Kudankulam folks get unexpected boost

The government seems all set to cross the Rubicon with regard to the commissioning of the KNPP. Just then, a small cloud has appeared – “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea,” as the Old Testament says.

The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assertively stated in the Parliament on Wednesday that giving up nuclear power would be “harmful” for India. He spoke even as the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board gave formal approval for the loading  of the enriched uranium fuel assemblies at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant.

The government seems all set to cross the Rubicon with regard to the commissioning of the KNPP. Just then, a small cloud has appeared – “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea,” as the Old Testament says.

The agitators against the KNPP who threatened with “indefinite” fast at the site have climbed down to “relay” fast, heeding the appeal of an eminent personality who has appeared on the scene to champion their cause – former chief justice of the high courts of Tamil Nadu and Delhi, Ajit Prakash Shah, who proposes to take the issue of the government crackdown  on the KNPP agitators to the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi. “You cannot file sedition charges against people for protesting against nuclear energy”, he said. Surely, Justice Shah would know that.

But what boosts to the sagging political morale of the agitators is a combination of unlikely circumstances internationally. Of course, France is now edging toward joining the great powers which bid farewell to nuclear energy – Germany, France, Brazil, etc. The new French president Francois Hollande simply lacks the ardor of his predecessor Nikolas Sarkozy for “nuclear commerce” by the state-owned EDF Energy. Hollande also pledged during his election campaign to shut down 24 of France’s 58 reactors and reduce reliance on nuclear power. Now, the catch is that France’s definite disengagement from nuclear power may also become a European disease and Britain too may catch the infection.

The political winds are indeed changing in Europe. The Indian elites usually begin to sneeze when the West catches cold. The Indian elites may feel lonely to be bracketed with China in its continuing ardor for nuclear power. More important, will Hollande be willing to be the keen salesman in New Delhi that Sarkozy was to sell French reactors to the Ratnagiri nuclear power project? Sarkozy was motivated enough to “incentivize” the Indian elites, but will Hollande want to wade into such crass business? There are no easy answers.

Equally, trouble is brewing also in the United States on a related front, namely, the spiraling cost of nuclear power. The cost over run at the two new nuclear reactors being built at Plant Vogtle in eastern Georgia now comes to 1 billion dollars. The estimated cost of the two units now comes to a whopping 14 billion dollars. Of course, the taxpayer and the consumers of electricity will ultimately foot this bill. President Barack Obama is bound to feel uneasy at some point about the political cost of American industry’s “nuclear renaissance”.

A minor detail about Plant Vogtle that has implications for India is that Westinghouse is supplying the reactors for the project, which, ironically, is also the party that is in negotiations with the Indian government currently to set up power plants in India. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who visited Delhi recently sought a “level playing field” for Westinghouse, which in plain language means that Dr. Singh should award contracts to the US firm without further pussyfooting. The Indians government officials say lamely the talks are going well. But there will be serious stocktaking at the forthcoming US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington in June. The US administration is driving Dr. Singh into a tight corner.

The big question (which is not being asked by any Indian so far) is whether India can afford to bear the cost of the electricity produced by Westinghouse. The fracas over Plant Vogtle should be an eye-opener. Huffington Post has a spirited piece on the controversy.

Coming back to the travails of the KNPP, the newest twist to the tale from abroad is the big hand being extended to the Kudankulam agitators by members of the British House of Commons and the European Parliament. These politicians include British Labor MPs. They have made twin allegations: A) KNPP is located in a tsunami-and-earthquake-prone region”, and B) Tamil Nadu state government headed by chief minister Jayalalithaa has used unacceptable coercive power of “intimidation” and “harassment” against the KNPP agitators, which of course constitutes a violation of human rights.

All in all, Dr. Singh may have spoken a bit too soon – even if the primary intent was to create a favorable public opinion for the impending award of contract for Westinghouse.

A “sit-in” protesting against KNPP is being planned at the historic Delhi landmark known as India Gate on Sunday evening. The local agitation in remote Kudankulam in the southernmost tip of India, spearheaded by local fishermen, is acquiring an unexpected dimension. The paradox, however, is that no major political party in India has shown the willingness to champion the agitation. They back Dr. Singh’s stance. They don’t seem to be in a hurry as Elijah was in the Bible, when he shouted, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go back home before the rain stops you.’”

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