Indian response to safety calls

27 April 2011

Indian leaders are preparing to reassess some aspects of nuclear policy following the Fukushima accident and violent protests against a proposed nuclear plant at Jaitapur. 


Yesterday the Indian government announced it would table a new nuclear safety law to create an autonomous nuclear regulatory body in the country and it would invite the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) operational safety review team (OSART) to help with future Indian nuclear industry safety reviews and audits. These measures would bring it into line with practice around the world, where nuclear safety is recognised as an area where neither business nor politics should have influence.


The Indian government also said it would incorporate "standalone safety systems" in the design of each reactor in Jaitapur in Maharastra. The move follows intensifying demonstrations near the planned site, with one person being killed and 20 others injured on 18 April when police opened fire on an angry local population which attacked a police station in parallel with a planned demonstration at the plant site.


In addition, India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh, a member of the government's dominant Congress party, had been shifting in his public statements over nuclear safety in general and Jaitapur in particular. In his most recent pronouncement, on 23 April in Ludhiana, Punjab, he said: "The [Jaitapur] nuclear plant issue is a wakeup call after Fukushima and we cannot ignore the panic of the residents." Furthermore, he advocated a "pause button for the time being" on approving new nuclear plants. On 15 April, he clarified his position on Jaitapur: he had not "called for a re-think, I have called for a deeper thinking."


India has plans to increase its nuclear power capacity from the present 4780 MWe to 20,000 MWe by the year 2020 with the expansion of capacity to include 2500 MWe of fast breeder reactors and 8000 MWe of light water reactors. However, the Japanese crisis and the Jaitapur dispute have caused anxiety in the industry. Madhukar Vinayak Kotwal, senior executive vice president – heavy engineering for Larsen & Toubro, said that he was concerned that misinformation was being spread through the Jaitapur protests. "I just hope that the protesters do not derail the entire nuclear program, which is vital for the energy needs of the country," he told World Nuclear News.


Indeed some protesters are insisting on complete rollback. "All the new nuclear plants that are being proposed should be scrapped and all the existing nuclear plants be gradually shut down," said Neeraj Jain, an organiser for India's National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements. He said his group's strategy was aimed at persuading the central government that nuclear power is so unpopular, it supports the industry at its electoral peril. "It has to come from the prime minister's office and only public pressure can force a change like in Germany," he said.


However, in Maharashtra state, the chief minister Prithviraj Chavan (also a Congress party member) has already ruled out any possibility of abandoning the Jaitapur proposal. "We are determined to complete the project and that too on schedule," he told Mumbai journalists on 21 April. 


Kameswara Rao, energy and utilities leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers India, stressed that there was positive political capital associated with India's nuclear industry and that this could win the day in government assessments of future policy. He noted India's indigenous nuclear program had a good safety record and the imported reactors that will form part of the planned capacity expansion use the latest technology.


He backed the government's latest announcement, saying there is a need for an independent nuclear sector regulator in India, periodic reassessments of safety, and more safety related information in the public domain.

By Raghavendra Verma
for World Nuclear News