Without meaningful engagement with local communities right from the start, protests against nuclear plants are inevitable

The Narora Atomic Power Station was operationalised in the early 1990s. The power plant, with a total capacity of 440 MWe, is located less than 150 kilometres away from New Delhi and is on the banks of the Ganga. Given the recent protests against the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project, one would expect that the setting up of the nuclear power station at Narora would also have met significant protests. But there were none.

What then has changed since the time of setting up the atomic power station at Narora?

Before 2008, the entire Indian nuclear power sector was shrouded in complete secrecy. There would barely be any public discussion on a nuclear power project or its impact. But this situation changed after India signed the 123 Agreement with the United States and obtained the required exemptions from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Indian civilian nuclear power programme opened its doors to the participation of foreign countries and companies. This in turn led to the enactment of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 and the Rules.

These developments thrust civilian nuclear power into the limelight and immediately created a requirement for the authorities to formally engage with local communities. The veil of secrecy could now be used only for nuclear projects related to defence establishments, not civilian ones, such as the proposed plants in Jaitapur and Kudankulam.

Three reasons

In Kudankulam, active engagement with the local community had only commenced close to operationalising the project. A senior Atomic Energy Regulatory Board official told me there were three events, all of which happened around the same time, which caused the sudden and widespread protests at Kudankulam: (1) the nuclear incident at Fukushima; (2) a public awareness campaign commenced by the authorities, which included information about emergency measures, safety precautions etc.; and (3) high noise levels at the testing stage of the power plant produced by the release of steam. All three factors combined to create an atmosphere of panic among the people who suddenly felt threatened by an installation that had been set up before their eyes but which now loomed over like an unknown phantom.

The transition from absolute secrecy to engagement with the public without following a systematic procedure had clearly backfired. The lessons of this incident need to be taken on board and implemented in future projects. Gone are the days when engaging with the local community was only ancillary to setting up a nuclear power project. A systematic approach needs to be urgently formulated in which engaging with the local community is a critical part of setting up a nuclear power plant.

French approach

As a starting point, the French approach may be considered. More than 75 per cent of power in France is nuclear generated. France has generated positive public opinion on nuclear power to such an extent that different parts of the country actually compete to have a nuclear power plant set up in their region. The entire process of engaging with the public has been institutionalised through laws and the setting up of autonomous bodies for engaging with the public. The public engagement process in France commences much before operationalising the project and goes on throughout the life of the nuclear facility. Over a period of 13 to 15 months, the public is given as much information as possible about the project. Thereafter, a public debate seeking opinions and suggestions is undertaken. A socio-economic plan to accompany the project, which focuses on education and training, financing and long-term planning for employment in consultation with the local community is also undertaken. All of this is supported by constant communication channels using the Internet, free phone numbers, information centres, weekly mails, and regular press releases. Significantly, a local information commissioner is appointed, who is responsible for providing regular information to the public on any issue pertaining to the nuclear facility.

Contrast this with the government lawyers arguing vehemently before the Madras High Court in a writ challenging fuel loading at the Kudankulam project, that fresh public hearings were not required to address changes and other developments in the project.

In a democratic country like India, it is unfortunate that a project of significant importance like Kudankulam is being forced on the local community. The Madras High Court, while refusing to halt the project, has highlighted the many benefits it would bring to the local community. The fact that the local community refuses to acknowledge these benefits reflects on the ad hoc manner of implementation of the benefit schemes.

The High Court had also directed that various measures suggested by Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (establishing schools, hospitals, roads, providing potable water facilities, internet, etc.) should be undertaken by the government for the benefit of the local communities. The court also considered whether there should have been a fresh public hearing on different aspects of the project and concluded that no such hearing is necessary; however, going forward, the local community would have to be kept involved in developments pertaining to the power plant.

If only these measures had been taken or announced at the inception of the project rather than being imposed by a court order. Giving post facto benefits to the local community after having taken all the substantial decisions without their engagement would invariably lead to protest. The public debates and consultations cannot be mere lip service and must be substantial and systematic. Detailed preparation must go into these activities keeping in mind the unique Indian challenges, including the lack of literacy. Involvement of teachers, doctors and local leaders who are trusted by their communities would boost the confidence of the people in the project.

This can all be achieved if a robust and sincere policy of dialogue, openness and transparency is institutionalised within a separate legal framework pertaining to civilian nuclear power projects. Major nuclear projects, such as the ones at Kudankulam and Jaitapur, are reminders of the Bhopal tragedy. People have valid reasons to distrust the government and only a transparent approach can serve towards regaining this trust. Only this can ensure that future nuclear power projects successfully get operationalised without the secrecy of a Narora and without the protests of Kudankulam.

(Mohit Abraham is a partner at PXV Law Partners and on the governing board of the Nuclear Law Association of India.)

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