How India is engineering nuclear landscapes through charades of green clearance
ON December 15, 2018, a public hearing got underway amid strong armed police presence and public protests for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed extension of the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant (Units 5 and 6). While in-principle approval for the setting up of 2×700 MWe PHWRs (expansion at the existing site) was granted by the Centre in August 2011, the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the said expansion were drawn up only in September 2016 by the Expert Appraisal Committee (Nuclear). Based on the ToR, NPCIL, the project proponent, assigned the task of conducting the EIA to Mecon Limited, a Bangalore-based Public Sector Undertaking.
The plan for the proposed extension of the Kaiga NPP has met with fierce opposition from local resident communities, a majority of whom, instead of attending the public hearing, decided to register their opposition by boycotting it and carried out a protest march from Mallapur to the Kaiga housing complex, where the public hearing was scheduled to be held. Resultantly, the hearing witnessed a measly attendance of only about 250 people.
Notwithstanding official celebrations in early December 2018 on the “historic feat” of the operation of Unit 1 of the Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant (Kaiga NPP) for an uninterrupted 941 days, villagers, concerned citizens’ groups and environmentalists have expressed fears that the proposed expansion of the Kaiga NPP will have devastating implications for the environment and health of the people – fears which stem in part from the results of a TATA Memorial Centre study released in March 2018, according to which the number of cases of cancer across Karwar taluk, around the Kaiga Atomic Power Station, had risen by a phenomenal 200 percent over a period of merely three years, from 2010-2013.
Whither safety standards?
Besides, Kaiga’s own chequered past, far from inspiring any confidence has only filled protesting communities with a sense of foreboding. On May 13, 1994, a portion of the concrete containment dome of Unit 1 of the Kaiga Atomic Power Plant had collapsed – fortunately, while still under construction, injuring 13 workers. On investigation, it was found that the NPCIL had “altered” the dome design, without seeking approval of the AERB, prompting the-then AERB Chairman, A. Gopalakrishnan to publicly question if there were “systems, procedures and the discipline” in India, “essential to meet safety standards” for nuclear facilities.
Further, specific concerns have been raised regarding the EIA study for Kaiga’s expansion commissioned by the NPCIL. In a letter addressed to the Secretary of DAE, Chairman of the AERB and the Chairman of Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, Former Secretary to the Government of India, EAS Sarma, described the EIA report as “far too inadequate” to merit any informed and meaningful deliberation during the public hearing and thus, requested that the hearing be cancelled. The letter raises crucial questions not only regarding the Kaiga EIA, such as its abject failure to address questions of ‘radiation hazards’, whether in the event of an accident or the impact of low-intensity radiation on public health, but also larger questions of the anomalous situation in India wherein the nuclear regulator, the AERB remains subordinate to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and by extension, the DAE, thus, raising serious questions regarding the independence of the AERB in being able to assess the feasibility of nuclear facilities across the country. Power policy analyst, Shankar Sharma who attended the said Kaiga public hearing, has also highlighted glaring inadequacies in the EIA study, including costs related to the proposed expansion, disaster preparedness, plans for safe evacuation and rehabilitation of over 32,000 people of the region, and the safe disposal and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, among other pertinent concerns.
However, it is hardly surprising that the Kaiga EIA report and public hearing have invited such sharp criticism from local communities and independent experts alike. The EIA process in general and public hearings in particular have been the subject of much debate, criticism, and even legal contestation in India, and these inadequacies have been even more pronounced in the case of nuclear power projects. Consulting agencies tasked with carrying out the EIA study for nuclear projects, invariably have little or no expertise to assess the potential impact of these projects, particularly ‘radiation releases’ – the singular defining feature that sets apart nuclear plants from other energy-generating industries.
Assessing agencies with little expertise
There are primarily three consulting agencies in India which have prepared EIA reports for nuclear facilities – the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI), Engineers India Limited (EIL), and Mecon Limited (formerly, Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants (India) Limited). EIA studies for NPPs have often been carried out by these agencies without the mandatory government accreditation. In the case of the Mithi Virdi and Gorakhpur NPPs for instance, Mecon Ltd. conducted the EIA studies when it did not have the requisite accreditation – a fact that led to demands for dismissal of the EIA reports as well as cancellation of public hearings for these projects.
The technicalities of accreditation apart, the EIA reports prepared by these agencies have also invited criticism from independent experts on the quality of assessment carried out, particularly the potential impacts of nuclear power generation on the environment and health of local communities. These reports have often addressed questions of radiation impact and radioactive waste management, for instance, rather ambiguously – with platitudinous assurances, such as, ‘radioactivity will be well below the discharge limits’ and ‘the volume of radioactive waste will be regularly monitored and ensured that they are well below limit as stipulated by the AERB’. Moreover, the data used to put together these EIA reports is often that which has been provided by the project proponent itself – usually the NPCIL or the UCIL. This leads to not only a rather flattering assessment of the proponent’s past performance, but on occasion, also an inexplicably simplistic and buoyant future projection. In the case of the EIA report prepared by EIL for the now-discarded Mithi Virdi NPP, for instance, the EIA report stated that since “radiation dose to public due to NPCIL’s nuclear power plants (was) observed to (be) lesser than the stipulated dose limit of 1 mSv/y … therefore, nuclear power plants do not pose any hazard to human and other life forms.”
EIA reports have also routinely been critiqued for being plagiarized, as well as for regurgitating unsubstantiated ‘facts’ and statistical inconsistencies, including EIAs prepared for nuclear power projects. The EIA reports prepared by NEERI for the proposed Jaitapur and Chutka NPPs, for instance, are replete with such sweeping falsehoods including, labeling the Ratnagiri coastal area ‘poor in biodiversity’, and a majority of the land acquired for the Jaitapur and Chutka projects as ‘barren’, and stating that the project will have no ‘adverse impact’ on people’s livelihoods – statements that stand in sharp contrast to ground realities. Further, assertions such as NEERI’s fantastic pronouncement in the case of the Jaitapur EIA that the ‘rise of ambient seawater temperature will not have any adverse impact on marine flora and fauna’, reflect not only a recurrent refusal on the part of these consulting agencies to meaningfully engage with issues under consideration, but also an embarrassing ignorance of available information/literature on these subjects.
Diluting green clearance standards
Through the years, successive governments have attempted to water down substantive green clearance requirements purportedly to promote ‘ease’ of business, sometimes in brazen defiance of court orders, including those of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The 1994 EIA notification was replaced by the 2006 notification after nearly 13 amendments in the intervening period. The 2006 notification envisages green clearance as a four-step process. Of these, it is the third – public consultation, which is perhaps the most important opportunity for people’s participation in decision-making. Yet, it remains the most undervalued and inconsequential.
While the public hearing is a legally mandated procedure, the hearings for nuclear projects (as also for other developmental projects), have customarily been treated as merely bureaucratic hurdles to be ticked off on the project proponent’s checklist. Far from treating local communities as important stakeholders in the green clearance process, public hearings have mostly been heavily loaded in favour of the project proponent, with massive armed police presence, the express support of the local administration, and little opportunity for local communities and civil society groups to either voice their objections or ensure that these find their way into the official record of deliberations. It is this charade of the public hearing, repeated ad nauseam across proposed NPP sites, that has forced communities to boycott and/or disrupt these hearings to make themselves ‘heard’ – whether in Kaiga this month, or, in earlier hearings in Gorakhpur, Chutka, Jaitapur, and Mithi Virdi.
Flouting procedural norms
What is even more frustrating for local communities is that the procedural requirement of providing the EIA Summary and Report, in the local language at least a month in advance, is brazenly flouted by the project proponent and local administration. In Jaitapur for instance, only one of the Gram Panchayats received the EIA summary report, that too in English, just 10 days prior to the hearing as against the mandated 30 days, and a complete copy of the EIA Report (without the required EIA Summary Report) in Marathi, a measly four (04) days prior to the hearing.
However, in such instances, when communities and experts have legitimately demanded cancelation of the public hearing given this unabashed violation of legal procedures, the local administration has usually responded by pushing ahead with the hearing regardless, and making no mention of this glaring lapse on part of the project proponent in the official proceedings. The EIA process in effect therefore, has been turned into impenitent buffoonery, with the former Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh himself terming the EIA “a bit of a joke”, following his Ministry’s grant of a deeply contested and flawed green clearance to the proposed Jaitapur NPP.
While in the post-Fukushima world, nuclear energy has been rendered unviable, with the nuclear industry now facing its worst crisis ever, India continues to chase the nuclear chimera, thanks to the near-total insulation of the nuclear sector from financial and safety audit as well as public scrutiny and oversight. However, just as concerns of cost and safety occasion an assessment and re-think of the blind pursuit of nuclear energy, the flagrant contempt for environmental accountability on the part of the NPCIL and the larger nuclear establishment, is reason enough to place all proposed nuclear projects and expansion plans on hold, as has also been suggested by India’s former nuclear safety regulator.
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