Power and protest

Print edition : October 21, 2011

The nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. - A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

The Kudankulam project runs into a roadblock after villagers in the coastal area stage an indefinite fast against it.

TWO questions haunt Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and the Tamil Nadu government in the aftermath of an agitation, including an indefinite fast by 117 people from coastal villages, against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) from September 11. First, why was the agitation held now when the first unit (1,000 MWe) of the project was all set to be commissioned in December? The second question is what went gone wrong with the public awareness campaign.

The venue of the fast was the open space in front of a church at Idinthakarai, a coastal village behind the KKNPP, in Radhapuram taluk, Tirunelveli district. As days went by, people from nearby villages such as Kudankulam, Uvari, Kootapuli, Kooduthazhai, Perunamanal and Koothankuzhi gathered at the venue to express solidarity with those on fast.

The core demand of the agitation, led by the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), was the closure of the Kudankulam project. S.P. Udayakumar, its coordinator, and M. Pushparayan, a steering committee member, both of whom took part in the fast, said separately, We have only one demand, that is, scrap the project.

Although the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan in March was in the back of the minds of the protesters, what fuelled the agitation was the apprehension about a scheduled mock exercise of evacuation in case of an emergency. Many feared that this was a cloak for the permanent eviction of thousands of people living in a 30-km radius of the project. Fishermen, who formed the majority of the protesters, feared that the condenser water, which would be let into the sea once the first reactor attained criticality, would affect the fish yield and harm marine life. What worried them further was the security ring over a distance of 500 metres from the beach preventing them from fishing there.

A truce was reached after the Tamil Nadu Cabinet passed a resolution on September 22 requesting the Prime Minister and the Centre to halt the work on the project until the people's fears about its safety were allayed. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had met the leaders of the agitation the previous day in Chennai and promised them about such a resolution. The fast was called off at Idinthakarai, with the Bishop of Tuticorin Roman Catholic Diocese, Yvon Ambroise, offering juice to the protesters.

Villagers protesting against the power project, at Idinthakarai on August 16.-A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

S.K. Jain, Chairman and Managing Director, NPCIL, who met Jayalalithaa along with V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, on September 21, later told Frontline: We will leave no stone unturned to allay the people's fears about the Kudankulam project's safety. He, however, said he was shocked at the suddenness of the agitation when the first unit was ready to be commissioned in a couple of months. He was dismayed, he said, by the rumour-mongering that people from villages over a radius of 30 km of the KKNPP will be permanently evacuated [evicted] once the reactors started generating electricity. He assured the villagers that there will not be any evacuation or displacement of people and that there would be no further land acquisition. The fish yield in the sea adjoining Kudankulam would not be affected by the condenser being let into the sea, he asserted.

Jain said there had been no agitation at all by those fishing in the sea around nuclear power stations on any Indian coast, including Kalpakkam and Tarapur. He asserted that the Russian VVER-1000 reactors, built by NPCIL in Kudankulam, were among the best in the world.

The Cabinet resolution notwithstanding, the State government is in a bind. Jayalalithaa apparently hinted to the leaders of the agitation who met her that the State government's powers were restricted because Kudankulam was a Central government project. Pushparayan, who was among those who met her, said she had pointed out how the Centre had given a short shrift to the Tamil Nadu Assembly's earlier resolutions that India should impose economic sanctions against Sri Lanka, that India retrieve Katchativu from Sri Lanka, and so on.

More importantly, the State has been facing a massive shortage of power for the past four years the deficit varying between 2,500 MW and 3,500 MW. The Jayalalithaa government was keenly awaiting the generation of electricity from the first Kudankulam reactor in December 2011 and from the second unit in June 2012. Each unit has a capacity of 1,000 MWe. Tamil Nadu's share from this 2,000 MWe would be 925 MWe, Karnataka's 442 MWe, Kerala's 266 MWe, and Puducherry's 67 MWe; 300 MWe is unallocated.

A senior official of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board said, We will get 925 MWe without a single paisa of investment on our part. Besides, the tariff is cheap. NPCIL will charge only Rs.2.50 a unit from the State utilities. (Electricity to be generated from the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, being built at Kalpakkam, will cost Rs.4.44 a unit when it is commissioned in 2012-13).

However, as informed sources said, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government had its own compulsions in asking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to halt the work on the Kudankulam project.

Panchayat elections are slated to be held in the State on October 17 and 19 and the party did not want to antagonise any section of people or community at this stage. Besides, the government did not want to be unduly harsh on the agitation soon after the police firing at Paramakudi on September 11, which led to the death of six Dalits.

The KKNPP has a chequered history. It is situated on the Gulf of Mannar coast, 25 km from the pilgrim town of Kanyakumari. The nearest village, Kudankulam, is 2.5 km north-north-east of the project site. On November 20, 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) to construct two VVER-1000 units at Kudankulam. The fuel for the reactors is enriched uranium, and light water functions as both moderator and coolant. But the project was in limbo for 10 years because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, M.R. Srinivasan, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), tried hard to revive it. The project came back to life when a supplementary agreement to the earlier IGA was signed in New Delhi on June 21, 1998, by the Russian Minister for Atomic Energy, Yevgeny Adamov, and the AEC Chairman, R. Chidambaram ( Frontline, July 17, 1998). Russia was to provide the design and supply all equipment and subsystems for the two reactors. NPCIL was to build them. India received a binding commitment from the Russian Federation that it would supply enriched fuel for the lifetime of the reactors. The estimated project cost was Rs.13,171 crore.

NPCIL acquired about 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of uninhabited and uncultivated land on the coast, which can accommodate six reactors. The site has already been levelled for the third and fourth reactors. Another 400 acres (160 hectares) was acquired at Chettikulam, about 10 km away, for the residential quarters of NPCIL staff. The first pour of concrete took place on March 31, 2002, signifying the start of the construction of the two reactors ( Frontline, April 23, 2004).

NPCIL was keen on its first unit reaching criticality in December because it wanted to showcase not only the two reactors it had built but also the excellent relationship it had forged with the neighbouring villagers. Except for some initial opposition led by the then legislator S.R. Appavu, the project construction has had a smooth run, with the KKNPP's first Project Director, the late S.K. Agrawal, being popular with the neighbouring villagers. Acquisition of land was not a problem because it was barren, uncultivable land. The NPCIL provided jobs to local people, built roads connecting interior villages, constructed buildings and donated computers to schools. Jain said: I used to have breakfast with local sarpanches and Kudankulam became NPCIL's showcase for integrating the local population with the project.

After nine years of cutting-edge civil and engineering work with no protests from nearby villagers the first unit was ready for commissioning. Newspapers announced it. Dummy fuel was loaded into the reactor and a hot run completed. The hot run entailed operating the entire reactor systems at the temperature at which the reactor would operate (280 {+0} Celsius). After the hot run, the reactor was cooled down. After this, plans were afoot to remove the dummy fuel, load the reactor with real fuel assemblies and start the unit in December.

Incipient signs of protests were evident in August when the first unit was undergoing hot run. With the Fukushima accident fresh in their minds, residents of coastal villages, mostly fishermen, were perhaps nervous about the increased activity that the hot run entailed. What could have unnerved them, said KKNPP officials, were the blasts of steam released when the relief valves were being tested during the hot run. Besides, NPCIL announced an evacuation drill of nearby villages in case of an emergency.

In the meantime, the PMANE began an indefinite fast by 117 people at Idinthakarai. The agitation gathered strength, with a few thousand people gathering at the venue to express support to those on fast. Schoolchildren congregated at the venue, demanding that the KKNPP be abandoned. Black flags fluttered in several fishermen's villages, and big and small political parties declared their support to the agitation.

Pushparayan denied the allegations that the agitation had erupted when the first unit was ready to reach criticality. There has been no motive at all behind the timing of the agitation. It has been a steadfast agitation by fishermen right from 1988, he said. Even people in the interior villages, who were initially keen on getting jobs in the project, had joined the struggle now, he said.

The site selection, he alleged, was questionable because it lies in the earthquake prone area of zone II. There were volcanoes in the sea adjoining the KKNPP, he said.

Pushparayan said that the instructions given to the people about the mock drill that they should close the doors and windows of their houses, stay indoors and tie a wet piece of cloth around their nose in case of a radioactive release had scared the people. Although the mock drill would lead only to a temporary evacuation, it still instilled fear among the villagers, he said. He demanded a public hearing and a fresh environment impact assessment report on the project.

S. Sivasubramanian, a steering committee member of the PMANE, said the agitation was prompted by the impact of the Fukushima accident, the images of which were fresh in people's minds from what they had seen on television. The Kudankulam reactors were full of inherent dangers, he said. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board norms, he said, stipulated that there should not be a population of 10,000 within a five-kilometre radius of the plant. Kudankulam had a population of 18,000, Idinthakarai 11,000 and Kanyakumari a couple of lakhs. He asked how these people would be evacuated speedily if there was a radioactive release.

But Jain said he was confident that despite the heightened apprehensions of the villagers around Kudankulam after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, they will see reason and we will be in a position to convince them and allay their fears about the Kudankulam VVER-1000 reactors. He said they were among the best reactors in the world and belonged to the latest generation 3 + of Light Water Reactors. The reactors are in operation in Russia, Finland, Hungary and Ukraine. They were now under construction in China and Iran. Besides, the indigenous reactors operating in India have an impeccable record of safety, which is there for all to see, he said. The required land for the KKNPP had already been acquired and there was no need for any further land acquisition.

Jain said he was dismayed by rumour-mongering that there would be mass evacuation (permanent eviction) of people under the guise of mock drills. There will not be any evacuation or displacement of people, Jain asserted.

Safety measures

According to KKNPP Site Director M. Kasinath Balaji, the VVER-1000 reactors had many active and passive safety systems to cool the reactor core, that is, prevent the fuel from melting, and ensure that no radioactivity is released into the atmosphere. The reactor is placed inside a cylindrical structure with a dome, and the structure has two thick walls called primary and secondary containments.

The reactor plant is housed inside the primary containment, whose wall is 1.20 metres thick and made of reinforced, pre-stressed concrete. It is lined with leak-proof steel plates on the inside. The primary containment with a dome is encased in the secondary containment. The secondary containment wall has a thickness of 0.60 metre of reinforced concrete. These structures would ensure that there would not be any leakage of radioactivity into the atmosphere in case of an accident, Balaji said. They would protect the reactor from damage during tsunamis, earthquakes, an explosion or an aircraft crashing on to the building, he added.

Besides, the Kudankulam site is in seismic category zone II, which has a low probability of earthquakes as per the seismic classification of India. In the design of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the expected effect of the rising water level in the Gulf of Mannar due to any tsunami activity has been considered. The ground elevation of all buildings at the plant starts at 7.5 metres above mean sea level (MSL), which is much above the expected tsunami levels as assessed by an independent body called the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services. These design features were validated during the 2004 tsunami, Balaji said.

To ensure that the reactor core is cooled during any incident/accident, each reactor building has 12 huge capacity hydro accumulators (water tanks) containing water mixed with boron to douse the fuel. To ensure safety in case of loss of electricity supply (that is, station blackout), there are four diesel generator (DG) sets of 6 MWe capacity each. One DG set will do to provide electricity to keep the reactor in a cool state under shutdown conditions. The DG sets have been located nine metres above MSL, isolating them from floods.

The reactors feature control rods made of boron, cadmium, and so on, that would absorb neutrons in case of an emergency. The control rods would drop into the reactor core from the top and stop the chain reaction in the core. Another safety feature in the Kudankulam reactors, Balaji said, was the core-catchers (huge tanks with lakhs of litres of water at the bottom of the reactor building) into which the molten fuel would fall in case of an unlikely event of a core melt. This would minimise the release of hydrogen into the containment.

According to Jain, each reactor building at Kudankulam has 154 hydrogen recombiners, which will absorb any hydrogen that would emanate in the reactor building from any possible electrolysis of water and thus prevent a hydrogen explosion from taking place. He asserted that it was not a nuclear explosion but a hydrogen explosion that took place at Fukushima.

Jain refuted the allegation that the design of the Kudankulam reactors was flawed. Whatever the Russians offered, we did not agree to. We insisted on many [safety] features and got them included, he said. A team of highly qualified NPCIL engineers was stationed at Russian plants manufacturing the equipment and subsystems for the reactors. We had total freedom and the last word in giving our acceptance to the design and quality of the equipment, he added. Besides, he said, everything that went into the construction, be it ballast, cement, sand, steel, and so on, met our technical qualifications and they were of superior quality.

During the recent hot commissioning of the systems in the first unit, individual and integrated testing of hundreds of systems was done. The unique double containment [the primary and secondary containments] was pressure-tested at five times the atmospheric pressure. The double containment's leakage rate was much better than what was specified. The Kudankulam reactors are safe and they go beyond what happened in Fukushima. The radiation will be confined within the containment because we have many features for cooling the core including absorbing the hydrogen, he said.

Thermal ecological studies, conducted by seven universities and laboratories in south India under the aegis of the Board of Research in Nuclear Sciences, have revealed that the temperature of the condenser water (5 {+0} C above the ambient sea water temperature) will not affect the yield of the fish or in any way harm marine life, N. Nagaich, NPCIL Executive Director (corporate planning and corporate communications) asserted.

Government's response

When the agitation at Idinthakarai was gaining strength, the AIADMK government decided to get its act together, with the Assembly session concluding on September 14. At a press conference the next day, State Electricity Minister Natham R. Viswanathan alleged that innocent people were being instigated to create problems for the State government when the Kudankulam project is about to be completed and generation of electricity is all set to begin.

When a reporter asked him why the agitation against the project had broken out now when the unit was about to be commissioned, the Minister sallied, The answer lies in your question! He described the agitation as the only stumbling block to the generation of electricity at Kudankulam. He was pained, he said, that this was happening when the State was facing a shortage of electricity.

On September 16, Jayalalithaa appealed to the people living in the coastal villages not to harbour any fear about the safety of the plant. She wanted those observing the fast to call it off. She listed the safety measures in place at Kudankulam and urged the people to cooperate with the project.

However, the Chief Minister changed her stand on September 19, accusing the Centre of abdicating its responsibilities. In a demi-official letter to Manmohan Singh, she said the magnitude of the issue had created fear psychosis in the villages around Kudankulam. It was surprising that no responsible Minister or officials concerned from the Government of India had visited the people or attempted to assuage their misgivings, she said.

Jayalalithaa accused Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan of abdicating her duties as a Minister and absolving herself of any responsibility. Jayanthi Natarajan had told the press that the subject fell under the Atomic Energy Commission (Department of Atomic Energy) and that her Ministry had nothing to do with it. Her remark that government officers would take care of the issue is callous in the extreme, the Chief Minister said.

Since nobody from the Government of India had deigned to visit Kudankulam, she told Manmohan Singh, she had proposed an all-party delegation led by State Finance Minister O. Panneerselvam, along with people's representatives, to call on him. She renewed her request to the Prime Minister to halt further work on the project until the issue was settled. She sent three State Ministers to parley with the protesters but that was in vain.

Manmohan Singh sent Narayanasamy to Idinthakarai on September 20. The next day, Narayanasamy, Jain, Balaji and DAE Additional Secretary A.P. Joshi met the Chief Minister. Jain said, I was in a position to convince her about the safety of the Kudankulam plant and assured her that we will not leave any stone unturned to allay the people's fears.

Later, Jayalalithaa met PMANE leaders. They said she had hinted to them about how her government's hands were tied because the KKNPP was a federal project and how Assembly resolutions had not worked in the past. She, however, told them that her Cabinet would pass a resolution urging the Prime Minister to instruct the stoppage of work at Kudankulam until the people's fears were addressed. The fast was called off after this.

Udayakumar told the people gathered at Idinthakarai that the agitation from now on would be directed against the Centre. We will even lay siege to the KKNPP in the near future to ensure its permanent closure, a section of the press quoted him as having said. But he has denied making any such statement.

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