For nuclear sanity

Print edition : October 21, 2011

The Tamil Nadu Cabinet's demand to suspend work at Kudankulam must be a prelude to a moratorium on all new nuclear projects pending a review.

THE Tamil Nadu Cabinet's resolution urging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to suspend work on the Kudankulam nuclear reactors until the apprehensions of the people regarding their safety are allayed represents an unprecedented and handsome victory for the popular movement against ultra-hazardous technologies. It is a tribute to the moral strength and courage of the 12-day peaceful fast by more than 100 people, and successful mobilisation of tens of thousands of committed supporters from Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Thoothukudi districts, that Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had to reverse her pro-project stand within days.

Never before has a State government demanded suspension of a project that it had approved, when it is at an advanced stage. Two reactors were cancelled in Kerala in the past, and two uranium mining projects, in Khasi Hills in Meghalaya and Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh, have been kept in abeyance in deference to public opposition. But the Kudankulam decision is unique and holds the key to the post-Fukushima future of nuclear power in India.

The Kudankulam agitation was not sudden or new. Nor were the local people instigated by outsiders raising a false alarm about the safety of the Russian-designed reactors just before a planned evacuation drill. Local people have opposed the project right since its conception in the 1980s. They organised spirited demonstrations against it as early as in 1989. Indeed, misgivings about Kudankulam extend next door to Kerala. Numerous groups led by the People's Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) have criticised the project on several grounds.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has all along failed to persuade the local farmers and fisherfolk that the reactors will cause minimal displacement with no damage to the marine ecosystem and that they pose no hazard to people despite offering the lure of thousands of jobs, and labour and materials supply contracts, and the promise of vigorous development of the region. The people, highly literate and well-informed (as this writer found during two visits to the area) were not taken in. By 2007, large numbers of farmers had joined fisherfolk in agitating against the project, a process catalysed by Environment Impact Assessment-related public hearings for Reactors 3 to 6.

The most important factor that explains the recent struggle is without doubt the still-continuing meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan, which highlights the unique potential of nuclear power for catastrophic accidents even in a highly advanced industrial economy. Nuclear power generation is the sole mode of energy production with that hazard. Fukushima also highlighted the prevalence of unsafe practices and collusion between reactor operators and nuclear regulators. The recent accident at the Marcoule reprocessing facility in France has further undermined the public's already feeble confidence in the global nuclear industry.

FLAWED RUSSIAN REACTORS

Not least, three other factors have strengthened the opposition in Kudankulam. The first is the shocking disclosure by a Norwegian group, with a history of integrity and informed activism (https://www.bellona.org/articles/articles_2011/rosatom_report), of a special report presented by nuclear safety experts from Russian state agencies to President Dmitry Medvedev this June on the country's nuclear reactors. This reveals that they are grievously underprepared for both natural and man-made disasters ranging from floods to fires to earthquakes and plain negligence.

The report comes from an amalgam of sources such as the Ministry of Natural Resources, Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Oversight, as well as Rosatom, the nuclear reactor operator. Chief engineer Ole Reistad of the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology says: The report reveals deficiencies which have never before been mentioned publicly, nor reported internationally.

To paraphrase some of its alarming findings, Russian reactors are marked by 31 serious flaws. Among the more critical are: absence of regulations for personnel to know how to deal with large-scale natural disasters or other major contingencies; inadequate protective shelters for workers in the event of an accident; lack of records of previous accidents, which would enable learning from past mistakes; and poor attention to electrical and safety-significant systems.

This holds true not just of the RBMK design, which was implicated in the Chernobyl accident, but also of the VVER-type reactors being installed at Kudankulam. The report questions the reactors' ability to remain safe for extended periods if cooling systems fail, with no guarantee that the power backup will be effective. This is the primary difficulty that beset Fukushima Daiichi when the quake and tsunami hit Japan. Also, key equipment involved in the cooling process suffers from metal fatigue and welding flaws yet another problem ignored at Fukushima. Russian reactors are vulnerable to the kinds of hydrogen explosions that ripped up three reactor buildings at Fukushima.

Most important, the report says that the risk of earthquakes has not been considered as a safety factor in designing Russian reactors. Not all of them have automatic shutdown mechanisms to be activated if an earthquake occurs. Nor are there currently clear guidelines or sufficient infrastructure for spent nuclear fuel management, leading to fears of its leaks during a disaster as had happened in Japan.

These disclosures, to put it mildly, are damning. Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko has not denied their veracity or accuracy, but merely claimed that more money would fix the flaws. At any rate, the report totally contradicts the official Russian statement, made soon after March 11, that a Fukushima-type meltdown could never happen in Russia. This was supposedly based on a check ordered by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Russian reactors, of which no details have been made public. The global and the Kudankulam public has no more reason to trust the Russian government's early statement than to believe the Indian Department of Atomic Energy's (DAE) assessment, following a purely internal and collusive recent review, that all of India's nuclear reactors have adequate safety systems to cope with earthquakes and tsunamis as well as human error.

A second reason underlying the public's sharpened opposition is the fact that the first two units of the Kudankulam project have never been put through the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process, under which a comprehensive EIA report is prepared, made available to the local people in advance, and a public hearing is held, at which those affected can record their opposition. The EIA procedure is far from sound, and has been considerably weakened.

Reactors 1 and 2 did not even have to face such cursory or minimal EIA scrutiny simply because the EIA procedure only came into being in 1994. The Ministry of Environment and Forests had cleared the reactors in 1989. There is no reason to believe that the approval process considered the intrinsic hazards of nuclear power, radiation releases, or long-term waste storage. NPCIL has not shared reports on site evaluation and selection or safety review with the public.

A third reason is the DAE/NPCIL's doublespeak as regards the reactors' siting. The siting norms stipulate that there be no human habitation within 1.6 km from the plant. The next 5-km radius area must be a sterilised zone, where population density is small so that rehabilitation will be easier. Finally, in the outlying 16-km radius, the population should not exceed 10,000. But it is clearly visible that thousands of people live within the 1.6-km zone, including 2,000-plus in a recently built tsunami rehabilitation colony. Two other large settlements lie within the 5-km zone: Kudankulam (population: 20,000) and Idinthakarai (population: 12,000). The population in the 16-km radius is at least 70,000. Yet, NPCIL says nobody will be displaced.

Add to these the generic safety problems of nuclear power, including harmful radiation exposure at each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, routine emissions and effluents, accidental radioactivity releases, and generation of huge quantities of waste which remains hazardous for thousands of years, which science has found no safe way of storing. And the case for stopping work at Kudankulam becomes compelling.

Jaitapur falls in the same category. The government has postponed the purchase of the French-origin reactors for Jaitapur until they clear post-Fukushima safety tests ( The Hindu, September 20). Logically, all work at the site must be stopped until the certification is obtained and independently reviewed.

Fukushima marks a watershed for the global nuclear industry, which has been on the decline especially in the countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development since even before Chernobyl (1986). Not one new reactor has been ordered in the United States since 1973, and none completed in Western Europe for a quarter-century.

Reactor technology has stagnated and exhausted its potential. Nuclear generation costs are exorbitant in relation to not just fossil fuels but renewable sources such as wind and biomass too. Nuclear power competes poorly with renewables in reducing/averting greenhouse emissions.

Country after country is retrenching its nuclear plans, or opting out altogether witness Germany, Japan, Italy and Switzerland. Investment banks say nuclear power has no future after Fukushima. Its unpopularity is spreading everywhere.

It would be suicidal for India not to impose a moratorium on new nuclear projects and subject all installations to an independent, thorough and transparent review by a broadly representative body, which includes non-DAE personnel and civil society.

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