residents. The company has enhanced its offer with promises of improved health care and education for the villagers. But Bastarian is holding his ground. He says the negative impact of the plantations on other villages in the area has bolstered his decision to reject the proposal.
Some of the members of Bastarian’s village have begun to farm and make crafts that rely on the resources of the forest, like bamboo, as an alternative to engaging in logging and palm oil industries.
Bastarian and his village continue to work with GPOCP to promote sustainable living, and his views on the forest remain strong and reverent: “A forest is more than just trees and timber. A forest can save the people living around it.”

Photo credit: nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=105688

Swiss Zoo Reveals New Endangered Additions: Snow Leopard Triplets

Rare snow leopard cubs made their first public appearance at Basel Zoo in Switzerland. Born eight weeks ago to mother Mayhan and father Pator, the feisty triplets were a treat for visitors. The cubs are still suckling, but have already developed their primary teeth, and according to Basel officials, have taken to shredding dead chickens. The zoo plans for the leopards to travel as ambassadors for their endangered species when they reach age three.
Brought together in 2009, Mayhan and Pator were selected for conservation breeding by the European Endangered Species (EEP) program of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). The EEP provides intensive population management for EAZA zoos. Every year recommendations are made for which animals should breed or not breed. Along with a species committee, the EEP is responsible for managing these recommendations, as well as carrying out demographic and genetic analysis, producing a studbook, and planning future species management. The EEP currently manages over 180 species and subspecies, not including those managed by their separate studbook program (ESB).
Native to the mountains of Central Asia, snow leopard populations are currently estimated to be between 4,000 and 6,000 cats. China accounts for 60% of the snow leopard population. In the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the estimated snow leopard population is between 1000 and 1500, and it is reported that 20 – 30 snow leopards are poached each year. The biggest threat to the snow leopard’s survival is humans. Poachers kill them for their pelts, which can sell for $500 — $2,000. Snow leopard bones are also sold to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (“TCM”) as a replacement for using tiger bones, which were used to treat rheumatism and arthritis. The use of tiger bones was removed from TCM pharmacopoeia in 1993, when China introduced a ban on tiger trade, although this does not account for those who still use the bones illegally.
The meat of snow leopards has also been reportedly used in TCM as an aphrodisiac. In Tibetan Medicine the meat is believed to cure Bad-kan kidney problems. In a report from September 2000, a restaurant in Chengdu allegedly served snow leopard meals at 128 Yuan per dish.
Snow Leopards have also butted heads with herders, who will often trap, poison, or shoot them to protect their livestock.
As humans push further into the mountains with livestock, they infringe upon the grazing territories of wild goats and sheep, which are a staple prey of the snow leopard. Because their own hunting grounds become fragmented and degraded, livestock become prey to the snow leopards. Like so many other cases of endangered species, herders who encounter snow leopards do not understand their important role in their ecosystem and why they need to be protected.
Snow leopards are solitary animals, with a range that covers Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This used to include Mongolia, but the leopards have been eliminated there. The huge, 2 million square kilometer range of the cats makes it difficult for them to be effectively protected; most protected areas are too small to protect the range of even a single snow leopard, and many countries are unable to finance rangers.
About 600 snow leopards live in zoos today. While conservation/education efforts are being made by organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and Snow Leopard Trust, it may be up to programs like EEP to ensure their survival.
Photo credit: fws.gov/pacific/highlights_archive/Feature.cfm?id=13682