A group of over 80 eminent personalities, including the former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman, A. Gopalakrishnan, has expressed shock at the Centre's announcement on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia that it would go ahead with the Jaitapur nuclear power plant.

Terming it “sheer insensitivity” on the part of the government, the citizens' group said the decision meant disregarding the “overwhelming” opposition to the project by 40,000 local people and the larger public, besides the caution made by numerous experts and the grave safety concerns raised by the still-unfolding Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

Noting that the concerns expressed were “eminently” reasonable, the citizens group pointed that many other governments, including in Germany, China and Switzerland, had taken them on board by adopting a ‘pause and review' approach to construction of new nuclear reactors. The European Union had ordered stress tests on all its 143 reactors.

In a public appeal, the group noted that though the Indian government too promised to review the nuclear installations for safety, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had conducted only “a wholly internal, hasty and technologically superficial exercise and declared all installations perfectly safe.”

“This is unconvincing,” the eminent personalities said. There was an urgent need for an independent, thorough and transparent review of the country's nuclear policy and installations by a broadly representative body that included non-DAE personnel and civil society representatives. “Pending this, projects like Jaitapur must be put on hold and their clearances revoked.”

Referring to the government's recent announcement of its intention to separate the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from the DAE, they said that while the announcement was welcome, it was essential that the AERB's responsibilities and powers be defined in advance and its members selected with exemplary prudence so that only persons with the highest integrity, impartiality and commitment to the public interest were chosen by a broad-based collegium.

“This is as important as choosing the Lokpal. The life and death of millions will depend on the AERB. India's experience with regulatory authorities in telecom, insurance and hydrocarbons is unhappy. We simply cannot afford ‘regulatory capture' in nuclear matters,” they said.

Apart from Dr. Gopalakrishnan, the signatories included the former Chiefs of the Naval Staff, Admiral L. Ramdas and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat; the former Major-General, S.G. Vombatkere; the former member of the Planning Commission, S.P. Shukla; the former Vice-Chancellors Deepak Nayyar and Mushirul Hasan; and the former Ambassador to the United Nations, Nirupam Sen.

Social scientists Romila Thapar, Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, Ramachandra Guha, Rajeev Bhargava, Amit Bhaduri, Achin Vanaik and Zoya Hasan; scientists P.M. Bhargava, Satyajit Rath, M.V. Ramana and Suvrat Raju; writer Arundhati Roy; dancer Leela Samson; artistes Krishen Khanna, Ghulam Shaikh, S.G. Vasudev, Vivan Sundaram and Bharti Kher; veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar and social activist Aruna Roy are among the other signatories.