The drive to enhance nuclear power in India is a result of many factors, including the burgeoning demand for energy, diminishing fossil fuel reserves, and the need for a cost-effective alternative to generate electricity on a large scale. Non-conventional energy sources must be tapped to the fullest extent but there is no viable alternative to nuclear power if we are going to bridge the enormous energy deficit, projected to touch 150,000 megawatts by 2030. Environmentalists as a group tend to range themselves against nuclear power; and paradoxically, this ideologically determined stance works against their own declared objectives. Existing alternatives for large-scale power generation such as hydroelectric projects often bring massive deforestation and displacement of people; and emissions from coal-fired plants are a major contributor to harmful greenhouse gases. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has done well to resist pressures from various environmental groups to scupper the 6x1650 MW nuclear power project in Jaitapur in Maharashtra. The environmental clearance granted to the project, the first concrete outcome of the decision of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to lift restrictions on civil nuclear cooperation, has come after a serious hearing of apprehensions over its environmental impact. Clearance has also been accompanied by as many as 35 conditions and safeguards of a general as well as specific nature.

There are legitimate environmental concerns over nuclear power generation. It is supremely important to ensure safety by strict adherence to international protocols on the design, construction, and operation of plants. Then there is the issue of final disposal of radioactive waste, which waits to be resolved through advances in technology that seek to transmute such waste into non-radioactive elements. The MoEF has correctly assessed that the nuclear power plant is only one environmental issue relating to the ecologically sensitive region around Jaitapur, where many development projects are being planned. It has underlined the importance of conducting assessment studies on the cumulative environmental impact and on the carrying capacity of regions — an approach that recognises that while environmental clearance is granted for specific projects, any panoptic ecological strategy must be based on a broad study of the region. In laying down strict safeguards while clearing the Jaitapur plant, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has wisely taken the middle ground, which, in his words, “attempts to reconcile the objectives of economic growth, fuel-mix diversification, global diplomacy, and environmental protection.”

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