Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.15: Ajmal Khan, Understanding the Nuclear State in India: Experience from Kudankulam and Jaitapur Nuclear Power Projects


The term Nuclear State (Jungk 1979) is used to describe the nuclear industry and its nexus with state and security establishments. It also emphasizes the blurred boundaries between nuclear weapons, nuclear technology, and the nuclear power industry. According to Jungk, a nuclear state can be applied to those states which have professed interest in developing civilian nuclear power stations, not only nuclear weapons. It also ensures the unquestionable scientific authority on nuclear power, its safety, and its potential for massive energy generation.               

Nuclear energy has been an integral part of national development in India. India established an Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 and the Department of Atomic Energy in 1954 under direct control of the office of the Prime Minister. In the decades since, India has continued its nuclear expansion and currently has twenty-two operating reactors across the country with a total capacity of 6,219 megawatts. With a focus on massive energy generation from nuclear energy in the future, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India has been establishing new nuclear power projects across the country. In response, anti-nuclear movements have emerged across India to question and counter nuclear expansion. The Kudankulam nuclear power project, located in Tamil Nadu in south India, is one of the oldest and largest nuclear power stations in the country.  Local people have opposed the project since the 1980s, which has led to one of the biggest anti-nuclear movements in India.

The nuclear state in Kudankulam and Jaitapur

Studying the early protests against and public hearings conducted for the later reactors at Kudankulam, Kaur (2013) described a permanent state of emergency at Kudankulam. This emergency, according to her, goes far beyond what Jungk had predicted even in post-colonial democracies like India in the context of nuclear expansion. Kaur argued that this emergency applies to restrictions on citizens’ freedom, the surveillance and criminalization of critics and campaigners, the justification of the mobilization of thousands of policemen and military to deal with peaceful demonstrators opposed to the facility, and a hegemony on truth claims in which the nuclear industry is held up as the solution to growing power needs, national development, and energy security (Kaur 2013).           

Fishermen and farmers whom I interviewed for my fieldwork claim that opposition against Kudankulam began soon after the declaration of the project in 1989. The initial interactions of local people with the nuclear state began with local information in the villages about the ‘Ullai’ project, a local Tamil term for factory, which was supposed to provide employment to villagers. Then, with official notification that this was a nuclear power project, opposition against land acquisition began. Villagers argued that their region had a larger population than a location where a nuclear power project could be established according to the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency and India’s Department of Atomic Energy. Also, the project had no environmental clearances for the first two reactors, despite the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2006 (EIAN 2006) which requires such environmental clearances. They also highlighted that the project had violated coastal zone regulations.

Protests against the project continued throughout various villages though more organized protests were based at Idindakarai village. In the state repression against the protests, thousands of police and paramilitary were deployed. Protesters were charged with sedition and waging war against state. Some were killed and many were jailed. A permanent system of surveillance was created in the villages of protesters. At Kudankulam, the exclusive privileges that the nuclear power establishment enjoyed facilitated the elimination of opposition.

The Jaitapur nuclear power project was proposed in 2010. According to the stories shared with me by local farmers, fishermen, and anti-nuclear activists, the nuclear establishment has violated various rules and regulations for land acquisition. The project managed to get conditional environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest with an environment impact assessment report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Government of India 2010). The nuclear state then acquired land at Jaitapur, which it argued was mostly barren. In subsequent demonstrations, two protesters were killed and many others were injured by police firing. The state government registered cases against hundreds of protestors and many others were jailed.

My field work shows that the nuclear state constitutes not only violations of rules and regulations regarding various norms such as public hearings, land acquisition, coastal zone regulations, and population limits to nuclear power projects, but also the fundamental rights of citizens to transparency, accountability, access to relevant information, and the right to life. It also criminalizes peaceful dissent with sedition charges and wages war, killing and jailing its own citizens. However (and in contrast to Jungk and Kaur’s experiences), I also encountered a state that engages with the local population through corporate social responsibility and other initiatives. In Kudankulam, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India initiated programs such as infrastructure development, health care, education, community support in coastal villages, and public awareness activities. In Jaitapur, local fishermen were offered fishing jetties, cold storage facilities, de-silting of the Musa-qazi fishing jetty, and nets and vessels -- if they withdrew from the protests. Hence, it is also important to make sense of the dual nature of the nuclear state which also engages protestors and local people against the nuclear power projects.


Government of India (2010), Ministry of Environment and Forests, Environmental Clearance. Accessed July 12, 2019: http://environmentclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/Form-1A/EC/0_0_21_Mar_2013_1905028401JaitapurNPP.pdf.

Jungk, R. (1979). The Nuclear State (translated by E. Mosbacher). London: John Calder, 34-40.

Kaur, R. (2013). “Sovereignty without Hegemony, the Nuclear State, and a ‘Secret Public

Hearing’ in India.” Theory, Culture & Society, 30 (3): 3-28.

Khan, Ajmal. (2018). Interrogating State, Nuclear Energy and Social Movements in India: A Study of People's Movements in Kudankulam and Jaitapur. Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Ramana, M. V. (2012). The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India. Penguin



Ajmal Khan is a PhD candidate in the School of Development Studies, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and a PhD fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, India. His PhD dissertation is titled, “Interrogating State, Nuclear Energy and Social Movements in India: A Study of People's Movements in Kudankulam and Jaitapure.”

robert shepherdComment