While TV debates have lambasted China’s Taishan nuclear project, they have conveniently avoided any mention of India’s own massive nuclear energy expansion plans and brazen push for the Jaitapur project in the ecologically sensitive Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra which will be one of the largest in the world. Nor was there any discussion in the media about the dangers it posed. Gram sabhas in Jaitapur have also routinely passed unanimous resolutions opposing the nuclear project citing livelihood issues, radioactivity and its adverse impact on fishing, health, bio-diversity, nuclear waste and the EPR technology itself which is marred by design and safety flaws. Successive governments have ridden roughshod over environmental, health and human rights concerns and democratic processes here writes SONALI HURIA.
ECENTLY, India witnessed combative debates on Indian television news channels surrounding the “radiological incident” at Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province on the southern China coast.
From nearly declaring China a rogue state, these debates revolved around rhetorically asking how the international community could have been so indifferent as to have allowed China to build an astounding number of nuclear power plants. The debates sought “expert” opinions on whether an international coalition such as NATO could perhaps reign in an out-of-control China and whether its unmitigated ambition to build nuclear power plants could be stymied.
Thus, instead of expanding the public discourse to the safety of Taishan’s nuclear reactors in general and the potential consequences of a similar project proposed to be set up in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, the Indian media has remained singularly obsessed with China’s failings.
What Happened at Taishan?
The trigger for these debates was a CNN report regarding a potential “radiation leak” at the Taishan plant following warnings of a “performance issue” and the possibility of an “imminent radiological threat” from Framatome, the French firm that designed Taishan’s European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) and remains involved in its operations.
Unsurprisingly, the initial response of the Chinese foreign ministry was to dismiss such reports and assert that radiation levels at the site were “normal” and there was no cause for alarm.
However, the Chinese government has since acknowledged that an increase in radiation levels had been observed at Unit 1 reactor of the plant, but maintained that this was attributable to the build-up of “inert gases” following damage to the cladding of some fuel rods.
This was a phenomenon that the French utility Électricité de France (EDF), a minor partner in the Taishan project, has stated is “known, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures”,
Taishan’s two-unit nuclear power plant is a joint venture between China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, EDF and Chinese utility Guangdong Energy Group.
The nuclear plant uses third-generation EPR technology, regarded as the most advanced and energy-efficient, with enhanced safety features.
At present, Taishan is the only site where EPR design reactors are in operation, even as similar EPR projects at Jaitapur in India, Hinkley Point C in the UK, Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland continue to experience immoderate delays running into several years and massive cost escalations, often stemming from construction problems and equipment defects.
Issues With EPR
EPR technology has remained under the scanner for its many design and other flaws.
Merely two years after construction began on the first-ever EPR in Finland in 2005, the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (the Finnish nuclear safety authority), listed nearly “1,500 safety and quality problems with the project”, some “critical”.
The French nuclear regulator, the Autorité Sûreté Nucléaire has also been unrelenting in its indictment of the serious safety flaws in the design and construction of EPR in Flamanville, France. It even placed the EDF Flamanville nuclear plant on a safety watch in 2019 after repeated warnings regarding the vulnerabilities in the design.
The latest development at the Taishan facility, details of which are still emerging, attests to the continuing and seemingly irremediable troubles for the French nuclear industry. It’s entering into commercial operation of the Taishan nuclear plant was the “rare bit of good news” amid its other faltering EPR projects.
Why This Concerns India
India is currently in the final stages of negotiations with EDF to host a massive nuclear power park in Jaitapur along Maharashtra’s ecologically diverse and fragile Ratnagiri coast, with reactors of the same EPR design as the ones at Taishan.
Once fully commissioned, the Jaitapur nuclear plant, comprising six EPRs of 1650 MW capacity each, will be the largest such project anywhere in the world.
Ever since the first agreement in 2008 for the proposed Jaitapur EPR project, a number of serious safety, cost and related concerns have been raised by independent experts, India’s former nuclear regulator and environmental and democratic activists.
(Also read: More toxic than Rafale: Jaitapur nuclear deal, one Modi pushed on the same 2015 day in France.)
These seemingly inconvenient details, however, remained conspicuously absent in our television debates as news anchors and studio “experts” remained squarely focused on Taishan.
In focusing exclusively on Taishan, these debates conveniently avoided any mention of India’s own massive nuclear energy expansion plans and brazen push for the Jaitapur EPR project in particular, for which successive governments have ridden roughshod over environmental, health and human rights concerns and democratic processes. Take, for instance, project citing concerns – while the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) has consistently maintained that the Jaitapur site is not “seismic prone”, independent studies and expert opinion have termed the site as a “potential seismic time-bomb”.
Gram sabhas in Jaitapur have also routinely passed unanimous resolutions opposing the nuclear project citing livelihood issues, radioactivity and its adverse impact on fishing, health, bio-diversity, nuclear waste and the EPR technology itself which is marred by design and safety flaws.
Despite such resolute grassroots resistance and crucial concerns raised across key constituencies, farmers from the villages of Madban, Niveli, Karel, Mithgavane and Varliwada in Ratnagiri district have already been evicted. Their lands have also been acquired under emergency provisions (Section 17) of the Land Acquisition Act and dubious environmental clearance without any credible public consultation has been thrust upon the agitating communities. Crucial issues related to livelihood, marine life, biodiversity, and the potential impact of radioactive releases have also been brusquely swept aside. (Also read: How India is engineering nuclear landscapes through charades of green clearance)
Independent experts who have questioned the opacity surrounding the procurement of nuclear reactors for the Jaitapur project, the safety concerns, including site-specific
In addition, there has been no credible dialogue with communities on the potential environmental and health impacts of a nuclear project of the scale of the proposed EPR project in an ecologically diverse region such as Ratnagiri, as well as the question of livelihoods of thousands of farmers, fisherfolk and others in the area. The utter lack of transparency and accountability and the bulldozing of peaceful dissent in pushing the Jaitapur project have also meant the routine promulgation of Section 144 of the CrPC, as well as sections of the Bombay Police Act to prohibit “unlawful assembly”, routine arrests, and charges against protestors, including “attempt to murder”, as well as surveillance of local protest meetings.
“This”, argues Satyajit Chavan, president of the Janahakka Seva Samiti, Jaitapur, which has been at the forefront of the local resistance against the nuclear plant, “happened even before the conclusion of an actual techno-commercial agreement with the French side, which has only recently been submitted by the EDF to NPCIL”.
Chavan adds that the latest techno-commercial agreement envisions a considerably whittled-down role for the EDF in the Jaitapur project, limited to providing only the EPR design reactors and technical know-how – a credible indication that the French utility wants to exonerate itself of any liability in the event of an accident.
The recent developments at Taishan are of grave concern, especially with analysts now suggesting that the problems at the facility have been building up since October last year, on which the Chinese and French operators have maintained studied silence. Moreover, reports also suggest that China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration purportedly approved “an increase in the acceptable limit of radiation detection outside the Taishan plant in order for the plant to continue operating”.
Also read: In a Season of Impetuous Lawmaking, whither Nuclear Safety?
Yet, the present narrative within India’s mainstream media surrounding Taishan is deeply skewed.
One wonders if demonising China in the light of the present Taishan incident, while skirting pressing concerns regarding India’s own nuclear expansion plans, the lack of public consultation and concerns regarding the urgent need for greater independence of its nuclear safety regulator is an attempt to divert public gaze from the country’s glaring inadequacies in containing Chinese territorial misadventures and the Covid-19 pandemic.
If anything, Taishan must occasion a more informed and nuanced discussion on concerns regarding the Jaitapur EPR project that communities and independent experts have been raising for over a decade now.
(Sonali Huria is the 2021 Fellow, Takagi Fund for Citizen Science, Japan. The views expressed are personal.)