Home, next to N-reactor
|Grand promises, low returns|
of southern coastal Tamil Nadu had been looking forward to the
thrice-postponed public hearing on the environmental impact of
the Koodankulam nuclear reactors being built near India’s
southern tip, barely 20 kilometres from Kanyakumari. They were
concerned about this ever since 1988, when USSR President
Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an
agreement on building two large (1,000 mw each) VVER-1000
nuclear power generators.
years, they had watched the power station rising slowly but
menacingly on cordoned-off land at Koodankulam, the closure of
its fishing beach, construction of a special jetty to land
heavy equipment, and the growing movement of contractors and
years, they became more aware of the nature of these plants,
being built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited
(NPCIL), and developed apprehensions about radiation releases,
about catastrophic accidents, about how hot water from its
coolant circuit pumped into the sea might affect the fish
catch, about hazards from storage and movement of radioactive
material, and about freshwater being diverted from the
Pechipparai dam, vital to meeting the region’s drinking water
and irrigation needs. Another concern grew when plans for
adding four more units to the station were announced: their
On June 2, they
finally had their first chance to voice their concerns. The
people of Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts had
prepared for the public hearing with petitions and arguments.
They came in trucks and buses to Tirunelveli’s Government
Engineering College hoping that the hearing would be free and
fair, and held in a friendly atmosphere — only to find
intimidating bandobast with 1,200 policemen, nasty riot gear
and armoured personnel carriers. Yet, none of this prevented
them from expressing their views.
hearing, at which we were present, began with District
Collector G. Prakash inviting Project Director SK Agrawal to
present an overview of the reactors and their safety systems.
SP Udayakumar, a peace studies scholar based in Kanyakumari
district, objected to this. He said the hearing was to
ascertain the people’s views on the project’s Environmental
Impact Assessment (EIA), not to have NPCIL expound on its
safety. The collector paid no heed and said NPCIL was there to
answer any doubts the people may have. Many protested that the
collector had not made the EIA Executive Summary for the
proposed Reactors 3 to 6 available in Tamil, thus denying them
an opportunity to understand the details. The collector lamely
said he had put the EIA summary on the official website and
also in certain government offices. But he could not produce a
copy. Not one member of the public had seen it.
rate, about 10 activists and people spoke, expressing
misgivings about the project’s risks and hazards. Agrawal also
spoke. Some speakers were angry. But there was no violence or
Under the EIA, the purpose of a public
» the public be given 30
The June 2 hearing violated each one of
Finally, MoEF norms mandate an EIA and a
less than two hours later, the collector announced that the
hearing had ended. He did not bother to sum up in Tamil the
full range of views expressed, nor secure the assembly’s
approval, required under the rules (See Box: Norms Flouted).
Thus ended the only public hearing on India’s largest proposed
nuclear power station (6,000 mw).
farcical nature, the collusion evident between NPCIL and the
district administration, and the flagrant breach of stipulated
procedures have further polarised opinion here. The people
overwhelmingly oppose the project. The authorities seem
hell-bent on building it, even if it involves violating norms
set by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Atomic
Energy Regulatory Board, and the Tamil Nadu government. Siting
norms say that a 1.6-km radius zone around a nuclear power
station must have no habitation. The next 5-km radius area
must be a “sterilised zone”, where “the density of population
should be small so that rehabilitation will be easier.”
Finally, in the outlying 16-km radius, “the population should
not exceed 10,000”. A TN government order of May 1988 clearing
the project lays down the same conditions.
However, at least
three large settlements lie within the 5-km zone: Koodankulam
(population 20,000), Idinthakarai (population 12,000), and a
new tsunami (rehabilitation) colony (population 2,000-plus).
Now, Koodankulam and Idinthakarai are just two to four km from
the plant as the crow flies. And parts of the tsunami colony
are less than a km from the reactors. The population in the
16-km radius is at least 70,000!
NPCIL will flagrantly violate its own norms, or thousands of
families will be uprooted — and separated from their
livelihood as fisherfolk.
only one of the many problems Koodankulam poses. The rest fall
into three categories: location-specific, technology- and
cost-related, and problems generic to nuclear reactors,
irrespective of their design or technology. The reactors’ need
for freshwater is a major issue in this water-scarce region.
The EIA says this would be drawn from the Pechipparai dam, 65
km away. When this led to opposition, NPCIL decided to try
desalinating seawater. In 2004, it awarded a Rs 116-crore
contract to Tata Projects to construct a desalination plant to
supply about 7.6 million litres a day. Six reactors would,
however, require four times as much. There is no word on how
the need will be met.
requirement is seawater to cool down the reactors. According
to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (moef), the
temperature of the discharged water should not be higher than
7°c above that of the sea. But temperature increases at
India’s coastal nuclear reactors exceed this norm: 7.7°c
(Tarapur 1&2), 8.4°c (maps 1&2 at Kalpakkam), and
9.5°c (for Tarapur 3&4).
If all six
1,000 mw reactors are built at Koodankulam, they will release
over 13 times the heat discharged by the two maps reactors
(220 mw each). Either the increase in the temperature of the
water will be higher than at Kalpakkam. Or, the amount of
seawater circulated will be minimally 13 times greater. In
either case, the impact on marine life will be significantly
higher. Further, Koodankulam lies at the edge of the Gulf of
Mannar, one of the world’s richest marine biodiversity areas,
with 3,600 species of flora and fauna, 377 of them endemic.
Thermal discharges from the plant are liable to affect this
precious biological reserve. No less important is the plant’s
likely impact on the region’s marine fisheries. The three
districts account for 70 percent of the state’s fish catch,
and generate over Rs 2,000 crore in annual exports.
Safety? DAE doesn't care
Practically all facilities operated by the
Further, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board
vitally, livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk, who possess
remarkable skills in marine fishing, but rarely practice
agriculture, are liable to be destroyed. Koodankulam will thus
create a displacement crisis as well.
set of problems pertain to technology and costs. Nuclear
reactors, including the Koodankulam plant, are a high-risk
technology. Among all electricity generating technologies,
nuclear power alone is vulnerable to catastrophic accidents —
witness the Chernobyl meltdown of April 1986 (See Page 12).
While the VVER-1000 reactor is different in design from the
rbmk reactor at Chernobyl, it only means that the potential
sequence of events leading to a major accident would be
different. All existing reactor types are capable of
undergoing a loss-of-coolant or reactivity-surge accident,
which could cause a core meltdown and enormous releases of
radioactive poisons, affecting the air, water, plant and
animal life over thousands of square km.
VVER-1000 reactors pose specific safety concerns. Their
operating experience raises questions about the reliability of
their control-rod mechanism, which is crucial to preventing a
runaway fission chain reaction. In the last couple of years,
at Temelin in the Czech Republic and at Kozloduy in Bulgaria,
numerous control rods, which are supposed to arrest power
excursion or reactor misbehaviour, did not move as designed.
1, 2006, when Kozloduy’s Unit 5 was operating at full power,
one of the four main circulation pumps tripped due to
electrical failure. As reactor power was reduced to 67 percent
of nominal capacity, three control-rod assemblies remained in
the wrong position. Of the remaining 61 assemblies, 22 did not
move with driving mechanisms. The number of control-rod
assemblies unable to scram (to drop due to gravity only)
remains unknown. Control-rod insertion failures are considered
serious and lead to a severely degraded state of safety if an
accident-initiating event occurs.