Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Critical Koodankulam

The Fukushima Effect refuses to die down. While the opponents of Koodankulam continue to raise the Fukushima bogey to demand a complete stop to nuclear power in India, its proponents say Koodankulam is vastly different from Fukushima in its geography as well as the safety principles and record of India’s nuclear power programme. India has signaled that it will go ahead with nuclear power plants anyway. 

Before March 11, 2011, Japan had 54 nuclear reactors in operation, supplying nearly a third of the world’s third largest economy’s power requirements.

After a devastating combination of a magnitude 9 earthquake and a 14-metre high Tsunami in Fukushima broke the defences of the Daichi nuclear power plant on that day, causing reactors to blow up and spill dangerous levels of radioactivity into the air, sea and ground for miles around the plant, only two of those 54 reactors are operating. 17 have been shut down, 35 are under safety inspections, and most of them are never expected to come back online.

The ‘Fukushima Effect’, however, is much larger than that. It has caused a global fear of nuclear power, forced countries such as Germany and Switzerland to shut down existing reactors and forswear atomic power altogether, and even India and China – the most ambitious proponents of nuclear power today – to pause.

But, India (and China) is determined that that’s just it – a pause, not a full-stop. As events in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, have shown, we may not have stopped worrying and learned to love nuclear power -- indeed, the protestors are still sitting out there in and around Koodankulam, with whatever strength is left in them after the Centre and state governments showed they weren’t going to shutter a $3 bn project that has been 25 years in the making and is now just weeks away from going critical, no matter what – but we are going to go ahead, anyway.

Last week, after being blockaded by anti-nuclear protestors for nearly six months, some 950 technical and non-technical personnel of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) returned to the nearly-finished first 1,000 MW reactor, of the two that are currently under construction, at the site and began working towards criticality in three-six months time, after the Jayalalithaa cabinet passed a resolution on March 19 that the reactor must be commissioned – and power must start flowing from it – as early as possible.
Anti-nuclear protestors, mainly under the banner of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), had brought work at the plant to a grinding halt since October 12 last, forcing even the AIADMK government with their intense agitation to pass a resolution asking the Centre to stop all work at the plant until it could attest to, and convince the local people of, the safety of the project.
The U-turn happened after two panels, appointed by the Centre and the Jayalalithaa government itself, had given a ‘safe’ chit to the power plant and the ruling party was past a bypoll to an assembly seat close to Koodankulam.

Political Management

It was an interesting episode of political management by both the Centre and the state. While sporadic outbursts of resistance against the commissioning of the nuclear power station had been taking place since the late 1980s, the protests grabbed headlines after 117 protestors sat on an indefinite hunger strike from September 11, 2011 outside a church in Idinthakarai, the fishing hamlet closest to KKNPP.

The fast was led by Dr. S.P. Udayakumar, a US educated political scientist and anti-nuclear activist who is convenor of PMANE. While Udayakumar was fighting the big fight – against nuclear energy per se – his protest garnered support from locals, especially from fishermen as well as from thousands in and around the power plant, whose causes for worry ranged from the destruction of fisheries to displacement and compensation to radioactivity and health concerns.

With Fukushima still fresh in people’s memory, even intellectuals and former top government and military officials began a campaign against nuclear power.

In an effort to prevent the protests from going out of control – as it had in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, where one protestor was killed in police firing 10 months earlier -- Chief Minister Jayalalithaa met the protestors on September 21, 2011 and assured them that their concerns would be addressed.
The following day, her cabinet passed the ‘stop work’ resolution and Jayalalithaa made a public appeal to the prime minister. It seemed that she, as well as the DMK, was on the side of the protestors and the $3 bn plant would have to be mothballed.

Both the Centre and the Jayalalithaa government also constituted committees to look into the concerns raised.

The Central panel had nuclear safety, oceanography, life sciences and oncology experts, and they went about systematically dismissing the various concerns raised. V. Shanta, chairperson of the Cancer Institute, Adyar, said studies conducted around nuclear reactors in Kalpakkam had shown no abnormal incidence of cancer and added that the radiation in that region was lower than the natural radiation levels in some parts of Kerala.
She added for good measure that “Since the extraordinary safety measures incorporated in the nuclear reactors have made it safe, the fear of radiation is totally unfounded.”

N. Sukumaran, director of the School of Life Sciences at VELS University, Chennai, said that the coolant water released into the sea from Koodankulam would be only slightly warmer than the sea water itself and would actually facilitate fish breeding, rather than harm fishermen’s livelihoods.

Nuclear experts – former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman S.K. Sharma, former director of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency’s radiation safety division M.R. Iyer, former director of Nuclear Waste Management Group at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre K. Balu and Suresh Moses Lee of the Safety Research Institute, Kalpakkam – dismissed fears of a Fukushima-like disaster.

Oceangraphy expert A.E. Muthunayagam said the passive safety measures included in the Koodankulam plant made it among the safest nuclear power stations in the world. “If there is any fear even after this, it is not based on scientific principles,” he declared.

He also raised the possibility for the first time that there were vested interests behind the protests. The panel had looked into the protestors’ queries and complaints but had found that they were not seeking answers to the issues they had raised publicly but were after some key documents related to the power plant, giving rise to suspicions about their motives, he said.

Soon after, no less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly charged that the protestors were being funded by foreign NGOs to stall the Russian-built nuclear plant. The Centre said that it had evidence of such funding. Key leaders of the protest were arrested.

Meanwhile, the other panel, comprising nuclear scientists, including former DAE chairman M.R. Srinivasan (see interview), studied the safety features of the power plant and they, too, ruled out a Fukushima-like disaster.
Within hours of the end of voting for the Sankarankoil bypoll, the Jayalalithaa cabinet passed a resolution accepting the panel’s report and calling for the Koodankulam plant to be made operational

The protests continue

For the last several months, people across Tamil Nadu have been experiencing power cuts for as long as 8-10 hours a day, except in Chennai where it is two hours a day. Most industries have been left crippled by the power shortage and many workers and factory owners are considering migrating to other states.
Industry lobby bodies say, if only in half-jest, that while going nuclear might have long-term ill effects, the acute shortage of power is enough to kill them much earlier -- Tamil Nadu is reeling under a power deficit of 3,000 MW.

Little surprise then that the “sudden U-turn” by the state government last Monday was welcomed by industry representatives and the business community. Indeed not only did they welcome the decision, some even organized protests in favour of the Koodankulam plant.

The Madurai District Tiny and Small Scale Industries Association, for instance, conducted a blood donation camp as part of their 200-strong ‘start KKNPP’ protest.
In Tiruchengode, more than 2,000 people attached to 15 industry associations took out a procession demading that the government start Koodakulam without delay and take action against those blocking it.
Tamil Nadu is expected to get 500 MW of electricity following the commissioning of Unit 1. The second unit, expected to be ready about seven months after the first, will give another 500 MW to the power-starved state, while the rest will go to other states through the national power grid.

The fishermen in the coastal villages of Idinthakarai, Perumanal, Kuthenkuli, Uvari and elsewhere, though, felt let down by their government. Udayakumar and 15 other protestors were back on an indefinite hunger strike, with the support of the fishermen of Idinthakarai.

“The two committees did not bother to visit the fishing hamlets and allay the fears of the locals. We have still not got any answers to the questions we raised regarding the safety of the plant.
The government has not taken our concerns seriously,” says Udayakumar. “We thought the chief minister was concerned about the welfare of the fishermen in this region. But the cabinet’s decision a day after the Sankarankoil byelection has proven once again that she had been deceiving us all along. We will continue our protest in a peaceful and democratic manner until the plant is closed forever.”

Jayalalithaa’s five-page statement on the decision to go ahead in Koodankulam asserted, however, that the Centre’s Experts Group had answered all the protestors’ questions and had made an elaborate examination of the technical and safety features of the plant.

In an effort to appease the protesting fishermen, she also announced a
Rs 500-crore package for infrastructure development in and around Koodankulam, including housing development and roads and even cold storage for fish and a facility to repair the mechanized boats of fishermen.

But the fishermen are in no mood for sops. Melrith (42), a mother of three from Idinthakarai, said they had “not been sitting in protest for the last five months to bargain for a good deal” from the government. “If we wanted more money from the government, we could have negotiated it long ago.

This protest is not for funds. We are concerned about the safety of our children and their children. We will not withdraw our protest just because the state government is willing to spend Rs 500 crore on us.”
While the protesting fishermen and their families had earlier raised health concerns such as loss of potency and the threat of cancer during the early months of the protest, several of the agitators now raising serious questions about the country’s nuclear policy.

“Although the scientists claim that the country’s power shortage can only be solved through nuclear power, even after 50 years of research, they supply hardly three per cent of our energy needs,” says Mariadas of Koothenkuli, who has joined the protestors. “The central government shelved the Sethu Samudram canal project after spending more than twice as much as the money spent on Koodankulam because it hurt religious sentiments. Why can’t they shelve Koodankulam on the grounds that it will affect the health of thousands of fishermen and their families?”

Barely a few kilometers away from Idinthakarai, at the Anu Vijay township in Chettikulam where KKNPP staff reside, the mood was jubiliant following the state government’s nod. “We are extremely delighted and thankful to the chief minister for allowing us to resume our work for the country,” said KKNPP site director Kasinath Balaji. “Efforts have resumed on a warfooting and we have requested additional manpower from all our other branches to ensure speedy commissioning of Unit 1 of the plant.”

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