Almost 11 years after concrete had first been poured in the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in March 2001, India still awaits the 2000 MW electricity that the plant could generate. Six months after nuclear fuel-enriched Uranium was loaded into the core of the plant, with repeated tests being run to satisfy all safety parameters, Kudankulam is still on the brink. For the nuclear protesters that brink denotes a lurking disaster while for India's nuclear establishment, it is the power that could relieve a crippling shortage that has come in the way of growth.
The stalled project had seen its share of delays right from the beginning. A product of the Indo-USSR pact in 1988, the first hurdle came in the form of collapse of the USSR. Clearances, in line with the laws of those days, were obtained in 1989 and land acquisition completed by the 1980s. The plant had to be renegotiated with Russia in 1997.
But a different set of rules for environment safety were in place in 1997, under the Ministry of Environment and Forest. Any project that cost over Rs 50 crore needed to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Public Hearing, after the copy of the EIA was given to the public/panchayats (local body governance) of the village in which the project was to come up. The notification mandated any expansion and modernisation of existing projects and new ones should go through a process of EIA by an expert committee chosen by the Ministry of Environment and Forest. The report had to be placed before the State Pollution Control Board, which would then convene a public hearing to find out objections to the project. Schedule I of the notification included nuclear plants and allied industries.
The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, the Indian company that is implementing the project, had also proposed four more plants in the site. A fresh inter-Government agreement was signed in 2008. While the two plants for which permissions were already in place did not have to go through additional processes, the other four proposed plants had to. Permissions for those four plants had come only in 2012 after much deliberation and changes in the safety plan, after EIA and public hearing.
Construction site of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant
Credit: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
HOME-GROWN INDUSTRY AND ITS SAFETY
The civilian nuclear energy programme in India is 62 years old with one of the safest records in the world. There have been no Chernobyl-like or Three Mile Island-like accidents, events that were believed to be caused by human factor. India also collaborated with the likes of Canada, France, USA. However with the Smiling Buddha operation in 1974, the country faced a nuclear apartheid. Countries that had then helped India set up reactors backed out of their commitments, setting back many projects. The fast breeder reactors, for which India was working with France, were delayed. A smaller test breeder reactor has been in operation for almost 30 years now, but the 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is yet to go on stream, the nuclear establishment attributing this delay to the manufacturing of a first-of-its-type equipment.
Since then the nuclear energy programme has been almost entirely home-grown and has often been praised elsewhere for the ingenuity and experimental facilities that is matched only by Russia. In that sense, Kudankulam then would come to mean a collaboration between two of the best in the world.
But then the project attracted so much opposition that it was almost derailed twice, and while the last rounds have come very close to commissioning, it has not reached that state. The residents of Idinthakarai, a village 6 km outside the 5 km sterilisation zone, have called for the project to be abandoned. In September 2011, the anti-nuclear movement started gaining momentum, forcing the State of Tamilnadu to call for a suspension of works in a ready-to-be commissioned project.
SUMMER OF DISCONTENT
Tamil Nadu was going through an unprecedented power shortage, with an installed capacity of 11,640 MW including from Central projects like Neyveli Lignite Corporation through power sharing agreements, and the state experiencing a 4,460 MW deficiency. The demand from the Power Utility was projected at 13,450 MW for 2013-14.
The Tamil Nadu Generation and Transmission Company – TANGEDCO – had to resort to extensive power cuts throughout 2012, some extending up to 12 hours in rural areas to manage the crisis. The crisis continues in 2013, with the state being energy-starved this summer also.
There has been little capacity addition since 2000 in the state and opposition to projects like the 1600 MW Jayamkondan Lignite Power Project had meant that the state quickly went from energy surplus to buying power from the North Eastern States. Demand had increased from 6000 MW in early 2000 to 12000 MW within a decade. Many of the thermal plants are operating only at 50 percent capacity and dwindling resources at Neyveli Lignite Corporation poses its own problems. The state needed to add capacity and add it quickly.
This prompted the Chief Minister to do a volte-face on her stand that KKNPP can only be commissioned after allaying the fears of the locals and seeking immediate consent. The consent came a day after parliamentary by-elections to Sankarankoil constituency, in the district of Tirunelveli, the same as Kudankulam in March 2012. It was an election fought over the poor management of power crisis. The AIADMK-government leveraged its victory to give consent to the project. It also upped its ante by demanding all of the 2000 MW for the state, negating the original power-sharing contract.
Both the AIADMK and its bitter enemy the DMK had contributed to the power crisis, by not adding capacity and by distributing freebies promised during elections like TVs, blenders, grinders and fans (and where fans were redundant induction stoves). These energy intensive appliances added another requirement of 250 MW per day, according to some TANGEDCO estimates. But with the by-elections won, the AIADMK government put the ball firmly in the centre's court.
EXPERT GROUP STRUGGLES TO WIN OVER
The centre was urged to win over the support of locals after allaying fears. Well-respected scientists including the former President of India Dr A P J Abdul Kalam were part of that effort. An Expert Group that went into safety aspects presented its report to the State Government. A copy of that report can be found here: http://re.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/KKNPP%20%28ENGLISH%29.pdf
That report addressed how the Fukushima meltdown happened and how the design of the Kudankulam plant does not allow for that kind of events to happen. The Japanese plant was shut down when the 9.03 Richter scale temblor hit the North Eastern Japanese island; the six tsunami waves that followed cut off power supply to the plant that resulted in a level-7 meltdown. The earthquake was so powerful that it moved the entire main island of Japan, Honshu, by 8 ft and shifted the earth on its axis. Of note is the fact that entire Japan sits on seismic zone 5, while Indian authorities says Kudankulam sits on zone 2, the least prone to earthquakes.
When the Boxing Day tsunami, caused by a 9.1-earthquake off Sumatra, Indonesia, struck the Eastern Coasts of the Indian peninsula, two nuclear establishments saw some flooding. The Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam (70 km from Madras) was minimally affected. Water entered one of the 220 MW plants, which had been manually shut down safely. The residential colonies for the workers fared worse with five employees of the Madras Atomic Power Station drowning..
Kudankulam plant also saw tsunami water entering its incomplete premises. Kudankulam's neighbouring fishing villages were minimally affected by the tsunami.
The Expert Committee then pointed out the low seismicity of the region, the plant safety features including the higher elevation of the building and diesel generator to cool, double containment, measures to prevent explosions caused by release of hydrogen gas, like those that happened in Fukushima, to prove their point that Kudankulam is no Fukushima waiting-to-happen. The Nuclear Establishment has also agreed to implement the safety plan that the International Atomic Energy Agency proposed. Yet, these assurances were not good enough for the protesters.
The activists still demanded that the project be scrapped and even sought that the blueprint of the reactor be made public, an unprecedented step. This time around they also wanted it scrapped on the basis that it went against public sentiment. Their rhetoric revolves around nationalistic sentiments of Tamils and has received widespread support among parties that have espoused those values. After the main parties of Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK and the DMK, toed the line of the expert group report, the Tamil Nationalistic PMK and the MDMK have extended support. This movement has also attracted the attention of supremacist elements involved in the Tamil separatist movement, like Naam Thamizhar Iyakkam.
CLOSE TO COMMISSIONING
While the Nuclear Establishment was looking at an October 2012 commissioning, the residents, organised under the umbrella of People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), filed a case in the High Court seeking the scrapping of the project. When that case was thrown out, they went to the Supreme Court to stop the loading of fuel into the plant. The court refused to stop the loading, but reserved its order pending the satisfaction of safety norms.
The residents then resorted to a sea siege. There were many incidents of disturbances of law and order, including a charge against peacefully protesting villagers. The atmosphere around Kudankulam continued to be rife with rumours.
With the plant expected to be commissioned by the following month, local media started reporting leakage of radiation claiming 40 lives. Those reports were then rescinded the next day and apologies issued. Sri Lankan anti-nuclear groups became involved at this stage claiming leaks and the Sri Lankan Atomic Energy Authority, which has radiation detectors installed near the Indian coast, had to issue a denial.
MOVING TOWARD TRANSPARENCY
In the last decade, India has signed the 123 Indo-US Nuclear Treaty with the USA, which mandates it to separate civil and military nuclear facilities and to open up its civil facilities to scrutiny by the IAEA.
As a last step of activating the pact, the government had to legislate The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010. With these steps the Nuclear Establishment of India hoped it could work toward removing some of the cynicism about its safety record and accusation of secrecy. These measures, however, have not even been recognised by the anti-nuclear movements in the country that quote the example of Germany and wants India to stop all civil nuclear energy efforts.
Those for nuclear energy have also demanded greater transparency in the working of the Nuclear Establishment. Most of the officials from the regulatory body, AERB, are from the nuclear establishments themselves. That expertise on nuclear energy does not exist outside the realms of the Department of Atomic Energy has been a concern. Many of the dialogues between the establishment and anti-nuclear activists have therefore been trenchantly inimical - a rather technical “he said-she said” than ones trying to move towards consensus building. And the one catastrophe that Kudankulam has already left us with is that of public relations.
For instance, the first ever nuclear project to have undergone a public hearing was the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor in 2001. When the public hearing was on in the presence of the Kancheepuram district Collector, the anti-nuclear groups organised residents to complain of the incidence of congenital deformities, believed to have been caused by radiation. These were listed by Doctors for Safer Environment. The then Collector, also a medical doctor, had requested that these be documented instead of blanket accusations being levelled. However, when this reporter spoke to those doctors and asked why the report was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, instead of being presented to journalists first, they were reluctant to answer questions.
On the other hand, the Nuclear Establishment maintains that radiation levels in Kalpakkam were much below those minimum requirements mandated by the AERB and that they are much below background radiation already present.
In recent times, the anti-nuclear protesters have also called into question the design/safety criteria that were taken into account during the design process. Most reactors were designed taking into account storm surges, given that the east coast is prone to cyclones. But that the entire region is considered to be low-seismicity zone and not tsunami prone, unlike the Pacific Ocean, is pointed out as a poor design factor. Protesters have also put forth the view that a scientific body like the DAE and its constituents cannot afford to pick its safety concerns. It is true that these contentions of theirs have not been sufficiently addressed by the establishment.
Since the fuel loading in October 2012, NPCIL has run many tests and has submitted their results to AERB. The AERB has also called for many tests to be done in thoroughness. People who are observing the process see it as strategies to assuage the Supreme Court, where a PIL against the KKNPP filed by Prashant Bhushan in September 2012 is still pending. The Supreme Court had observed that the plant could be put on hold at this stage - when it is about to be commissioned - if it is not satisfied with the safety measures.
In all of this, the commissioning of the plant has simply been pushed beyond one deadline to another; The AERB has been periodically stating that the plant would be commissioned shortly; now, the latest assurance comes from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has promised Russian president Vladimir Putin that the plant will be operational this month. However, given the long history of roadblocks, and the fact that the verdict of the Supreme Court in the case against the power plant is still pending, one can only wait to see when the assurance becomes reality.