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Westinghouse officials visit India: displacing vulnerable communities to revive desperate nuclear industry

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Kumar Sundaram ‒ Editor,

As senior Westinghouse officials visit India this month, the nuclear industry's PR machine has drummed up news of the revival of its nuclear project in Kovvada, on the country's eastern coast.1 When recently the Canadian firm Brookfield acquired Westinghouse from Toshiba and salvaged it from complete bankruptcy, similar hopes were raised in the Indian media.2 The visit of Westinghouse officials has invited protest on the ground3, as well as an international solidarity statement which activists from across the world are signing.4

The Westinghouse project in India has been in the pipeline since 2005 and was supposed to be the first imported reactor to materialize after the United States opened the doors of global nuclear commerce for India, ending the international embargo against it in an unprecedented nuclear deal. However, the project been a tale of abject failures, false promises, manipulations and brazen undermining of basic norms.

A tale of desperation

Initially, the Westinghouse project was announced on the western coast – in Gujarat's Mithi Virdi. Amid massive agitation5 by local farmers and withdrawal of environmental clearance by India's National Green Tribunal for the project6, the project was shifted to Andhra Pradesh last year.7 In Kovvada, originally the project was awarded to GE-Hitachi, which pulled out in 2015 citing its reluctance to commit liability as per the Indian domestic law.8 However, the Secretary of India's Department of Atomic Energy later announced that India had canceled the project as GE-Hitachi do not have an operating reactor of that design anywhere else in the world.9

That is also true about EPR design reactors being built in Jaitapur and Westinghouse's AP1000 design too, which is now scaled up to 1,208 MW for Kovvada. Unending delays, cost escalations and regulatory troubles with the AP1000 reactors have been held responsible for bankrupting Westinghouse in the US.10

Ahead of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US last year, the Kovvada project was deemed 'Make In India', implying that Westinghouse will only provide technology and components now, and not a turn-key project as negotiated initially.11 The reactor construction in Kovvada ‒ if the project goes ahead ‒ will now be conducted by Indian partners under the overall management of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL).12 Although the Indian government boasts of such "indigenisation" as a great way of technology-transfer and minimizing nuclear costs, it is actually a perverted way to justify nuclear imports despite the global decline of the nuclear industry. The entry of Indian contractors with no experience in the nuclear sector also has serious safety implications.

Unending attempts to undermine nuclear liability

After India opened its nuclear sector for global players, the nuclear lobbies wanted India to enact a domestic law which does not hold suppliers liable in case of a future accident. The previous government under Manmohan Singh drafted a bill accordingly and it made its way to the industry chambers even before it was put before the parliament.13 However, the Supreme Court judgement in Bhopal in 2010 created a sensitive atmosphere14 and under the pressure of civil society and progressive parties, the government had to insert a special provision – clause 17(b) of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage (CLND) Act 2010 – under which the country's government-owned nuclear operator (but not victims of a disaster) has a limited 'right of recourse' to make the nuclear suppliers pay part of the total liability in case of an accident.15

The industry – both domestic16 as well as international lobbies including the American17, Canadian18, French19 and Russian20 corporations, have been reluctant to accept this provision. In particular, and soon after the grand nuclear bargain was signed with India in 2005, the US has insisted on a liability-free market.21 To placate US interests, the Indian government has been trying every way to undermine the domestic law mandated by its sovereign parliament to protect Indian people.

At least six such attempts can be listed here:

1. After enacting the bill into law, the government was supposed to introduce rules for its implementation, but it designed them in such a way that CLND Rules 2011 went against the letter and spirit of the Act.22 The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), responsible for drafting the Rules, sneakily introduced a "product liability period" of a ridiculously short five years and further capped the liability to the value of the contract or the liability of the operator. The Parliament's Standing Committee strongly criticized the DAE for diluting and contradicting the Act.23

2. The previous PM Manmohan Singh, during his visit to the US in 2013, came up with a novel 'interpretation' of the liability law, and the government's Attorney General claimed that in case of an accident, claiming liability from the suppliers is 'optional' for the operator.24 This posture to placate the US was considered Manmohan's gift to the US.25 To be true to this circumvention, the NPCIL itself has been claiming that it will not claim liability in case of an accident.26

3. In other similar tactics, the US forced India to sign27 and then ratify28 the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), an industry promoted template that completely indemnifies suppliers in case of nuclear accidents. Since then, the US has been using this as a stick against India, insisting that India must change its domestic law to make it consistent with the CSC.29

4. Ever since 2012, the US and Indian governments have set up a formal 'joint committee', essentially to find ways to circumvent the liability law.30

5. After assuming power as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi conveniently shred his party's reservations on diluting nuclear liability and announced a 'breakthrough' with the United States in 2015 during the Delhi visit of President Obama.31 Under this, the government formed the 'Indian Nuclear Insurance Pool' of 15 billion rupees (US$233 million) to channel suppliers' liability to public coffers in case of an accident. It was the Modi government that ratified the CSC in 2016 purportedly to woo foreign nuclear investment.32

6. More recently, the NPCIL announced its own 'Liability Policy' in 2016 aimed at accommodating the concerns of nuclear suppliers by limiting the insurance premium to about 1 billion rupees (US$15.5 million).33

It is outrageous that so much arm-twisting and undermining of democratically legislated liability norms is taking place to allow entry of US nuclear corporations in India. According to the reports, the US has been unhappy that it has still not got its share of the Indian nuclear market despite engineering changes in the international regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to allow nuclear supplies to India. When the US sought to change the original deal and denied enrichment and reprocessing technologies to India, it was seen as a way to pressure the country to change its liability law.34

Livelihoods and safety at stake

The communities in and around the village of Kovvada ‒ primarily low-income farmers and fisherfolk ‒ see the nuclear project as a threat to their environment, health, livelihood and traditional lifestyle. This project is an all-round disaster-in-the-making, as it threatens to destroy the fragile ecology of India's eastern coast, and endanger the safety of people in densely populated areas. It will disenfranchise thousands of people in local communities by depriving them of their livelihoods and sustainable lifestyles.

Most of the required land for the Kovvada project has already been acquired by using carrot-and-stick tactics. No Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been conducted even after 10 years of the announcement of the Kovvada project. Situated in Srikakulam District on the shores of Bay of Bengal, this project would endanger the precious bio-diversity of the region and the surrounding environment.

Local communities have been protesting intensely against forcible land acquisition for this project.35 They have repeatedly said that it is not just a matter or better compensation ‒ they do not want any nuclear plant at all. India's past record in rehabilitating the communities displaced by various big projects – dams, mines, thermal power projects etc. – has been extremely poor and after the experience of the Bhopal accident citizens can hardly rely on the authorities for an accountable response.

Andhra Pradesh is one of the most ecologically fragile states of India and arbitrarily allotting land for the nuclear plant – first for GE and then for Westinghouse – without an environmental clearance and a transparent site-selection process shows the complete disregard for local people's dignity and environmental concerns.36 Andhra state government takes pride in having plans afoot for the entire nuclear fuel cycle – from mining to nuclear reactors and reprocessing, but has no stated plans for nuclear waste.37 India has been in denial of waste problems and the last we heard from the concerned minister, he said India will have to think of nuclear waste after 30-40 years.38 India is one of the very few countries that did not conduct independent safety audits and reviews after the 2012 Fukushima accident. It remains in complete denial as to the insurmountable risks that nuclear power poses.39

The project does not even make economic sense. The effective cost of electricity from the nuclear plant in Kovvada will be at least four times higher than the current market tariff in India.40 The latest open bids for decentralized solar and wind power have been even cheaper than existing thermal power.41

Deepening crisis of Westinghouse

The 2008 US-India nuclear deal helped open the way for nuclear companies like Westinghouse. It provides US assistance to India's civilian nuclear energy program, even though India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a condition for such international deals. Westinghouse clearly sees India as easy pickings. The Indian government has finalized nuclear agreements as part of its geo-political strategy, without ever doing its homework on the environmental impacts, cost-benefit analysis, safety assessment or any democratic consultation on the energy future of the country. Furthermore, Indian authorities have clamped down on protesters by subjecting them to violence, trumped-up charges and accusations, and excluding them from public hearings by force.

Westinghouse has a lamentable track record in the US. One of its two projects ‒ to build two AP1000 reactors in South Carolina ‒ has already been abandoned, leaving ratepayers with a US$9 billion debt burden. The two plants were so massively over budget and behind schedule they were predicted to have cost at least $26 billion if completed, nearly three times the original projected price of $9.8 billion. A second Westinghouse US project for two AP1000 reactors in Georgia is more than five years behind schedule. Costs there have at least doubled and are predicted to rise to more than $27 billion, double the initial estimate of $14 billion. It was re-evaluated late last year and given the continued green light, but it is ratepayers again who will bear the burden of the project's vast expense.

If Westinghouse is permitted to go forward with the Kovvada project, India can anticipate interminable delays, massive cost overruns and environmental contamination at best; a nuclear disaster at worst, if indeed the project ever gets completed, which is doubtful. What is more likely is that Kovvada's economy and ecology will have been ruined and time will have been wasted that would have been better used installing cheaper, cleaner and safer renewable energy instead.

Individuals can sign a 'Westinghouse, Quit India!' petition at:

Organizations, please send your endorsement of the petition to Kumar Sundaram,