India is divided into four types of seismic risk zones by the Indian standard code, IS 1893 (‘Criteria for earthquake-resistant design of structures’). Jaitapur is located in one of the ‘high-risk zones’, classified as Zone IV, meaning that it is prone to strong earthquakes.
The Jaitapur area is transversed by three tectonic faults. A number of earthquakes have been recorded here in the last 20 years alone, with the strongest - in 1993 - having a 6.3 magnitude on the Richter scale, and with three others exceeding magnitudes of 5.
During recent construction projects in Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France, a number of technical and safety problems have been identified with the EPRs, such as heavy interconnection between safety and instrumentation digital systems that may lead to their failure, or questionable ability to withstand impact by an airliner. Serious defects in the quality of components, as well as welding and construction work, have also occurred at both sites.
The Finnish safety agency STUK recorded over 3,000 safety and quality problems with EPR construction. It has been recognised that these problems occurred because attempts to reduce costs led the company to select cheap, incompetent subcontractors and overlook safety-related problems. In addition, nuclear safety training was not provided to workers. In France, inspections repeatedly mentioned that the problems arose from “haste without any quality assurance process”.
The pressure to keep the EPR cost very low in India could cause even larger problems with cutting safety corners and poor quality of construction than we have seen in France and Finland. The cost of the two Jaitapur EPR units is officially estimated at 32,000 crore (€ 5.4 billion). This is less than half of the cost estimates of building the reactors in Europe or Canada. The argument about cheap labour in India cannot explain such a massive price discrepancy, as most of the price comes from engineering equipment and heavy components.
In addition, EPR reactors are inherently harder to build and control because of their larger size and the fact that they are designed to use high fuel burn-up, which places higher requirements and stricter standards on the quality of their construction. In contrast most Indian reactors built to date have been units up to eight times smaller (220 MWe), with just two coming close to even one-third (540 MWe) of the size of an EPR (1,650 MWe).
Last but not least, the lack of independence of the Indian nuclear safety authorities can result in many possible problems not being detected or with their corrections not being sufficiently enforced.
India’s weak regulatory environment
a) Not a member of Non-Proliferation Treaty. India is a country that has never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is known to use many of its nuclear facilities for dual purposes, i.e. for both energy production and the fabrication of fissile materials for military use.
b) No independent regulator authority for nuclear safety. The 1962 Atomic Energy Act established the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) as the body responsible for nuclear energy. This department directly operates a number of nuclear facilities in India. In 1983, the DEA established the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) as the entity in charge of nuclear regulation. It reports to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This arrangement means that the AERB lacks any independency, because members of the AEC include three institutions actively involved in nuclear business: the Secretary of the DAE, the Director of the Baba Atomic Research Center, and the Managing Director of NPCIL, which will be the future operator of Jaitapur’s reactors. In contrast, current EU legislation requires that “Member States shall ensure that the competent regulatory authority is functionally separate from any other body or organisation concerned with the promotion, or utilisation of nuclear energy, including electricity production, in order to ensure effective independence from undue influence in its regulatory decision making“ (EU Directive 2009/71).
c) Unresolved responsibility for damage caused by a nuclear accident. Another issue of relevance to the Jaitapur project is the non-existence of any legislation that would deal with liability of nuclear power plants in case of accidents and damage to the public and third parties. The Indian Prime Minister was forced to withdraw a draft liability bill, tabled in Congress in March 2010, due to political outcry. Some of its prominent critics, for example former prosecutor Soli Sorabjee, concluded that the bill was non-constitutional.
Lack of transparency
The 1962 Atomic Energy Act is an outdated piece of legislation, which does not guarantee access to any information. There is no possibility to file a request under the Right to Information Act (adopted in 2005) in order to make information public.
There has also been lack of transparency in public hearings for the project. The first public hearing was organised in August 2006. It was conducted in English despite villagers requesting it in the Marathi language that they speak. “The company did not even provide the EIA report before the hearing,” says Vivek Y Bhide, a practicing doctor and one of local opposition leaders.