Convinced that the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) installation is safe, the French government recently granted the fusion project the necessary permission to start construction in Cadarache. There are many firsts to the project. Maintaining transparency has been one of ITER’s most significant features and organising an enquiry to give the public an opportunity to formulate its opinion has set a new benchmark for openness. Independent experts assessed the safety of the fusion project and the public was not just taken into confidence but made an integral part of the project construction approval process. In effect, the two-and-a-half-year effort fully met the requirements set forth by France’s own 2006 Nuclear Transparency and Security legislation. If the French government took a bold decision to bring about more transparency and public engagement before nuclear projects are cleared, the clearance given to ITER tells us that it is indeed possible to meet the stringent requirements laid down by the law.
The ITER approval highlights the fact that the public is not unreasonable or obstinate. All people want is to be provided with facts, made fully aware of the benefits and risks, convinced that complete transparency is being maintained, and that their opinion is being taken into account on an important decision. Internationally, the nuclear industry is well known for maintaining opacity and for refusing to take the public into confidence. In India, the situation is compounded by the excessive secrecy surrounding all things nuclear, and by the lackadaisical and hurried manner in which environmental impact assessments are often carried out. As for the mandatory public hearings for large projects, both nuclear and non-nuclear, these frequently descend into chaos if not farce. The sustained local opposition to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant continues unabated even days before the first two units are to become operational. While many valid questions concerning the safety aspects of the plant have not been clearly answered, public apprehension to a great extent has come from imagined fear, misconceptions and an improper understanding of the technology-intensive project. It is time the Indian nuclear establishment realised that it can no longer bulldoze its way. Winning public approval is not only important but necessary for two reasons — the Chernobyl catastrophe and the 2011 Fukushima disaster are fresh in people’s mind, and the government has major plans to construct many power nuclear plants across the country.