14 November 2011

Koodankulam : Doom Under These Domes?

After Fukushima: Nuclear Power, No Clear Answers

The Project
  • Location: Koodankulam is located in Tirunelveli district, on Tamil Nadu’s southern tip
  • Number of reactors in Phase 1: Two reactors, of 1,000 MW each
  • Reactor profile: Pressurised water kind, or VVER. The Russian abbreviation stands for water-cooled, water-moderated energy reactor.
  • Accord for the plant: Signed between India and the then Soviet Union in November 1988. NPCIL is collaborating with Russian firm Atomstroyexport.
  • Status: Construction began on one reactor in December 2007. Expected date of commissioning: December 2011 (but now delayed). Work on the other began in December 2008. Expected date of completion: December 2012
  • Total cost: Rs 13,000 crore
What’s Going For It
  • 925 MW, out of the 2,000 the two phase-1 units will generate, will be allocated to Tamil Nadu
  • The Koodankulam site is located in a low seismic hazard zone
  • The water level at the site during the December 26, 2004, tsunami was 2.2 metres above mean sea level. Sensitive parts of the plant are located 9.3 metres above MSL and are enclosed within double-sealed, watertight doors.
  • Any air accidentally released from the reactor will pass through filters before coming out
  • A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s 10-point action plan for development of the area includes creation of 10,000 jobs, laying of a four-lane highway, a world-class hospital and a cold storage for local fisherfolk
Why Protests Are Raging
  • More than 10 lakh people live within 30 km of the plant. Quick evacuation in case of disaster will be very difficult. Fears have shot up after Fukushima.
  • Fisherfolk fear that water used to cool reactors and then flushed into the sea will affect the fish stock
  • They also fear that radioactivity from the plant, and unsafe disposal of nuclear waste, may cause cancer and other health problems
  • Natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis, and their intensity can never be predicted.
  • Quality of construction of the plant structures have been questioned by workers and contractors at the site
  • Protesters are demanding that the plant be shut down completely. They want a gas- or coal-fired plant instead.
In the dusty fishing village of Idinthakarai, Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu, an angry woman addresses a small gathering of fasting agitators on the grounds of the Lourde Mary church. The target of her fiery speech is the visit of former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP), which lies close to the village. “Why did Kalam certify the plant safe from its premises instead of coming here and speaking to us?” she asks. They have the greatest respect for the man, a Tamil Dalit and Muslim who too grew up in a fishing village like theirs, the coordinators of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), like this woman, say. Nevertheless, they seek answers. “We invited him, but he did not come. Why?” they ask. “How can he give a clean chit to the nuclear power plant after spending less than an hour there? Why should we accept the meagre welfare package (of Rs 200 crore) he speaks of when human lives are more precious?”

This agitation, as much about the disruption of livelihoods as about the safety of lives, has become a source of embarrassment for the central government. Nuclear power, after all, is the trumpcard of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: once it is commissioned, the Koodankulam project is expected to symbolise his lasting contribution to India’s future. With so much prestige involved, the government, naturally, pulled out all stops. Among other measures, it roped in a battery of nuclear, medical and safety experts to allay the fears of villagers living near the plant. It hopes the first phase of the plant is commissioned in December, but given the agitation, that could be delayed, at least by a few months.

Locals say the noises they heard from the plant around August would drown out the roar of the night sea.

The concerns of the villagers living around the plant site are not about energy generation, which seems to be the sole concern—albeit a genuine one, given that Tamil Nadu endures a yearly power shortfall of some 3,500 MW—of the central and the state governments. Ramu, a 37-year-old fisherman with four mouths to feed, fears he will soon lose his livelihood. Up at 4 am every day, he goes out to sea and on returning, faithfully joins the relay fast by protesters. Some days, he even forgoes his day’s earnings to support the agitation—he was one of the 127 who fasted for 12 days continuously in September. “I am a fisherman and know no other kind of work,” he says. “We can no longer go within 500 metres of the plant from the seaward side. When our nets drift into that area, we are chased off by gun-toting patrols. Seventy per cent of the fertile fishing areas we frequent lie close to the plant. We’ll be doomed if they increase the restricted area when the nuclear plant starts functioning. We are afraid the radiation will contaminate the fish. One day, very soon, this fishing village will no longer exist.”
The disaster that struck the nuclear plant at Fukushima Daichi in Japan after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is not lost on the villagers of Idinthakarai and the farming village of Koodankulam. The television images of the disaster evoked strong reactions here. As the date of commissioning approached, villagers went into panic mode. Intermittent protests had always been there, but post-Fukushima, the stir coalesced into a strong movement, especially August onwards. (The deal for the Koodankulam plant was signed with the USSR in 1988. The following year had seen some protests here, but they died out on the collapse of the ussr and the subsequent shelving of the project. A new deal was signed with Russia, and the project reopened only in 1998.)

The recent protests were set off by a “hot run trial” in August, during which “dummy fuel” was loaded into the plant. During this trial, the noises from the plant were so loud, locals say, they drowned out the roar of the night sea. Fukushima on their minds, villagers living around the plant were hysterical. They complain that they were not properly informed and their preparedness, should something have gone wrong, was nil. The veil of secrecy around KKNPP, as is the case with N-plants across India, is impregnable. Two representatives of PMANE who are part of the six-member state committee have met the central government’s expert group and sought position papers on environmental impact assessment, site evaluation, safety analysis and so on.

“We don’t know what ‘dummy fuel’ is. We want to know what happened to that ‘dummy fuel’ after the hot run trial,” says M. Pushparayan, member of the state committee and coordinator of PMANE. “The NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India) should have conducted a mock drill and should have instructed people through the media on what they should do in case of an emergency. NPCIL has documents saying it has conducted mock drills; it has even got them signed by some panchayat presidents who have promised to evict people in case of any eventuality. But our demand is for the closure of the plant. Human lives are more important than the money spent on the plant.” The strange thing is, the authorities deny that any such trial run took place (see interview). So what was the noise they heard, locals wonder.

Nuclear demon? A demonstration by locals seeking closure of the N-plant. (Photograph by (Quickpix, From Outlook, November 21, 2011)

The 2,000 MW Koodankulam N-project cost some Rs 13,000 crore to build. Two 1,000 MW reactors were to be set up in the first phase and one of them was to go operational in December. Plans are for expanding the project to provide 6,000 MW. But the people’s agitation, modelled on the Plachimada agitation against Coca-Cola in Kerala, have put all construction and maintenance work on hold. The 24/7 siege of the plant for five days in October, largely by women and children, made the state government take note. The state cabinet adopted a resolution on September 23, ahead of the local bodies polls, that all work has to be stopped and people’s fears have to be allayed first. Since then, the engineers and scientists, including experts from Russia, have been sitting idle. “There is a huge loss in recovery of capital cost and interest, coupled with further delay in generation of power, in a power-starved country,” says M. Kasinath Balaji, site director of KKNPP. Incidentally, the resolution was seen as nothing more than a populist step to ensure votes for the ruling AIADMK in the local body elections: of the 2,000 MW the first two reactors of KKNPP will generate, 925 MW is to be allocated for Tamil Nadu, so the state government would, in fact, rather see an amicable end to the stir.

Priests participating in the protest rubbish talk that they get funds from the US. They say it isn’t a ‘Christian’ stir.

Dr S.P. Udayakumar, coordinator of PMANE, however, says, “We will not let the plant be commissioned. If the government is democratic and not working for foreign corporations, it will wind this up. The cost is nothing compared to what one family of the DMK made from the 2G scam. The government seems to think Dalits and fisherfolk are the dumb masses who don’t understand anything. There are allegations, too, that we are funded by foreign NGOs and the church. This is untrue—contributions have come from the people. And what’s wrong if the church is supporting us? This is not a Christian or a Hindu movement.”
Villagers remain unconvinced too about NPCIL’s claims that the plant design is a vastly improved one and one of the safest in the world. “We aren’t gods to say there’ll be no tsunami or earthquake here,” says Bishop A. Jude Paulraj of the Palayamkottai diocese of the Roman Catholic church. “There may be safeguards but the danger is enormous. We feel that energy should be produced by safer methods, such as water, wind and solar power. And this isn’t a ‘Christian’ protest. It is for the future of humanity.”

Adds Fr F. Jeyakumar, the parish priest of Idinthakarai, “This fishing village is thickly populated with Roman Catholics, whereas Koodankulam is a Hindu village. We can’t turn our backs on the people when they come to us with their problems. We aren’t taking the lead, but we are supporting the cause. The funds come from the people themselves and the accounts are maintained by a financial committee set up by the villagers.”

The protest is slowly gathering a state-wide—and even south India-wide—character. Seven members of the Sunni Students Federation travelled from Kozhikode to support the cause. Says Abdul Kalam, general secretary of the federation’s Kerala unit, “If a disaster strikes Koodankulam, within an hour, the radiation will spread to Thiruvananthapuram. Places right up to Ernakulam will be affected. We have sought a meeting with the chief minister of Kerala to solicit support for bringing this project to an end.” Clearly, the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government need to do a lot more to allay fears of a nuclear disaster.

-Minu Ittyipe

‘We Have A Four-Tier Safety System’ 
M. Kasinath Balaji, site director of KKNPP, tries to lay at rest people’s fears about the plant

What are the safety measures that have been taken at KKNPP?

KKNPP is one of the safest reactors in the world. Even before Fukushima happened, we’d asked for modern reactors. We have what we call a four-tier redundant system to stop the chain reaction (in case of emergencies). Besides, the fuel used is uranium oxide, which can withstand temperatures up to 2,600 degrees C. The protective shield around the uranium-235 fuel rods is made of zirconium-niobium, which can withstand high temperatures. The reactor is in a vessel of 122 mm thickness and this itself is housed in a primary containment building of 1.2 metres thickness, with steel lining on the walls and floors. There is a second containment building of 0.6 metres. This can withstand both man-made disasters and natural calamities. If the diesel generators fail, a passive heat removal system is in place to ensure cooling of the steam by natural air. The hydrogen accumulated during reactions will be converted to water by passive hydrogen combiners. There is also a vessel below the reactor and under the ground to hold the radioactive material.

Will there be an increase in the restricted area for fishing once the plant is commissioned?

There is a restriction up to 500 metres, which is a national safety requirement. This will not be increased. There is also a fish protection facility in place to send fish drawn in with sea water used by the plant back into the sea.

There are fears that the population within 5 km of the plant will be evacuated on commissioning.

There is no such restriction, but migrant growth is restricted. Beyond the 5 km radius, there are no restrictions, even on factories coming up.

Has a mock drill been conducted?

No mock exercise has been conducted for the people. We are still in the process of training district officials on how to respond to a disaster.

What is the life of the plant? What are the plans for decommissioning?

The design life is 40 years, extendable to 60 years. Complete decommissioning of any reactor has not taken place in India as yet. There are 430 reactors all over the world and 60 reactors under construction.

What will happen to the radioactive waste generated at the plant?

There are methods to reduce the activity level. One is it can be placed in a glass matrix or it can be stored underground and monitored closely.

Courtesy: Outlook, Nov 21, 2011

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