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[NEW DELHI] The unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan has reignated the debate over a project to build the world's largest nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, on India's western coast. 

Amid protests by environmental activists, as well as Jaitapur residents, India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh cleared the 9,900 megawatt project in November 2010. Japan's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility, currently the world’s largest nuclear plant, has a capacity of 8,212 megawatts.    

The protests have been on three fronts: the area around Jaitapur is one of India's richest biodiversity hotspots; it has suffered minor earthquakes in the past; and the evolutionary pressurised (EPR) technology proposed, using enriched uranium, is untested.

This week (16 March), Ramesh added a new dimension when he told a television channel, "I don't recall if a tsunami was factored into the environment clearance process." Just a day earlier, Ramesh had said that additional safety features would be considered for the plant.

Ramesh's observations come as former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman Anil Kakodkar assured Indian media that risks from a tsunami were minimal as the plant was to be located on a plateau.

Earlier this week (14 March), The Hindu quoted AEC chairman Srikumar Banerjee as saying that the Jaitapur project needed to be "re-evaluated" in the context of earthquakes and tsunamis striking together, as with the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

India's 20 operating nuclear power plants rely largely on indigenously built, pressurised heavy water reactors that use natural uranium as fuel, and 'heavy water' containing a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium, both to moderate the nuclear reaction and as a coolant.

The switch to EPR drew flak from a former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Adinarayan Gopalakrishnan, who said while India has four decades of experience in tackling emergencies this was limited to domestically-built, pressurised heavy water reactors.

"For Indian engineering teams to react in a similarly timely and effective manner against an accident in one of the planned, imported reactors will be next to impossible for at least a few decades to come," he told SciDev.Net.

Concerns over seismicity have also resurfaced following the Japan quake. Jaitapur falls in 'seismic zone 3', which is considered safe for building nuclear power plants in India.

"Over the past 20 years alone, there have been three earthquakes in Jaitapur, exceeding five points on the Richter scale," a press release by environemental campaigners Greenpeace, release in December 2010, said.

The Times of India quoted the Geological Survey of India records, which reveal that the region witnessed 92 minor quakes between 2.9 and 6.3 on the Richter scale between 1985 and 2005.

Read all our coverage about the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster here.