Indian Villagers Fear Arrival of Nuclear 'Monster'

In the once-tranquil fishing village of Tulsanda on India’s western coast, Sushima Surve, a 50-year-old shopkeeper and mother of two, is in a state of anxiety.

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The source of her unease is the government’s plan to build a nuclear power station — with up to six reactors generating 9,900 megawatts (MW) — next door to the community.

The Jaitapur power plant, to be built by French energy group Areva, is due to start with two third-generation European reactors. At a price of $9.3 billion, they will provide 3,300MW of much-needed power to the state of Maharashtra, whose state capital is Mumbai, India’s financial hub.

But up and down a coastal region famed for its luscious Alphonso mangos and bountiful seas, residents such as Ms Surve fear the reactors will devastate their livelihoods. Their protest marches, candlelight vigils and hunger strikes have gained new fervour since the crisis at Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“When I saw pictures of people evacuating the Fukushima zone I thought, ‘That might happen to us one day if we don’t stop the government,” says Ms Surve. “We will live in the shadow of a monster.”

The intense protests at Jaitapur highlight the struggle India faces in realising the vast expansion of its nuclear energy capacity that has been a driving ambition ever since a groundbreaking 2008 deal with the US ended its nuclear pariah status.

In the port of Sakhri Nate, 3km from the proposed site, coffee shops and street vendors’ stalls are plastered with posters of the Fukushima plant, alongside pictures of nuclear mushroom clouds.

Last month, a 30-year-old fisherman was shot and killed and several others were injured in the port, when police opened fire on anti-nuclear protesters mobbing the police station.

“We have to do everything possible to make sure his death isn’t in vain,” says fisherman Amjad Borkar. “This struggle is about self-determination, democracy, public safety and the future of our community.”

Grassroots resistance to the nuclear plant at Jaitapur extends well beyond those losing their land, to those living in a wide area around the 936 hectare project site.

Farmers worry that the reactor’s proximity will affect mango prices, while fishermen fear discharges from the reactors could devastate fish stocks, and that coastal access will be restricted in antiterrorist security measures.

“Once the plant is built, they will not allow boats to get close to it, and that’s exactly where many of us fish,” says Mr Borkar, who exports prawns and mackerel. “The bottom line is we will be stranded.”

Areva, which is still negotiating commercial terms with India’s state-owned Nuclear Power Corp and is yet to start work at the site, insists the reactors are safe, and will have "no impact" on the environment.

“It is absolutely normal for local people and other stakeholders to raise questions,” the company said in an e-mail response to questions. “Through open and transparent information about the project, it is quite possible to alleviate people’s legitimate concerns for their safety and environment.”

The anxiety over India’s nuclear plans is not confined to the grassroots.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has signed preliminary deals with Areva, Russia’s Rosatom, and US-based General Electric to buy reactors in an apparent gesture of thanks to friendly governments for helping end India’s nuclear outcast status.

Yet A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, says those decisions have come too early. The decisions over what reactors to buy, he says, should have been made only after Indian nuclear experts studied their technical parameters, and ranked them.

Both India, and Areva, may find the resistance more than they bargained for. Mango farmer Praveen Gawankar, who lost one of his five acres of land to the project, says he is willing to die to stop the nuclear plant.

“I will tie myself to the ground,” he says. “They will have to bulldoze me away, they will have to hit me, they will have to kill me, but I can guarantee you there is no way I’m going down easily.”