New nuclear power watchdog to be independent body

In a move to tackle growing anti-nuclear power sentiments in the country, the Indian government has decided to set up an independent watchdog, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India, besides allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help in safety reviews.

Jaitapur nuclear power plantThe government plans to introduce a bill to create the new watchdog, which will subsume the existing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, a body that lacks autonomy and has strong links to the atomic energy establishment.

This was decided at a meeting chaired by prime minister Manmohan Singh to decide the fate of the proposed 9,900 MW Jaitapur nuclear power plant, about 400 km south of Mumbai.

V. Narayanswamy, minister of state in the prime minister's office, said the government was satisfied with the safety aspects of the Jaitapur nuclear plant and it would go ahead with its construction. The Jaitapur plant, to be developed at a cost of $10 billion, is being jointly promoted by France's Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India.

There has been strong opposition to the plant near Ratnagiri in Maharashtra's coastal belt of Konkan, with many villagers opposing the acquisition of land. The nuclear power complex, comprising six power plants, each of 1,650 MW capacity, will occupy nearly 1,000 hectares of land. The Shiv Sena has also launched a campaign against the plant. Last week saw sporadic violence near the project, and the police opened fire killing one protestor.

Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan also attended the meeting in Delhi on Tuesday, where he sought clarity on the status of the project. Two central ministers - Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister, and Sushilkumar Shinde, the power minister - had a few days ago given indications that the future of the Jaitapur project was in jeopardy because of the opposition from activists and the crisis in Japan.

Worried over the fallout of the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the government has also decided to invite the operational safety review team of the IAEA to ensure high levels of safety at India's nuclear plants. This is the first time that India will be inviting the safety and audit team of the IAEA.

The Indian government expects a comprehensvie environmental impact assessment study of the first two nuclear reactors at Jaitapur to be completed when they are operational in 2019. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had earlier conducted an environmental impact assessment study and had said the nuclear power plant would have no impact on the ecology of the region.

The government also plans to enhance the compensation package for the villagers around Jaitapur, besides meeting political leaders to convince them about the need for the nuclear plants. Nuclear energy accounts for a mere three per cent of India's present power generating capacities; the government aims to raise this to 13 per cent by 2030.