“This is now the center of all the anti-nuclear protests across India,” said Anicha Milton, a frail, 30-year-old fisherwoman. “If we succeed here, no new nuclear reactor can come up anywhere.”
It took 14 years and help from Russia to build the twin reactors here, and the plant is weeks from beginning production. But as post-Fukushima fears about the safety of nuclear reactors reached a peak last week, India’s hope of meeting some of its growing energy deficit with nuclear power in the next two decades appears increasingly unrealistic.
On Thursday, the protesters waded into the sea near the plant, standing in chest-high water to draw attention to their fears and vowing to prevent engineers from loading fuel into the reactor. Similar protests over health concerns and the acquisition of farmland have stalled several proposed nuclear power plants across India, including at sites set aside for American and French companies.
At stake is India’s ability to fuel its economic ambitions by setting up more power plants as well as its ability to address a growing tide of popular protests in a democratic manner.
Analysts say a quiet discontent began to surface after last year’s earthquake and tsunami-triggered crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.
“What happened in Fukushima may have provided a catalyst for the local protests,” said Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based free-market economic think tank. “But the real issue is the declining credibility of our governing institutions and the past failure of the system to ensure that the people living around such big projects enjoy benefits, too.”
Just five years ago, many Indian officials championed nuclear power as a way to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal-fired plants that produce greenhouse gases, and predicted that nuclear energy could contribute as much as 15 percent of the country’s power needs by 2030, up from less than 3 percent now.
In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a landmark civil nuclear agreement with the United States that was supposed to signal not only the beginning of a new strategic partnership but also pave the way for building at least 25 new reactors in two decades. India has 20 nuclear reactors, 10 of which were commissioned after 2000.
But two sites set aside for GE and Westinghouse are among the projects that are yet to take off because of local opposition and a new compensation law that deters foreign investors.