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.

Uranium Mining Threatens the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon-uranium-mining-protectionAs demand for uranium grows in countries around the world, environmental groups are trying to make sure uranium mining doesn’t damage one of the most valued natural areas in the United States: the Grand Canyon.  Though famous for breathtaking landscapes and majestically beautiful geologic features, the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon also have a less well-known geologic property: they are richer in uranium than almost any other place in North America.  The Obama administration is now choosing from a variety of plans that could help protect the Grand Canyon watershed from expanded uranium mining.  But only one of the options on the table would preserve the entire area.  

Demand for uranium has gone up as more countries, especially fast-growing economies in the developing world, turn to nuclear power to meet their energy needs.  However while the risks of nuclear plant accidents have drawn plenty of media coverage—especially after the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan—the environmental impacts of uranium mining have received far less attention.  In fact uranium extraction can be extremely hazardous for both miners and surrounding communities, exposing local water supplies to contamination from radioactive mining waste. 

At the same time noisy, disruptive mining activity could be damaging to the tourist economy in the Grand Canyon area.  Tourism Grand Canyon National Park generates over $687 million annually for the economy in Arizona, and support the equivalent of 12,000 full-time jobs.  According to the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, “The negative impacts of large scale mining development, with the attendant noise pollution, air pollution, and traffic generated by mining activities, could seriously degrade the visitor experiences at Grand Canyon National Park.”

Uranium mining would also affect wildlife species that live in and around Grand Canyon National Park.  Sensitive species in the area include the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, Mexican spotted owl, bighorn sheep, and desert tortoise.  Each of these species could be negatively impacted by mining activity itself, the contamination of groundwater with uranium, or the building of roads needed to provide access to mines. 

Due to concern about mining impacts in the Grand Canyon, the Obama administration took temporary action to halt uranium mining in 2009.  Under the direction of Secretary Ken Salazar, the US Department of the Interior put a two-year hold on new mining claims in the Grand Canyon area, to allow time for developing a plan to limit environmental destruction.  Now with the expiration date for the moratorium fast approaching, the Obama administration is considering permanent protections for all or part of the Grand Canyon’s watershed. 

Organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and Environment America are urging the administration to adopt Alternative B, the only option up for consideration that would protect all one million acres of the watershed.  Anything less, they fear, would result in mining projects that could eventually contaminate one of the country’s most famous national parks while polluting local water suppliesAccording to Environment America, “Toxic mining threatens to wreak havoc on the Grand Canyon, destroying the landscape, polluting rivers and streams that feed the Colorado River, threatening fragile ecosystems, and contaminating the drinking water for more than 25 million Americans.”

As environmental groups and conservationists push for the entire watershed to be protected, the mining and nuclear industries are likely to urge large areas be left open to mining.  The Obama administration is taking public comments through May 4th on its plan for protecting the Grand Canyon, which includes Alternative B as one of the options.  The administration’s final decision will determine the level of protection afforded to the area surrounding one of America’s best-loved and most-visited national parks. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/8529320@N03/3685358987