India Maps Out a Nuclear Power Future, Amid Opposition

Fishermen pull mackerel, prawn, and pomfret from their nets near the port of Jaitapur on India’s west coast, as field workers pick the region’s famed Alphonso mangoes.

Even though many homes lack electricity, exports of fish and fruit provide a good living here. So villagers, determined to maintain their way of life, have made clear in protests that escalated after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster that they do not welcome the new neighbor the Indian government plans to install: The world’s largest nuclear power plant.

Jaitapur is meant to be the flagship location for the Indian nuclear energy renaissance that was mapped years ago by negotiators of a treaty to end the power-hungry nation’s technology isolation. U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration spearheaded the diplomatic effort to clear the way for India to purchase civil nuclear know-how and uranium fuel from Western nations despite India’s refusal to sign the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But progress has been slow under the 2008 civil nuclear cooperation pact; an effort to overcome legal hurdles for U.S. nuclear firms was one of the goals of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India this week.

While the U.S. government’s focus has been on easing the stringent liability laws enacted by India’s parliament, a more profound barrier in the world’s largest democracy may be public mistrust and opposition.

“The U.S. interest in promoting nuclear power in India is solely because of their interest in establishing a huge market for [their] power business and not because of any charitable distribution to the power-starved millions in India,” said A. Gopalakhrishnan, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, in an email.

And it’s not just former government officials like Gopalakhrishnan, but fishers, farmers, and thousands of ordinary citizens who promise a tough road ahead for nuclear power in India—a fact underscored in protests that turned violent this spring at Jaitapur.

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