Full steam ahead

Published : Apr 20, 2012 00:00 IST

A view, from the sea, of the two reactors of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.-R. SENTHIL KUMAR

A view, from the sea, of the two reactors of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.-R. SENTHIL KUMAR

The agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant can be seen as a case of activism gone berserk.

The high-octane drama against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu has wound down. The seven-month-long agitation led by the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) at Idinthakarai village in Tirunelveli district, demanding the closure of the ready-to-be commissioned project, ended on March 27 when S.P. Udayakumar, PMANE convener, called off his eight-day-old indefinite fast. He, however, announced that the protests at Idinthakarai, which is about 4 kilometres from Kudankulam, would continue. He demanded that the police release all arrested PMANE leaders; that the Centre release the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) signed secretly in February 2008 by India and Russia on the liability issue; that a thorough and complete probe be conducted into the safety issues of the KKNPP by geologists, hydrologists and oceanographers; and that safety and evacuation drills be organised in the 30-km radius of the project.

The drama saw non-stop action with plots, subplots, interludes and asides. If the main plot was the PMANE's agitation staged in the forecourt of St. Lourde's church, Idinthakarai, and the people making bold to lay siege to the project and block the entry of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) employees into it, the subplots featured the governments at the Centre and in the State.

The Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the allegation that India's atomic energy programme has got into difficulties because NGOs [non-governmental organisations], mostly based in the United States, don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply. The other subplots included the freezing of the bank accounts of two NGOs operating near Kudankulam and the deportation of a German national for his alleged links with the protesters.

The interludes featured the Congress in Tamil Nadu firing on all its propaganda cylinders to knock the bottom out of the PMANE's arguments that the Kudankulam reactors were not safe; the Jayalalithaa government setting up its own panel despite the Centre forming an experts' group, to convince the protesters on the reactors' safety features; the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Hindu Munnani getting into the action after Union Ministers alleged that the NGOs were diverting the funds they received from abroad to fuel the anti-Kudankulam agitation; the violence unleashed against PMANE leaders and the vandalising of a school run by Udayakumar at Nagercoil; and Udayakumar alleging that the Congress and the Hindu fanatics were behind the violence.

In the aside, the Prime Minister had a tete-a-tete with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on December 25, 2011, at the Raj Bhavan in Chennai and reportedly sought her cooperation in ensuring that work resumed at the KKNPP. Earlier, Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had to be content with meeting the State's Chief Secretary, D. Sarangi, twice in his attempts to break the deadlock.

The bell at the St. Lourde's church at Idinthakarai also played its part in the plot. It tolled frequently to bring protesters together under a shamiana in front of the church. For instance, when it rang on October 25 last year, about 2,000 people gathered outside the main gates of the KKNPP and threatened to lock up the 200-odd NPCIL employees who were inside. The employees had gone inside, the protesters argued, in violation of the Tamil Nadu Cabinet's resolution of September 22, 2011, which urged the Centre and the Prime Minister to halt work on the project until the people's fears on the project's safety were addressed. On March 19, when the Cabinet adopted a resolution allowing work to resume at the KKNPP and the police took into preventive custody about 120 persons who had blocked the East Coast Road at Kootakuzhi, the bell rang, and in response several hundreds of people gathered under the shamiana. Earlier, on January 31, when Hindu Munnani activists roughed up the PMANE's representatives in Tirunelveli and word spread about the incident, church bells in all the coastal villages in the district rang to mobilise fishermen. The fishermen assembled at the main gates of the KKNPP and blocked all the roads leading to it.

What brought about the denouement in the drama was the reality of the dismal power situation in the State a shortage of 3,500 MW to 4,000 MW and power cuts that last from two hours to 11 hours a day across villages, towns and cities. The electricity famine has hit industrial and agricultural production and inconvenienced students preparing for their examinations. The public mood was turning grim and industrialists took to the streets in Coimbatore, Tirupur and other places. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government was under tremendous pressure to allow the start of generation of electricity from the first unit at Kudankulam,

Besides, M. Karunanidhi, former Chief Minister and president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), accused Jayalalithaa of enacting a farcical drama on the Kudankulam issue. Darkness would not have enveloped the State if the government had allowed the work to continue at the KKNPP, he said. What is the secret, he asked on February 29, behind the AIADMK government supporting the anti-Kudankulam agitation, but for which 1,000 MWe would have been generated by now from the first unit.

Stop-work resolution

Karunanidhi accused the State government of creating uncertainty over the project's future by allowing the protests to continue. The plant's commissioning had been delayed by six months because of the State Cabinet resolution of September 22, 2011, and the consequent stoppage of work had led to a loss of Rs.900 crore to the Centre, Karunanidhi argued.

Meanwhile, it became clear to the government that the PMANE leaders were using the Cabinet resolution to arm-twist it and lay siege to the KKNPP and prevent the full complement of NPCIL employees from entering the site. The district administration too, quoting the resolution, seemed to support the blockade on the employees. Subsequently, the PMANE leaders arrogated to themselves the task of allowing about 50 employees on every shift into the site after checking their identity cards even as the village administrative officer sat under a shamiana near the main gates. They did not allow the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) officials inside and threatened to prevent inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also from entering.

The AIADMK was buying time because a byelection, caused by the death of its Minister C. Karuppasamy on October 22, 2011, was to be held on March 18 in the Sankarankovil Assembly constituency in Tirunelveli district. Jayalalithaa did not touch on the Kudankulam issue during her one-day campaign at Sankarankovil and preferred, instead, to talk on other power projects under way in the State.

Start-work resolution

On March 19, the State Cabinet, chaired by Jayalalithaa, met in Chennai and in a reversal of the September 22 resolution adopted a resolution for the early commissioning of the KKNPP. A statement issued by Jayalalithaa said the Cabinet took this decision after it considered the reports of the experts' groups set up by the Centre and the State and the petition given by antagonists of the project. The Cabinet's decision was based on the knowledge that there were no chances of an earthquake or a tsunami occurring in the area around Kudankulam, that its two reactors had layers of safety features, and that the coolant water let into the sea would not harm marine life or the livelihood of fishermen, the statement said.

The Chief Minister also announced a Rs.500-crore package of development works for fishermen. It included a repair facility in the Kudankulam area for mechanised boats, a cold-storage plant, housing facilities for residents of the area, and so on.

Even as the Cabinet meeting was under way in Chennai, more drama unfolded near Kudankulam and at Idinthakarai. About 3,000 policemen drafted for duty in Sankarankovil were moved quickly and deployed on the roads leading to the KKNPP. Prohibitory orders, under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, were clamped in the entire Radhapuram taluk, under which Kudankulam, Idinthakarai, Uvari, Kootakuzhi, Kooduthazhai and other villages fall. A contingent of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) also arrived from Thiruvananthapuram. The policemen, who had moved in from Sankarankovil, secured the project site from the threat of invasion by people blocking the roads. They also established pickets on the roads leading to Idinthakarai and sequestered it. But fishermen from other coastal villages reached Idinthakarai by sea in their boats. About 3,000 men and women from Idinthakarai, Uvari and other villages soon gathered in front of St. Lourde's church to protest the Cabinet's new resolution.

Around 12-45 p.m., the police arrested 11 persons, including PMANE leaders S. Sivasubramanian and K. Rajalingom, near the main gates of the project site under Sections 121 (waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting the waging of war against the Government of India), 124 (A) (sedition) and 153 (A) (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc.).

As news of the arrests reached Idinthakarai, fishermen, fearing that Udayakumar too would be arrested, cut trenches and piled up boulders and thorny bushes on the roads leading to the village to prevent that eventuality. The PMANE convener began a fast-unto-death along with 14 others, including seven women, demanding the withdrawal of the Cabinet resolution.

Cheer and hope

At Chettikulam, about 10 km from Kudankulam, news of the Cabinet resolution was received with cheer and hope at the Anu Vijay township where 1,000-odd NPCIL employees live with their families. They had to remain home from October 13, 2011, when the district administration told them not to enter the project site and the PMANE men also prevented them from going in.

M. Kasinath Balaji, Site Director, KKNPP, said: After we got the clearance [from the district administration] around 3 p.m. on March 19, we did not waste a moment in mobilising our people. The employees began by checking the status of hundreds of systems and subsystems of the two reactors. Balaji added: The regular shifts began on Tuesday [March 20] when we got our full complement of employees. Their enthusiasm is so high that they want to commission the two reactors as early as possible.

The beginnings

The KKNPP is situated on the Gulf of Mannar coast in Radhapuram taluk in Tirunelveli district, 25 km from the pilgrim town of Kanyakumari and Nagercoil bordering Kerala. The nearest village, Kudankulam, is 2.5 km north-north-east of the project site. On November 20, 1998, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed an IGA to build two Russian VVER-1000 reactors of 1,000 MWe each at Kudankulam. The fuel for the reactors is enriched uranium. Light water is both moderator and coolant ( Frontline, October 21, 2011).

The first pour of the concrete for the two units, which were to be built by NPCIL, took place on March 31, 2002. The first unit was all set to reach criticality in December 2011, and 93 per cent of the work on the second unit was complete when the PMANE began its agitation demanding closure of the project. The PMANE was led by Udayakumar, Michael Pushparayan and Sivasubramanian. Protests in front of the church at Idinthakarai began in August and gathered momentum when residents of the nearby coastal villages, mostly fishermen, also wanted the project to be abandoned. The fishermen were nervous after what happened at Fukushima in Japan in March that year when an earthquake and a giant tsunami crippled the reactor complex there.

On October 20, 2011, the Centre set up a 15-member experts' group headed by A.E. Muthunayagam, former Secretary, Department of Oceanography and a former top official in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The Centre requested Tamil Nadu to provide an appropriate platform where the experts' group could meet State government officials and protesters' representatives and address fears with regard to Kudankulam's seismicity, the chances of a tsunami crippling the reactors, the reactors' safety features, radiation in the environment, the impact of the KKNPP on thermal ecology and fishing, waste management, and so on. While the Tirunelveli District Collector and the Superintendent of Police were the State government's nominees, J. Thangaraj, a local-level leader, was the people's representative. The PMANE's representatives were Pushparayan and M.P. Jesuraj.

The experts' group met the State government's nominees and the other representatives on November 8 and 18 and December 15 in Tirunelveli. During the meetings, the PMANE representatives demanded that the experts' group prepare position papers on the selection of the site for reactors 1 and 2, the VVER reactors' design and engineering, their performance and safety, fuel procurement for the KKNPP and the mode of transportation, nuclear waste disposal and management, plans for reprocessing and the plant for it at the KKNPP site, the Russian and the Indian liability issues, waste transportation and setting up of a possible weapons facility at the KKNPP.

Experts' report

The 77-page report of the experts' group expressed disappointment that the PMANE representatives were not prepared for any discussions on the safety features of the Kudankulam reactors. However, they were repeatedly demanding the closure of the KKNPP project without justifying their demand, the report said. A top member of the experts' group summed up the attitude of the PMANE representatives thus: You can take the horse to the pond but cannot make it drink the water.

The major conclusions in the report were that the KKNPP is designed and engineered to the state-of-the-art nuclear reactors in line with the current international safety requirements and principles. The KKNPP's safety was thoroughly evaluated against earthquakes and possible flooding of the site from cyclonic storms and tsunamis. The design of the structures, systems and components, and the ample margin in the elevation of components provided a high level of safety against such events, the report said. The possibility of volcanic eruptions in the vicinity of the site has also been examined and no active volcanism has been identified, it said.

The magnitude of any possible tsunami that could be generated by submarine landslides in the Gulf of Mannar had been found to be much smaller than might be generated by undersea earthquakes. The KKNPP design ensured that radioactive releases during the reactors' operation would be much below the prescribed limits.

The coolant water let out into the sea would not have any significant adverse effect on fish in the Gulf of Mannar and so there could be no threat to the livelihood of the fishermen living in the KKNPP's vicinity, the report said. In conclusion, it added, the experts' group would like to state that based on its extensive examination of the various issues, there should be no cause for concern about the safety of the KKNPP.

The PMANE rejected the report. And in a game of one-upmanship against the Centre, the AIADMK government then set up its own committee to go into the safety issues. The committee members were M.R. Srinivasan, former Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission; D. Arivuoli, Director of Crystal Growth Centre, Anna University, Chennai; S. Iniyan, Director, Institute of Energy Studies, Anna University; and L.N. Vijayaraghavan, retired Indian Administrative Service officer. Udayakumar objected to the choice of M.R. Srinivasan and sought his removal from the committee.

Congress blitz

In the meantime, the Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, got its act together. V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, G.K. Vasan, Union Minister for Shipping, and A. Gopanna of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, unleashed a propaganda blitzkrieg on the Kudankulam reactors' safety features. It included padayatras, public meetings, seminars and publication of booklets.

The Centre targeted the NGOs in Tuticorin, Nagercoil and other areas around Kudankulam, which were reportedly fuelling the agitation. Narayanasamy, who was the Prime Minister's trouble-shooter in the stalemate, alleged on February 5 in Tirunelveli that searches by Union Home Ministry officials on the official premises of the Tuticorin Roman Catholic Bishop had yielded information on two NGOs receiving Rs.54 crore from abroad. These two NGOs are being administered by the R.C. Bishop of Tuticorin Diocese Right Reverend Yvon Ambroise, the Minister said.

Besides these two NGOs, an NGO run by Udayakumar received Rs.1.5 crore from abroad, Narayanasamy alleged. Udayakumar promptly sent a legal notice to Narayanasamy demanding an apology. He also sent a legal notice to the Prime Minister for insinuating that foreign funds were used to organise the anti-KKNPP protests. Manmohan Singh, in an interview to Science magazine (dated February 24, 2012), said: There are NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered cases against two NGOs, while the Tamil Nadu police registered cases against two other NGOs for their violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). (The bank accounts of two NGOs Tuticorin Diocesan Association and Rural Uplift Centre, Nagercoil were frozen and the FCRA number given to the Tuticorin Diocesan Association was blocked.)

On February 24, Narayanasamy asserted that Manmohan Singh's observations were based on an investigation by the Union Home Ministry. These NGOs were receiving funds from foreign countries for social service such as helping the physically handicapped and eradication of leprosy, but these [the funds] were used for anti-nuclear protests, Narayanasamy alleged.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram also said on February 29 that cases were filed against the NGOs because there is reason to believe that they had diverted the funds they had received from abroad from the purpose for which they were given. Prima facie, there is evidence to register the cases, he asserted. But he declined to give the names of the four NGOs.

About the German national, Sonntag Reiner Hermann, who was picked up in Nagercoil and deported to Germany on February 28, Chidambaram said it was done because there was information to show that he was associated with semi-political and protest organisations who were involved in the anti-Kudankulam stir.

Bishops' Council pained

The Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council (TNBC) hit back, arguing that it was pained by the Centre's action, which had given the impression that the Church was against national and public interest. It is sheer innuendo and slander to merely allege that the Tuticorin Diocesan Association had diverted foreign funds without mentioning to whom the funds were diverted, the Council said in a statement on March 8. It alleged that the action taken by the Union Government is an attack on the Christian minority. People belonging to Idinthakarai and other villages were agitating not because they were Christians but because the KKNPP was situated near their villages. Hindus and Muslims, belonging to these villages, too, had joined the protests, the statement said. Hence, it is false to say that Christians alone are objecting to this project and that they are against public interest and national development, the Council said.

Rev. R. Josephraj, deputy secretary, TNBC, argued that the commissioning of the KKNPP would not solve the problem of power shortage in Tamil Nadu and would only ease it to some extent. He wanted the government to explain what it would do with the nuclear waste at Kudankulam because people were worried that radiation from the nuclear waste would last for many thousands of years. Fr. Josephraj suggested that the Tamil Nadu government form a team comprising scientists, political leaders, judges and others to explain and convince the residents of villages around Kudankulam on the reactors' safety features.

Right Reverend Yvon Ambroise claimed that the people on their own selected the church premises at Idinthakarai to launch their protest and said they had a right to do so. It is wrong to assume that we can convince them to give up their protest, he said.

With the State panel's report, too, having no reservations about the Kudankulam reactors' safety and the power shortage threatening to get worse, Jayalalithaa announced on March 19, the day after the byelection in Sankarankovil, that work on the project would resume. (Until the time of writing on March 28 evening, the Jayalalithaa government had not made public the State panel's report.)

With Udayakumar insisting on continuing the protests at Idinthakarai, the State government has reason to worry. At the start of the stand-off, Jayalalithaa took the stand that it was the Centre's responsibility to address the people's fears on the KKNPP. But the law and order problem at Idinthakarai, Kudankulam and other villages may fester for several months, and that is a State subject.


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