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As the World Awakes, India Sleepwalks Into Nuclear Peril

High Noon in Koodankulam

by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN

Many countries are rethinking their nuclear plans post-Fukushima.  Some are proceeding to draw down their nuclear power operations.  According to an AP report,

“Germany…turned decisively against nuclear power after the Fukushima crisis, shutting down eight reactors and planning to close the remaining nine nuclear power plants by 2022.”

Last June in the wake of the Japanese disaster, Italians held a referendum and rejected nuclear energy for their country, leading then Prime Minister Berlusconi to concede that his country would have to bid “addio” to nuclear power.

Having known nuclear devastation up close, first during wartime in 1945, and then in peacetime last year upon seeing the writing on the tsunami wall, Japan has acted with alacrity, From the same AP report,

“Japan will be free of atomic power for the first time since 1966 on Saturday, when the last of its 50 usable reactors is switched off for regular inspections. The central government would like to restart them at some point, but it is running into strong opposition from local citizens and governments.”

As Harvey Wasserman writes in CounterPunch, the recent election may hasten France’s move away from nuclear energy,

“And France has replaced a vehemently pro-nuclear premier with the Socialist Francois Hollande, who will almost certainly build no new reactors.  For decades France has been the “poster child” of atomic power.  But Hollande is likely to follow the major shift in French national opinion away from nuclear power and toward the kind of green-powered transition now redefining German energy supply.”

Wasserman’s article also declares that the chances of the United States building any new reactors are slim to none – the price tag of around $10 billion a reactor puts it at a decided disadvantage compared to  – renewable energy!

Following Fukushima, China is engrossed in a bottom-to-top reevaluation of its nuclear energy strategy.

Thus is there a pensive re-examination of faith even among fervent believers in nuclear power.  Theoretical argument is one thing; the sight of one of the world’s most efficient and advanced populations struggling to cope with a nuclear emergency gives an entirely different aspect to the matter.  The slightest chance that huge centers of population might not just be devastated, but rendered unlivable for hundreds of years, alters the mental odds-making completely, as well it should.

This is the setting in which an establishment high on the  ‘development’ narcotic and tantalized by the apsara of growth rate has decided to commit India to building no less than 30 new nuclear reactors in the next 20 years.

Deeming the Fukushima meltdowns no deterrent to their previous plans, the Indian government and its agencies have tried to downplay fears about nuclear power in general, and those concerning the Koodankulam nuclear plant in particular. The plant, located right on the ocean at the country’s southern tip, bears a certain situational resemblance to Fukushima.

Widespread misgivings about safety and health issues have been sought to be pooh-poohed by trotting out an army of ‘experts’, led by former missile scientist and ex-president APJ Abdul Kalam, best known for his well-publicized ardor for turning India into a ‘developed’ country by year 2020, read, an endorsement of every grandiose scheme to take Indians as quickly as possible into the top ranks of the world’s consumers.

But, Koodankulam’s residents and their neighbors have begged to differ with the authorities.  Their movement (there have been local agitations against the Koodankulam plant long before Fukushima), which the government has tried to ignore, belittle, slander and disrupt, is now engaged in a peaceful protest that has caught the attention of the world.  According to PMANE (People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy), some 9000 people are engaged in a sit in, with several hundred on an indefinite fast.  PMANE is now starting a ‘Respect India‘ campaign along the lines of Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942. A line from their crisp  indictment of India’s development mania says it all,  “As a result of our ruling class’s nuclear madness, our land, water, air, sea, sea life, sea food and food security will all become spoiled and poisoned.”

It is noteworthy that the anti-nuclear struggle has no backing from major political parties, handmaidens all to a development ideology run amok, unhinged from any concern but economic growth rate.

If establishment luminaries are in the least troubled by the fact that there is still no good solution to the problem of nuclear radioactive waste, they have not let on. Even if no earthquake or tsunami ever came near the nuclear reactors, the dangers of soil and groundwater contamination are serious enough. It is reasonable to add that human (and yes, computer) error is an eternal fact – it wasn’t an earthquake that caused the Chernobyl disaster.  Seeing pictures of its after-effects 25 years later, it is clear one does not have to live through nuclear war to recognize the truth of a phrase attributed to Nikita Khrushchev, “the living will envy the dead”.  A malfunction is enough.

“As the world sleeps, India awakes to freedom”, Jawaharlal Nehru declared as he became free India’s first prime minister. It was the midnight hour of August 14-15, 1947. Some wags granted Nehru his eloquence but raised a minor technicality. Since it was 12 AM in India, it was actually daytime or evening in much of the world, which therefore was quite wide awake, thank you!  Today we might be on more solid ground in paraphrasing Nehru’s words: “As the world awakes to its dangers,  India sleepwalks into nuclear peril“.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a columnist and writer living on the West Coast. He is the author of Bantaism: the Philosophy of Sardar Jokes. His forthcoming book, ‘On the Other Hand’, is a collection of essays on Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas in the context of current-day issues. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.