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Initial succes for Koodankulam protests

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Dr. Peter Custers

The struggle did not gain the same national prominence as the hunger strike waged by Anna Hazare, against rampant corruption of India’s top-politicians. Yet a landmark it surely was, - a landmark in the history of India’s nuclear program. As reported in the Nuclear Monitor 732 (September 9) a group of activists started a hunger strike near Koodankulam, in the southern tip of Tamil Nadu state on August 17. The action was directed against plans of the Indian government to commission a 1000 MW Russian-built nuclear plant soon.

From the very start it was apparent that this was not a struggle waged by a small disgruntled minority. For the hunger strike was both preceded and accompanied by mass demonstrations in which literally thousands of fisher folk from surrounding villages took part. Moreover, whereas the Gandhian-style protests were temporarily suspended in late August, they were resumed after the Department of Energy (DAE) indicated it would ignore the protestors’ demand. Then, in the second phase starting September 11, the movement peaked once more. This time, over a hundred people, including priests and nuns, went on an indefinite hunger strike in the village of Idinthakarai. Every day 10 thousand people or more would gather from the surrounding area to demonstrate their support. And every day support kept expanding, as students boycotted schools, merchants closed their shops, and gruel kitchens were set up in adjacent villages where fisher-folk refused to go out to catch fish. This time Tamil Nadu’s politicians just had to respond. On September 19, Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister wrote an open letter to India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, insisting the protestors should be heard.

Jayalalitha’s move capped an initial success for the protests, which arguably are the most widespread and sustained local protest ever to have occurred against nuclear energy in India. They closely follow on the open discontent which earlier this year was registered against nuclear construction plans in Jaitapur, along the coast of Maharashtra. Both Jaitapur and Koodankulam are crucial links in India’s plans to expand its reliance on nuclear energy. But whereas the technology for the new nuclear plants in Jaitapur are to be supplied by the French company Areva, - the reactors being installed at the plants in Koodankulam are Russian in origin. They are known as the ‘VVER-1000/392’-design. Though based on a design for light- water reactors that has been in use for long, the design is a new variant. Indian scientists have for long questioned whether Russia’s VVER-1000 technology is safe. Doubts have further been fuelled by last March’s Fukushima disaster in Japan, and by the new assessments on nuclear safety made since then. In a report leaked to environmental organizations in June, an amalgam of Russian state agencies admitted that Russia´s nuclear industry is extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. Some 31 security flaws were listed. The document amongst others questions the capacity of Russian reactorsto  continue functioning safely, if cooling systems fail. It also pinpoints the risksof hydrogen explosions. Sergei Kiriyenko, the chief of Russia´s nuclear coordinating body Rosatom, reacted saying the deficiencies can be overcome if only enough money is forthcoming (!). But Indian critics don´t feel re-assured. Fisherfolk in the south of Tami Nadu are also concerned that the dependence of the light-water reactors on sea water for cooling, and the flushing of effluents into the sea, will seriously disrupt the ecology along their coast.

Furthermore, Koodankulam protesters have pointed their finger at experiences gathered at Kalpakkam, the nuclear complex located close to Tamil Nadu´s capital Chennai, along the state‘s eastern coast. In fact, here the wider significance of their movement becomes quickly evident. For the Kalpakkam complex does not just harbor a nuclear power plant, but also a reprocessing facility. The nuclear fuel rods from the reactors at Koodankulam, once depreciated, will most likely be reprocessed at Kalpakkam. Yet Kalpakkam has already proven to be a dangerous hotspot. Here, in January 2003, a valve connecting a high-level radioactive liquid waste tank and a low level waste tank leaked, leading to radiation exposure for at least six employees, an unknown number of deaths, and temporary closure of Kalpakkam´s main plant. The Kalpakkam nuclear complex also holds the dubious distinction of having been flooded when the devastating tsunami of 2004 struck.

Kalpakkam hence is an additional reason for worries. Not least because of the fact that the nuclear complex harbors a test reactor constructed towards enabling India build a plutonium economy. Indian peace activists have expressed suspicions that the plutonium separated at Indian civilian reprocessing facilities will be diverted and used to increase the country’s stock of atomic weapons. These suspicions have not been allayed by recent developments. Since the beginning of this year, India boasts three reprocessing plants. Further, the US government has in principle granted the Indian government permission to domestically reprocess fuel elements from reactors to be supplied under the 2008 US-India deal. Hence, diversion of plutonium towards India’s weapons’ program is quite well possible. Again, the use of plutonium separated at Kalpakkam for civilian purposes is no less questionable.

In short, the significance of the struggle waged by villagers in the south of Tamil Nadu stretches well beyond the Koodankulam nuclear project itself. Resistance was called off after the Union Government in Delhi sent a Minister of State, Narayanasamy, to Tamil Nadu, to talk to the Koodankulam protestors. Still, it would be wrong to believe that the demand of the protestors – that no nuclear production in Koodankulam be started – will easily be accepted. For the stakes are very large, since India’s nuclear lobby has set its mind on turning India into a plutonium power. Yet because the Koodankulam project is closely intertwined with plans for expansion of the Kalpakkam complex, the struggle is bound to reverberate throughout the state of Tamil Nadu and beyond.

Late September, 10 days after the protests against the construction of the nuclear plant at Koodankulam was withdrawn, the anti-nuclear activists have said to revive the protest if the ongoing work in the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP), was not suspended. The activists would embark on a mass fast from October 9, if the Central government failed to suspend the ongoing commissioning work in the nuclear plant by October 7.
Times of India, 3 October 2011

Source: Dr. Peter Custers (theoretician on nuclear production/ author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’ (Tulika/Merlin, 2007), 30 September 2011