The first reactor of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP) went critical two weeks ago, despite two years of continuous protests by local population. This is the culmination of a process started over two decades ago and the protests against it have taken place almost from the time it was first proposed.
Koodankulam is located north east of Kanyakumari in the coast of the Mannar Bay. The Indo-Soviet inter-governmental agreement for the building of the power plant was signed in 1988 by the Rajiv Gandhi government and the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the latter, the plan had to be put on hold. Although construction started in 2001, it dragged on. Meanwhile, protests against the power plant also took place from the late 1980s onwards.
The main concern of the protestors has been the safety of millions of people living around Koodankulam, a concern which increased manifold after the Fukushima disaster. The People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) points out that there are more than one million people living within a circle with a radius of 30km from the power plant. Opponents of the power plant argue that it is impossible to evacuate such a huge population in an emergency.
Furthermore, it has been alleged that sub-standard equipment has been used in the construction of the plant, which increases the apprehensions over safety. The PMANE states that the equipment and parts have been supplied by “discredited Russian companies such as ZiO-Podolsk, Informtekh and Izhorskiye Zavody.” It point outs that some officers of these companies have been arrested and sometimes even found guilty of fraud. However the plant director R.S. Sundar and other officials are confident that the safety levels are satisfactory.
|Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Construction Site (April 14, 2009) Photo:Petr Pavlicek/IAEA|
Protest marches, hunger strikes and other protest activities have been a part of life for the people in Koodankulam for two years. The authorities allege that PMANE is an organization which is manipulated by foreign financial backers. The PMANE hotly denies these charges and states that it is a people’s movement.
One major hope of the protestors was a Public Interest Litigation filed at the Supreme Court of India demanding that all nuclear power plant projects be stopped until safety measures and cost benefit analyses are carried out by independent agencies. However, the Supreme Court decided that Koodankulam could go on, stating that nuclear power is important for sustainable economic growth. The court further stated that the right to life and sustainable development should be balanced. It was of the opinion that various expert groups have stated that there is no radiation risk in the area.
However, the Supreme Court asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) to comply with all safety measures and submit a report to the court before commissioning the power plant. The NPCIL submitted a report just one day before the initiation of the “boron dilution process” without waiting for the comments of the Supreme Court. Initiation of the boron dilution process marks the power plant going critical, which means it has started the process of nuclear fission reaction. It will be a matter of time before the reactor is fully active.
The Supreme Court judgment has not allayed the fears of the public. Writing an open letter to the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Major General (retired) S. G. Vombatkere says that the KKNPP went critical “in contempt of people's well-founded fears for safety and health through calculated intransparency to the questions and issues raised by them.” He points out the fact that the NPCIL has not followed the Supreme Court’s directive. In an e-mail correspondence, ‘The Nation’ asked Major General (retired) Vombatkere whether this amounted to contempt of the court. “Though I am not a legal expert, I agree with you that this could be viewed as contempt of court” Vombatkere replied.
Critics also contest the assertion that nuclear power plants are economically viable. The high initial cost, the life span of only about 40 years, costs of maintenance and eventual decommissioning, safely disposing nuclear waste are all costly procedures. This and other concerns are still prevalent in the opponents of the KKNPP. Vombatkere mentions long-term health damage to people who live even up to 50-km away from it, long-term damage to the ocean environment from radioactive discharges and heat dumping, being a constant threat to safety due to substandard components, and being a radioactive blot on the ecosystem even after it is decommissioned as the main concerns.
Meanwhile, the fact that Koodankulam is situated relatively close to Sri Lanka has also raised some concerns in the island nation. In an event of an accident, Sri Lanka is likely to be affected. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety stipulates that if a country is commissioning a new nuclear power plant in the vicinity of another country, the second country should also be provided with appropriate information for emergency planning and response. Indian authorities have reportedly not complied with this clause in the convention, despite being a member of the IAEA.