It is a protest that not only threatens the commissioning of the largest nuclear reactor in India but also could cripple the country’s plans to satisfy more of its growing energy needs with nuclear power.

For nearly 400 days, residents of fishing villages in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have demonstrated against a new seaside nuclear plant here. Thousands marched toward the site this week, chanting, “We don’t want nuclear power,” until police firing tear gas and brandishing bamboo canes beat them back.

“This is now the center of all the anti-nuclear protests across India,” said Anicha Milton, a frail, 30-year-old fisherwoman. “If we succeed here, no new nuclear reactor can come up anywhere.”

It took 14 years and help from Russia to build the twin reactors here, and the plant is weeks from beginning production. But as post-Fukushima fears about the safety of nuclear reactors reached a peak last week, India’s hope of meeting some of its growing energy deficit with nuclear power in the next two decades appears increasingly unrealistic.

On Thursday, the protesters waded into the sea near the plant, standing in chest-high water to draw attention to their fears and vowing to prevent engineers from loading fuel into the reactor. Similar protests over health concerns and the acquisition of farmland have stalled several proposed nuclear power plants across India, including at sites set aside for American and French companies.

At stake is India’s ability to fuel its economic ambitions by setting up more power plants as well as its ability to address a growing tide of popular protests in a democratic manner.

Analysts say a quiet discontent began to surface after last year’s earthquake and tsunami-triggered crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.

“What happened in Fukushima may have provided a catalyst for the local protests,” said Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based free-market economic think tank. “But the real issue is the declining credibility of our governing institutions and the past failure of the system to ensure that the people living around such big projects enjoy benefits, too.”

Draining resources

Just five years ago, many Indian officials championed nuclear power as a way to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal-fired plants that produce greenhouse gases, and predicted that nuclear energy could contribute as much as 15 percent of the country’s power needs by 2030, up from less than 3 percent now.

In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a landmark civil nuclear agreement with the United States that was supposed to signal not only the beginning of a new strategic partnership but also pave the way for building at least 25 new reactors in two decades. India has 20 nuclear reactors, 10 of which were commissioned after 2000.

But two sites set aside for GE and Westinghouse are among the projects that are yet to take off because of local opposition and a new compensation law that deters foreign investors.

A massive power blackout across much of India in late July served as a reminder of the nation’s inability to meet its soaring energy needs. Power cuts are routine, and about 400 million people are not connected to the national grid.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu, site of the Koodankulam nuclear plant, is home to the factories of automobile giants such as Ford, BMW, Nissan, Renault and Hyundai, but the state is in the midst of a severe power crisis. Electricity is shut off four to eight hours a day, and the $2.5 billion Koodankulam reactors are seen as critically important.

In August, a high court in Tamil Nadu gave the green light to the government-owned Nuclear Power Corp. of India to begin operating the plant. The country’s supreme court upheld the verdict Thursday, and nuclear scientists and engineers met in Mumbai the next day to discuss the process for beginning to load uranium fuel into the reactor.

After the protesters clashed Monday with police, they dug deep trenches and placed large boulders and logs on the roads leading toward the plant to prevent police from entering.

“We don’t want a nuclear plant in our neighborhood because radiation will cause cancer, and our children will be born with big heads and twisted limbs,” said Rithamma Shankar, 43, who had a nose injury from the police beating.

Safety precautions

Nuclear energy officials say the plant has enough safety measures to withstand a natural disaster.

“The design Russians provided to India was not its top model at the time the agreement was made, but India added layers of safety over and above the Russian design,” said a nuclear energy analyst in the United States speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

But when villagers demanded to see the safety report under the Right to Information law, it was not released.

In February, Singh told Science magazine that U.S.-based nongovernmental groups were helping protesters stall the opening of the reactor, and the government charged several hundred protesters with sedition this year.

Protesters say their effort is funded by donations from the community.

“This is a fight to save democracy, which is slipping away from our hands,” said S.P. Udaykumar, a teacher-turned-activist who heads the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, an activist group. “The government cannot force a reactor on us against our will.”

But in a country whose energy needs are soaring, many analysts say India does not have the luxury of saying no to nuclear reactors in the way Germany has.

“The debate in India should not be of either renewables or coal, either nuclear or hydro, because for a relatively resource-poor country, India will have to do everything in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner,” said Ashish Khanna, a senior energy specialist for the World Bank in India.

Analysts say the protests will slow India’s nuclear program, but they predict that the government will ultimately have to find a way to balance the competing demands of power and protesters.

“It is politically unsustainable to ignore the growing demand for power,” said Mitra, the New Delhi-based analyst. “They know that the number of beneficiaries of power is huge compared to the small number of protesters near the nuclear plant site. The protests in the short term will delay the plants, but they will not be shut down.”