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The people’s energy via India Together

When nuclear companies are unwilling to stake their financial health on the safety of a reactor, how can the Government ask local residents to risk their lives, ask M V Ramana and Suvrat Raju.

22 November 2011 – As the local people determinedly continue to resist the commissioning of the Koodankulam reactors, the statements of the nuclear establishment have acquired a desperate edge. The chief of the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) declared that a “foreign hand” was behind the protests. The former president, A P J Abdul Kalam, while assuring the locals that the reactors were “100 per cent safe,” also wrote an article in The Hindu arguing that nuclear energy is India’s ticket to modernity and prosperity. Such claims go back several decades; for example, Jawaharlal Nehru compared the “Atomic Revolution” to the “Industrial Revolution,” arguing that “either you go ahead with it or … others go ahead, and you … gradually drag yourself” (Nehru 1958). However, in the intervening half a century, atomic energy has failed to live up to its promise, and the idea that it is linked to progress and economic success is now both cliched and historically inaccurate.

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So the “foreign hand” is partly behind the nuclear expansion, not behind the local protests that have sprung up at every site earmarked for a nuclear plant. The conspiracy theory peddled by the NPCIL amounts to dismissing genuine local concerns out of hand. The end result of this policy is visible in Koodankulam. The local villagers, who have been opposed to the project since the beginning were ignored and ridiculed till they finally escalated their protest in desperation. The public money that has been spent on the Koodankulam plant is imperilled not by the intransigence of the local residents, but by the failure of the Government to heed their concerns earlier.

Local residents have a right to be worried. Nuclear accidents can have very destructive public health consequences. The impacts of Fukushima can be gauged only over the long term but are certain to be grave . Although some nuclear advocates quote the absurdly low and misleading figure of 57 direct deaths in Chernobyl, the World Health Organization estimated about 9000 excess deaths due to cancer globally. Many more thousands will have cancers that are assumed to be curable. The American Cancer Institute’s recent study found that children who were exposed to Iodine-131 from Chernobyl are continuing to develop thyroid cancer. Other epidemiologists estimate even higher figures.

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