New Delhi's handling of the protests at Kudankulam marks some improvement over the ham-handed way in which popular concerns over the Jaitapur nuclear power project in Maharashtra were dealt with. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has shown the way with her deft handling of the protests by the local population, shifting from appeals to support the project to articulating the concerns of the people of the project area and throwing the ball into the centre's court. The central government needs to understand that routine prime ministerial assurances will not work in the post-Fukushima era. It must come up with a radically different approach, in form and substance, to the question of nuclear safety — if it has to safeguard the future of the Kudankulam project and other civilian nuclear ventures. The protagonists of nuclear power are on a reasonably good wicket at Kudankulam. The VVER-1000 reactors have been in operation across the world at a number of locations for several years. They are considered to be inherently safer than the untested EPR design of the French nuclear operator AREVA or the reactor designs of the Fukushima vintage.
India cannot ignore nuclear power in the era of global warming. Its civilian nuclear programme is an ongoing venture that has enjoyed public support over the decades. In principle, there is no reason why the Kudankulam project should not enter operation. But this will not happen of its own accord. The practical question is how to address public concerns over nuclear safety. Here a clear distinction needs to be made between the ‘fundamentalists' who are philosophically and absolutely opposed to nuclear power and those who have real and legitimate fears about nuclear safety. Nothing the government or, for that matter, anyone can do is likely to persuade the former group but plenty can be done to engage democratically and transparently with the latter. Unfortunately, the credibility of the Manmohan Singh government and the nuclear establishment took a beating when it turned out that the draft legislation for a supposedly independent nuclear safety authority provided it with little genuine autonomy. The Bill makes the new authority subordinate to a Council of Nuclear Safety dominated by the government that may even supersede the authority if it so pleases. The government continues to be oblivious of the need for a credible process of post-Fukushima certification for the VVER-1000 installations at Kudankulam as well as other operational nuclear reactors. Fresh verification by independent experts is required to assure us that the passive safety systems of the VVER-1000 reactors are adequate or can be suitably augmented to prevent the dangers of meltdown from residual heat as a consequence of coolant circulation failure in the background of a catastrophic natural event. The challenge to Kudankulam can be converted into an opportunity to set a new course on nuclear safety in India.